October 25, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 11
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Melvin B. Miller
Editor & Publisher

By any other name

There is a long tradition in the United States of restricting housing to members of a certain race or religion. In the old days, night riders and arson expelled undesirables. The techniques later became more sophisticated, as those seeking residential homogeneity developed the restrictive covenant.

Residents of a neighborhood would sign an agreement not to sell to blacks or Jews. Any deviation from the covenant would provoke litigation that usually succeeded in stopping the sale. Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional.

Massachusetts and most other states now have laws against racial or religious discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Nonetheless, landlords still find ways to circumvent the non-discrimination laws. For example, members of the management board of a housing cooperative can with impunity simply find a prospective buyer of a unit unsuitable.

It has been public policy to erect barriers that make it more difficult to evade the reach of the law when discriminating. The recently decided case of Moore Real Estate Trust v. Indralakshmi Din-Dayal reverses that trend.

In a 17-unit Cambridge building, the landlord was aware of the race of 10 tenants. In each case, non-white tenants paid higher rents than whites for similar apartments. The state Supreme Judicial Court found that this did not constitute racial discrimination.

This ruling gives bigots a new strategy: Discourage black applicants by charging extremely high rents. If they accept, then at least the landlord has a windfall. The court’s decision makes it profitable to be a bigot.

Taking care of your homework

The death of a child is emotionally devastating. It is no wonder that the family of 13-year-old Steven Odom, a promising young man who was recently killed by a bullet meant for someone else, called out in their grief for Gov. Deval Patrick to end the violence. It is unseemly, however, for community leaders to treat this idea as anything more than a cry of despair.

Even a slight understanding of public affairs would inform those leaders that the governor’s duties are so vast that it would be impossible for him to be directly involved in the gang violence problems in each of the state’s cities. The governor’s role is to be aware of the issue, urge other responsible public officials to take action and provide necessary funds for remedial programs.

An unfortunate legacy of slavery is that many African Americans feel powerless to take personal responsibility for improving the conditions of their lives. Too often they call upon the intervention of others for a solution. When the problem is the result of racial abuse, that reaction is appropriate; otherwise, it is more appropriate for people to rely on their own resources.

The rise of armed youth gangs is not the direct result of racial discrimination. In fact, gang-bangers did not exist in black urban communities when racial discrimination was rampant 50 or 60 years ago. Blacks must assume responsibility themselves for this development. The solution must also come from within.

The governor is in no way responsible for urban gangs. It would be cowardly for African Americans to attempt to impose on one person such liability when responsibility for peace is a community effort.


“Charge them twice the rent, and they’ll go away.”

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