Trump’s Racist Appeal to Suburbia and Its Place in the U.S. History of Housing Segregation

by Amanda Hermans, managing online editor

In July of this year, President Trump sent a series of tweets to “The Suburban Housewives of America.” “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” one tweet claimed. “I will preserve it, and make it even better!” Another touted, “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood. Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”

The goal of this messaging is obvious. In an attempt to solidify his support among white suburbanites—especially women—Trump has resorted to using thinly veiled racial dog whistles (“low income,” “crime”) to portray himself as a savior for white neighborhoods, keeping out a sudden influx of others—specifically, Black people and other people of color.  

While this blatantly racist appeal may seem uniquely Trumpian, the actual policy action the administration took—the removal of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule—is simply a continuation of a centuries-long American tradition of discriminatory housing policy that the AFFH rule was attempting to unwind. Beginning with centuries of slavery, Black Americans and Americans of color have never had the full freedom to live where they want. In the mid-twentieth century, state-sponsored redlining deliberately kept home loans out of the hands of Black Americans. After the Fair Housing Act outlawed such outright discrimination in 1968, more subtle exclusionary zoning practices grew, leaving large swaths of strictly zoned land out of reach for low-income individuals and racial minorities. Even today, many Black families, just by virtue of the color of their skin, are subject to lower home appraisals than their white counterparts. Taken together, these patterns have led to incredible disparities in the ability of minority families to build generational wealth, perpetuating systemic racism and poverty. 

Created in 2015 during the Obama administration, the AFFH rule gave teeth to the 1968 Fair Housing Act by requiring cities and towns receiving federal money for housing and urban development to assess and report any patterns of housing discrimination, and then make plans to address them. The Trump administration has continuously attacked and significantly weakened the rule since taking office, calling it burdensome and unnecessary. Even before its official repeal, the National Fair Housing Alliance found that the number of housing discrimination complaints between 2017 and 2018 rose 8 percent, the highest increase since 1995. But the AFFH’s termination in July officially takes HUD Secretary Ben Carson and the Trump administration off the hook for civil rights enforcement, bringing the country back into a pattern of permissible housing discrimination. Carson announced that the AFFH would be replaced by a new rule titled “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice.” This rule seems intent on keeping minority and low-income families where they are by offering some investment for existing affordable housing sites, rather than allowing for the free and fair movement of people between communities. It also significantly lowers the bar for how localities will be assessed for discriminatory housing practices.

Trump is, of course, no stranger to housing discrimination. He and his father were both sued in the ‘70s by the Department of Justice for discriminating against African American tenants. Trump clearly believes that falling back into this pattern will secure votes from groups that support this status quo. By attempting to instill racially-charged fear in white suburbanites, he is hoping their anxieties about their changing neighborhoods will be directly converted into votes on November 3rd. 

And it’s clear why Trump has targeted this group, especially those he calls “suburban housewives”—he needs their vote. In 2016, Trump won 50 percent of suburban voters (to Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent). He also won a slight majority of white women across the country—53 percent. Without the small majority of these groups, it is unclear that he would have been able to clinch the closely contested 2016 election. 

But it’s not clear that Trump’s 2016 tactics will pan out in 2020. An August poll from Washington Post-ABC News found that 54 percent of suburban women were planning to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket (compared to 41 percent for Trump). In 2018, several suburban House seats were flipped to Democrat. The assumption that the suburbs are filled with white housewives is outdated as well. The percentage of married women in the U.S. who work outside of the home has risen steadily since the 1960s, and is now over 50 percent. The suburbs have also diversified greatly over the past few decades, shifting to model the country as a whole: In 2019, only 58 percent of the residents in older suburbs were white, down from 77 percent in 1990.

Beyond these miscalculations regarding the makeup of the suburbs, Trump is also facing a changing landscape regarding racial justice. In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in May, support for racial equity and the Black Lives Matter movement has risen greatly among all racial groups, including white people. A July poll found that over half of white Americans disapprove of the President’s handling of the protests for racial justice that have erupted across the country.

Given these shifts, it is unlikely that Trump’s racist fearmongering to white suburban women will successfully inspire strong support among those who weren’t already in his corner. But while the repeal of the AFFH may not have any major implications for the Trump campaign, it has stripped away a major tool for protecting vulnerable communities from discriminatory housing practices.  The next administration would do well to reinstate the rule, or something similar, as soon as possible to ensure the right to choose where to safely live for everyone—housewife or otherwise.

Featured Image: https://unsplash.com/photos/rgJ1J8SDEAY

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