Before and during the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle against racial discrimination was fairly clear cut. Jim Crow Laws explicitly barred black Americans from access to housing, education, and public amenities. In the modern day, racism is more insidious. Even the most prejudiced bigots know better than to try to get away with blatantly discriminatory policies—and yet there are still huge disparities in access to housing amongst different races and ethnic groups. One reason is because policies can sometimes have a discriminatory effect, even if they don’t obviously intend to.
That’s why the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding claims made under the Fair Housing Act is so important. The Fair Housing Act, which passed in 1968, protects renters and home owners from racial discrimination. A recent Supreme Court decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project ruled that claims can be filed under the Fair Housing Act if a law or practice has “disparate impact” – meaning it impacts different racial groups in discriminatory ways, even without explicitly intending to do so.
Why you should understand disparate impact claims
Disparate impact claims are important because it is very unlikely that housing authorities, landlords, and lawmakers will ever admit to knowingly discriminating on the basis of race. However, certain laws and practices nonetheless have the effect of favoring white tenants and homeowners over other races. The recent Supreme Court decision helps address these more subtle forms of racism, while strengthening the original intention of the Fair Housing Act to eliminate discriminatory housing practices.
The court did create some restrictions for disparate impact claims, and sent the case back to the lower courts to see if The Inclusive Communities Project’s claims were still legitimate given these restrictions. A defendant in a case claiming disparate impact cannot be held liable for statistical disparities in housing unless the plaintiff can prove that the defendant’s practices or policies caused the disparity. Housing authorities and private developers can also defend their policy if it is necessary to achieve a valid, non-discriminatory goal.
These restrictions may pose challenges for individuals seeking justice for housing discrimination. Yet overall, the Supreme Court’s recent decision shows that civil rights laws like the Fair Housing Act are designed to do more than just pay lip service to equality – they are meant to address the real life effects of discriminatory practices and policies.