From “Black Lives Matter” to “housing is a human right”: a spotlight on structural genocide in the U.S.

Source: 48 Hills

By Nicole Chase (intern) and Natalia Burdyńska Schuurman (Program Coordinator)

June of 2020 marked a defining moment in history when the police murder of George Floyd spurred a massive popular uprising for racial justice against the backdrop of a devastating public health and economic crisis. Millions mobilized in solidarity with Black and Brown communities losing loved ones at alarming rates not only to police murders but also COVID-19 and its severe socioeconomic impacts. Essential workers in at least 160 cities organized a “Strike for Black Lives” protesting ​​in remembrance of unarmed Black and Brown civilians killed at the hands of law enforcement while demanding economic relief for communities most profoundly impacted by the Coronavirus recession. 

Nearly two years later, the recession has taken a massive toll on poor and working class Black and Brown households. The pandemic has exhausted thousands of homes’ financial savings, leaving millions of Black and Brown families one paycheck away from eviction amid a growing housing crisis. Landlords have evicted at least 75,000 tenants while pocketing COVID-19 federal rental aid, and 3.5 million people nationwide are reportedly likely or “very likely” to face eviction. Black-majority neighborhoods in particular face the highest risk of experiencing serial eviction filings in the U.S. today.

Only $20 billion of the $46 billion allocated to COVID-19 federal rental aid in 2020 – 43.5% – has been awarded. With insufficient federal relief assistance reaching those in need, low-income families are still navigating an economic crisis with little to no safety net to fall back on. The situation is particularly concerning for poor and working class people of color who face a much higher risk of pandemic-related job loss, loss of household savings and eviction amid a housing crisis that’s coincided with a 77% increase in homeless deaths over the five years prior to 2020.

From overwhelming impunity for racist police murders of unarmed civilians to a disastrous mismanagement of a homelessness epidemic disproportionately killing Black and Brown communities, the human rights violations permitted and promoted under our federal government’s watch are tantamount to structural genocide. The Biden Administration’s negligent management of a deadly housing crisis, made even more lethal when compounded by a pandemic disproportionately devastating Black and Brown communities, constitutes a crime in the eyes of the international community.

A housing crisis disproportionately killing Black and Brown communities

Black, Brown and Indigenous families in particular have shouldered the worst blows of the Coronavirus recession, among them the highest rates of unemployment, loss of income and savings, evictions and homelessness. Black and Brown households in the U.S. are most likely to live with a high housing cost burden, making them especially prone to housing insecurity and the possibility of homelessness in the case of a sudden loss of income or savings. So are Indigenous households, which are significantly less likely than white households to own their homes. 

Source: The Guardian

What the past several years have made clear is that homelessness is fatal, and our current homelessness epidemic is disproportionately killing poor and working class people of color. Homeless people in the U.S. are three times more likely to die than housed people, according to a local analysis of homeless deaths in the country’s so-called “homeless capital,” Los Angeles, between 2017-2019. Made even worse by the spread of Coronavirus to unhoused communities, homeless people and particularly homeless people of color in the U.S. face an incredibly high risk of infection and developing disease or worse health outcomes.

According to a 2020 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Black people in the U.S. represent about 13% of the U.S. population, yet they comprise nearly 40% of people experiencing homelessness nationwide. Black people experiencing homelessness are among the most endangered demographics in the United States, as the criminalization of race and poverty place them at an especially high risk of being targets of hate crimes and police brutality. 

According to University of Washington researcher and co-founder of the organization Homeless Deaths Count, Matt Fowle, so many Black and Brown lives could be saved simply by guaranteeing housing to all. “It’s a tragedy that people are dying without housing,” Fowle said in an interview with The Guardian. “We know the solutions. Housing saves lives and, for these people, is often a form of healthcare.”

Displacement and dispossession: roots of housing insecurity, foundations of neocolonialism

As colleague James Jordan, a long-time housing rights activist, explains:

“Driving Indigenous nations from their homes, kidnapping Africans for enslavement in another land, the dispossession and poverty that are the lot of our nation’s poor: it is upon this more than anything else that the so-called American Dream is built. Homeless people are far more likely to be victims of hate crimes than the general population. The problem is greatly compounded if one is a person of color.”

As is the current homelessness epidemic, racial inequality in the U.S. housing crisis is the legacy of a long history of displacement and dispossession: of nations, communities, workers and individuals. From the annexation of tribal lands to the gentrification of historically Black and Brown inner-city neighborhoods, displacement and dispossession remain foundational to our housing system and the preservation of race-based power relations in property ownership established by settler-colonialism.

Federal policies have institutionalized the displacement and dispossession of Black and Brown communities for centuries. The Indian Removal Act and the Dawes Act facilitated the forced removal of Indigenous peoples. Federal laws passed in the 20th century terminated more than 100 tribal nations, resulting in the annexation of millions of acres of tribal land by the U.S. By 2017, more than one in five Native Americans (22%) lived in poverty, compared with just eight percent of the white population, and were far less likely to own property than white residents.

In the 1930s and following the so-called Great Migration of nearly six million African Americans to northern cities, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) developed redlining, a housing program described as a “state-sponsored system of segregation” that institutionalized racial discrimination through the determination of home values. As a direct result of the initiative, houses in white communities were deemed more valuable than identical houses in communities of color. After 40 years homes in white neighborhoods had already appreciated $200,000 more than those in communities of color had, further widening racial disparities in household wealth and savings to this day. 

For much of the 20th century, federal, state, and local policies subsidized the development of prosperous white suburbs in metropolises across the country by constructing highway systems for suburban commuters through predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. In more recent years, the relocation of white middle and upper class residents to cities, increased cost of living and correspondingly heavy policing of inner-city poor and working class communities laid the groundwork for the gentrification of historically Black and Brown neighborhoods. This resulted in the displacement of thousands of families from cities across the country.

From 2000 to 2013, Washington D.C. residents saw the nation’s highest rate of gentrification, during which 20,000 Black Americans were forced out of their homes. In the three decades leading up to 2015, Black residency in the U.S. Capital had declined roughly 30%, while the city’s white population increased by 25%. By 2019, almost one in four (25% of) Black D.C. residents live in poverty, compared to just three percent of white residents. The case of Washington, D.C. illustrates a reality nationwide, where over three decades of gentrification has accelerated in several cities across the U.S.

Source: Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign

The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a fiscally sponsored project of AFGJ organizing housing takeover campaigns in Philadelphia and other cities across the country, affirms that people have the right to reclaim the basic necessities of life, including housing. “We prioritize #LivesOverLuxury,” the campaign proclaims. “Housing and urban development has properties that sit empty for months and years, while families can’t afford places to live. There’s something wrong with that.”

Confronting structural genocide

While the international community defends the right to housing as a fundamental and inalienable human right, the denial of housing rights to Black and Brown communities remains foundational to U.S. policy-making and law enforcement. For centuries now, lawmakers have facilitated and law enforcement has promoted deadly displacement and dispossession of historically colonized communities. From “Black Lives Matter” to “housing is a human right,” movements are confronting structural genocide.


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This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report