More than a half century ago as a 40-year-old Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota, Walter Mondale co-authored the landmark Fair Housing Act and stood beside President Lyndon B. Johnson during the bill signing ceremony in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Today, at 91, Mondale looks back with disappointment at what he sees as widespread failures by government at all levels to enforce the milestone statute.
“You’ve got the federal and state authorities, local authorities, who’ve taken an oath to uphold the law, and they’re not doing it,” said Mondale, who was President Jimmy Carter’s vice president from 1977 to 1981.
Mondale spoke after reading Newsday’s "Long Island Divided" series, which found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers. The investigation’s findings have sparked wide-ranging calls for action and spurred three state Senate committees to hold hearings this week at Hofstra University on housing discrimination on Long Island.
Newsday found evidence that suggested real estate agents subjected minority testers to disparate treatment when compared to their white counterparts in 40% of 86 paired tests. Evidence of disparate treatment was highest for Newsday’s black testers, at 49%. For Hispanic testers, it was 39% and for the Asian testers, 19%.
The Fair Housing Act in 1968 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, familial status, national origin or disability.
“I don’t think we’ve made much progress at all in housing discrimination,” Mondale said during a telephone interview from his office in Minneapolis. “I think we’ve made some progress in employment discrimination, but when it comes to fair housing, I wouldn’t use the word flop, because it’s something, but it’s been a huge disappointment to me.”
The path for open housing legislation to become law was anything but certain. Fair housing legislation languished in Congress in 1966 and 1967 under the young senator's stewardship.
A shift in the political landscape occurred on April 4, 1968, when an assassin's bullet felled King in Memphis. Riots broke out in cities across the country.
Johnson seized the moment and pushed for speedy passage of the legislation as a memorial to King's life work, which included leading open housing marches in Chicago.
Every few years, Mondale said, he tries to refocus attention on Fair Housing Act enforcement.
“And then, nothing happens,” Mondale said.
In 2018, the 50th anniversary of the bill becoming law, Mondale wrote an opinion article that appeared in The New York Times under the headline “The Civil Rights Law We Ignored.”
“We passed this fair housing law, but we’re unable to get any energy behind it,” said Mondale, who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1984 but lost the general election to President Ronald Reagan. “I don’t know what explains it. I guess what explains it is that people don’t like fair housing. They don’t want some unwanted person showing up in their neighborhood.
“But I don’t think we can leave it there,” he said. “I think we need to continue to press. If we’re a nation of laws, if we are who we say we are, it should be enforced.”
As for paired testing, which uses undercover white and minority testers who pose as renters or buyers, Mondale said: “It’s probably the way of proving discrimination, which is sort of hard to do."
Public hearings, and any legislation that flows from it, could stimulate fresh enforcement of anti-discrimination laws that regulate the housing market, Mondale said.
“Maybe a new wrinkle, or new amendment, might stir them up a little bit,” Mondale said. “It’s really a sad thing that this nation of ours, that so prides itself on being a nation of laws and justice, would allow discrimination against citizens, should have this unique record. The other civil rights laws don’t have this pathetic nothing going for them.”