Intention vs. Impact

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that an important component of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which protects against housing discrimination, still stands. They upheld a lower court ruling that allowed disparate impact claims. As Vox explains:

A disparate impact claim means that regardless of intent, a law results in discrimination. This means that appellants only have to prove that a law’s impact results in discrimination, and not the additional claim that the writers of the law intended it to have that impact.

This idea, that impact matters regardless of intent, is critical to dismantling structural racism in the United States. We are not able to rely on an assessment of whether an individual or institution intends to be racist, because “agencies and businesses seldom announce that they are engaging in purposeful discrimination,” Adam Liptak explained in the New York Times. “’Disparate impact,’ on the other hand, can be proved using statistics.” Intention is particularly hard to measure because most people carry around unconscious or implicit bias. You may not know that your decisions and actions are often tainted by prejudice, but not consciously intending that prejudice does not mean there is no impact. Impact is compounded when bias goes beyond the individual level and drives the practices and policies of organizations and systems, leading to, for example, high levels of residential segregation even though housing and real estate discrimination is illegal.

This ruling is important because residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US. As we said in a recent post about the high costs of transit and housing, where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs:

In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban metro residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

Earlier this week, a study by Sean Reardon at Stanford Graduate School of Education showed that regardless of income, black and Hispanic families live in neighborhoods with lower median income levels than white and Asian families. This NYT graphic shows how a moderate-income black family is likely to live in a lower-income neighborhood than a low-income white family is:


Source: New York Times

The study confirms that low-income young people often have very different experiences depending on the neighborhood and the metro that they live in:

Low-income households in the Washington, DC, or Minneapolis, MN, metropolitan areas, for example, are typically located in neighborhoods similar to those of middle- or higher-income households in Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA, and other metropolitan areas. As a result, children growing up in poor households in metropolitan areas such as Washington and Minneapolis may have, on average, more access to high-quality schools and other forms of opportunity than equally poor (or middleclass) children in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta or Los Angeles.

This week’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward providing equal housing opportunity, but as this 2012 ProPublica investigation showed, we haven’t always made use of the tools at our disposal to push for less housing discrimination. The nation’s highest court has reaffirmed this important legal route for challenging segregation, but there is still a tremendous amount of work needed to ensure all Americans have access to a high-quality infrastructure of opportunity.