Forty years ago, Gale Cincotta, affectionately known in the community organizing world as the mother of community reinvestment, led her troops into bank lobbies, effectively shutting them down for the day; held barbecues on the front yards of bank executives; and threatened Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker that she would hang a "Loan Shark" sign over the Fed office in Washington.
Since that time, a fair housing/fair lending/community reinvestment infrastructure has emerged, changing the way the nation's financial institutions and housing providers do business. With the passage of fair-housing and fair-lending laws, lawsuits and administrative complaints to enforce them, community reinvestment agreements, and other tactics, a tradition of redlining and disinvestment slowly evolved into a commitment to fair housing and reinvestment.
But has this movement run its course? And do the Occupy Wall Street protests, which are reminiscent of what Cincotta was doing in the 1970s, portend the next wave?
The community reinvestment movement has had many successes. Key federal laws include the 1968 Fair Housing Act and subsequent amendments, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Community Reinvestment Act. These and other statutes put the federal government and many state and local governments, which had been explicitly enforcing discriminatory rules for decades, on the side of fair housing.
In recent years, government agencies have become more active, particularly in response to the foreclosure crises confronting many families and communities. But it is generally recognized that all these initiatives are not sufficient to address the wide range of illegal activities and other challenges posed by the financial crisis, as well as related fair-housing and fair-lending barriers. Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, acknowledged in the spring of 2012 that while his office has accomplished a lot, there is a lot more to do.
For example, the National Fair Housing Alliance has estimated that 4 million incidents of housing discrimination occur each year, but just over 27,000 complaints were filed with fair-housing enforcement agencies in 2011. Among borrowers who received loans between 2004 and 2008, 11% of African-Americans and 14% of Hispanics have lost their homes, compared with 8% of Asians and 6% of non-Hispanic whites. While levels of segregation have been reduced modestly since the 1970s, black/white segregation in those large cities where the black population is highly concentrated (e.g., New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee) persists and still amounts to what Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton referred to as hypersegregation in their classic book American Apartheid. At the same time, Hispanic and Asian segregation has not been reduced. Noting the persistence of housing discrimination despite increased enforcement efforts, Robert Schwemm, one of the nation's leading fair-housing legal scholars, recently asserted, "something new must be tried."
Here is where Occupy Wall Street comes in. The Occupy movement has already changed national attitudes and political debates. As Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University Nobel Prize-winning economist concluded, "these young protesters have already altered public discourse and the consciousness of ordinary citizens and politicians alike."
Many still ask what the Occupy protesters want. In responding to the demands for demands, New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate in economics Paul Krugman observed, "It's clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it's really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details." Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, observed that the Occupy movement has created an environment that will make it easier for those intellectuals and politicians, along with unions, civil rights groups, nonprofit advocacy groups and others to push their specific demands and achieve their goals.
One of their critical messages is to call on all of us to remember and re-embrace many of the tactics, demands and values of the civil rights movement generally and in particular those that led to Gale Cincotta's triumphs over the housing and housing finance industries. In their capacity as policy intellectuals as well as citizens, they may well be leading a new wave in fair-housing activism and achievement.
Gregory D. Squires chairs the department of sociology at George Washington University. Chester Hartman is research director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. They co-edited From Foreclosure to Fair Lending: Advocacy, Organizing, Occupy and the Pursuit of Equitable Access to Credit, to be published by New Village Press in October. This post is adapted from the introductory chapter.