As our nation pays tribute to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, much attention is focused on his leadership role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thanks to the release of the critically-acclaimed film, “Selma.”  

But another important federal civil rights law is also a part of Dr. King’s proud legacy, and it may now be in peril. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed with bipartisan support by Congress only one week after Dr. King’s assassination. Indeed, the tragic killing of Dr. King spurred Congress into addressing the serious and persistent harms of housing segregation and passing the Act. Two years before, King had begun a campaign against racial segregation in housing that swept the nation and brought attention to the appalling conditions and isolation of segregated slums.

The Act’s protections have long proven to be essential and at such a pivotal moment for racial justice in our country, now is not the time to be rolling back our civil rights laws.

- John Trasviña

For over 45 years, the Fair Housing Act has worked to eliminate barriers to housing and to promote diverse and thriving communities. The Act ensures that no one is denied housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability or familial status. The importance of equal opportunity in housing cannot be overstated. When persons are limited in their housing choices through any form of discrimination, they are simultaneously deprived of access to good jobs, quality education, and a clean and safe environment.   

As Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development for President Obama’s Administration, I had the honor of enforcing this Act. Without it, countless families would have been denied housing or a mortgage, including wives and mothers who qualified for loans but were denied consideration because they were on maternity leave from their jobs.  Likewise, when I led the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, we fought local ordinances that prohibited landlords from renting units to individuals or families lacking a license that could be obtained only upon showing legal immigration status.  

But today, a key protection under the Fair Housing Act, known as “disparate impact,” is in jeopardy. This protection says that banks, landlords and other housing providers should adopt policies that apply fairly to all persons. Namely, the Act prohibits policies which might seem neutral in theory, but which have destructive consequences for certain communities in practice. For almost as long as the Fair Housing Act has been in existence, numerous federal courts across the nation have upheld this protection against systemic housing discrimination. Over the last four decades, both Republican and Democratic Administrations have relied on this civil rights enforcement tool to address extensive discrimination in a variety of areas, including housing, voting, employment, and education. 

This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to this longstanding protection in a case arising from Dallas, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. Although there is no disagreement among federal circuit courts that this protection is entirely valid, the Supreme Court is considering whether this embedded element of civil rights law should continue to exist under the Fair Housing Act. That question has important implications for many other areas of civil rights law, even beyond the housing context. As the recent tragedies in Ferguson and beyond have illustrated, racial justice and freedom from discrimination continue to elude us as a nation. We need every tool that the law provides to challenge systemic and persistent forms of discrimination. 

The Supreme Court should uphold the Fair Housing Act in its entirety and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot at obtaining homes without the interference of discrimination. The Act’s protections have long proven to be essential and at such a pivotal moment for racial justice in our country, now is not the time to be rolling back our civil rights laws. The broader lesson of movies like Selma, and my own personal experiences in civil rights, is that with earnest commitment to equality and fairness, the nation can make great strides in overcoming racial discrimination.

John Trasviña is Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law and was Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity from 2009 to 2013 and President and General Counsel of MALDEF from 2006 to 2009.

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