Surprisingly few Americans have heard of Robert Clifton Weaver. His name, in fact, was foreign to me until I stumbled across his biography at the infamous Power Book in downtown Portland. Entitled Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer, this book offers a fascinating look at Weaver’s work as economist, academic and civil rights advocate under the backdrop of the New Deal movement prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s. His claim to fame though came in 1965 when  he was selected by then president Lyndon Johnson to lead the recently formed Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD)—a distinction which made him the the first black presidential cabinet official in American history.

In his public service work Weaver courageously walked a fine line between the white power structure prevalent at that time and a dispirited African-American community whose lives he devoted his career to improving. His brand of “Radical Liberalism”—an approach which attempted to minimize the focus on race in resolving disputes—made him the go-to person at the federal level in terms of mediating divisive issues commonplace during the Jim Crow era.  Weaver was most notably a staunch advocate of urban revitalization and its role in replacing segregated ghettos with integrated communities. He believed that public housing integration could serve as the catalyst for dismantling the myths of prejudice, leading to greater racial harmony.

Weaver’s steadfastness in remaining true to the belief that government action could ameliorate the segregation of our nations cities is to be admired. Unfortunately, it could be argued that the urban environments to which he dedicated his life remain as deeply divided today by race and poverty as they were during his time.

It pains me deeply that this division continues to exist in a nation as great as ours. The city of Chicago, where I resided for many years, offers just one example of the systemic nature of this problem as it remains one of the most segregated cities in North America. It currently has a segregation index  of around 81, which means that in order for every Chicago neighborhood and suburb to have a racial mix commiserate with the overall racal demographics of metropolitan Chicago, an astounding 81 percent of the residents would have to move. Oakland, California paints a picture  much the same: Colleagues of mine living in this area talk of the racial tension and class segregation serving as a barrier to meaningful progress for the city. And in my own community, a suburban enclave just outside of Sacramento, the lack of resident diversity has been cause for my only African-American neighbor up the street to refer to the two of us as the “only flies in the buttermilk.”

Despite his rising stature Weaver himself had problems securing middle-class housing in segregated Chicago when he was selected chairman of the city’s Committee on Race Relations in 1944. With no other options afforded to him outside of the predominantly black areas on the south side of Chicago, he eventually found respite at the famed Hull House, the settlement founded by progressive leader Jane Adams. Interestingly enough Weavers experience mirrors that of a colleague of mine during a career move of his in the mid-nineties.  During the process of looking for a new residence he and his wife became puzzled as to why the real estate professional kept steering them to exclusively black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side when their stated desire was to live in one of the city’s more integrated communities. Having come from Washington D.C. where they raised a family in a diverse setting, they were dumbfound to find that this was still an accepted, albeit illegal practice among a fair number of real estate agents in the Chicago metro region.

The vestiges of these housing practices are historically rooted in what are known as restrictive covenants—laws from back in Weaver’s day that barred homeowners from selling or leasing their properties to people of color. While segregationist proponents argued that these practices were necessary to protect property values—the proverbial “there goes the neighborhood” argument—Weaver claimed that there was no factual evidence to support this contention, noting that the ghettoized areas that blacks lived were economic rather than racial in their cause.

In the 50s and 60s Weaver initially attempted to bridge these gaps by advocating for public housing as a mechanism for creating integrated neighborhoods and overcoming the barriers to prejudice. While the development of public housing projects such as Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green were a noble attempt to move our nation beyond “single class”, racially restricted neighborhoods, they actually fueled the very exclusionary practices that Weaver had hope to overcome.

Weaver deserves a great deal of credit for fostering dialogue around housing integration  and the role that it plays towards achieving a color blind society.  Yet his efforts are arguably still a work in progress—likely to gain traction only when the barriers that which continue to perpetuate this divide are brought out into the open.

Michael Scott is the president of Visions for Downtown America, Inc, an economic development firm supporting the growth and sustainability of downtown central-cities. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

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