Discriminatory mortgage lending intensifies racial segregation

On December 21, Bank of America settled a Justice Department complaint alleging racial discrimination in mortgage lending by its Countrywide subsidiary. But underlying issues are far from resolved. Longstanding federal inaction in the face of widespread discriminatory mortgage lending practices helped create, and since has perpetuated, racially segregated, impoverished neighborhoods. This history of “law-sanctioned” racial segregation has had many damaging effects, including poor educational outcomes for minority children.

Bank of America’s Countrywide subsidiary was not alone in charging higher rates and fees on mortgages to minorities than to whites with similar characteristics, or in shifting minorities into subprime mortgages with terms so onerous that foreclosure and loss of homeownership were widespread. Racially discriminatory practices in mortgage lending (known as “reverse redlining”) were so systematic that top bank officials as well as federal and state regulators knew, or should have known, of their existence and taken remedial action.

Such complicity in racial discrimination by federal and state banking and thrift regulators is nothing new; in the past, they were complicit in “redlining”—the blanket denial of mortgages to minority homebuyers.

In the cases both of redlining and reverse redlining, regulatory failure has been destructive to the goal of a racially integrated society. Redlining contributed to racial segregation by keeping African Americans out of predominantly white neighborhoods; reverse redlining has probably had a similar result. Exploitative mortgage lending has led to an epidemic of foreclosures among African American and Hispanic homeowners, exacerbating racial segregation as displaced families relocate to more racially isolated neighborhoods or suffer homelessness.

The legal settlement requires Bank of America to spend $335 million to compensate victims of Countrywide’s discriminatory lending practices. This sum, while the largest fund to date for compensation of victims of discriminatory subprime lending, is still insufficient to restore their access to homeownership markets and to middle-class neighborhoods. In consequence, it will also do little to address the comparatively poor educational outcomes of children who are now more likely to grow up in racially segregated communities, nor the damage to learning that results when schooling has been disrupted by an unstable housing situation.

MORE: A comment on Bank of America/Countrywide’s discriminatory mortgage lending and its implications for racial segregation

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