Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Banks v. Housing Authority and a Multi-Racial Approach to the Equal Protection Clause, Part 2

In my last post I discussed the background to the Banks v. Housing Authority case: the San Francisco Housing Authority’s separate but equal “neighborhood pattern” policy, the rise of Chinese American political power, and the decision of African American elites to abandon their tacit acceptance of segregated public housing by suing the Housing Authority.

The lawsuit was brought in San Francisco Superior Court in 1951. It was filed by Terry Francois, who, though just two years out of law school, was the head of the San Francisco NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee. Francois and his co-counsel, the much more experienced civil rights litigator Loren Miller, used the case to attack Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine. Recent United States Supreme Court decisions, such as Shelley v. Kraemer, Sweatt v. Painter, and McLauren v. Oklahoma, indicated that separate but equal was all but dead. Banks, they argued, should be the final nail in the coffin. Even if the California courts didn’t wish to go that far (this was, after all, three years before Brown v. Board of Education), Francois and Miller suggested that, after Shelley, separate but equal should not apply in the context of property rights. They also claimed that California law and public policy provided an independent basis for abolishing separate but equal in the Golden State.

Francois and Miller won their case. While the trial court and the appellate courts refused to reject Plessy in its entirety, they accepted Francois and Miller’s other arguments. They also noted that the Authority could not even meet the separate but equal standard required by Plessy because, despite its claims otherwise, it failed to provide minority groups with public housing slots in proportion to their population in the city.

Though the NAACP proudly presented itself as a civil rights group working on behalf of all racial minorities, San Francisco’s Chinese American community was not pleased with the outcome in Banks. What the NAACP’s lawyers saw as a victory for racial egalitarianism, many people in Chinatown saw as a legal ruling that would take away both their neighborhood housing and a tangible symbol of their entry into the political mainstream. Chinese Americans, community leaders argued, did not wish to move into integrated housing projects spread throughout the city. They wanted to live in their neighborhood. For years they had fought to get the city to take action to relieve the chronic shortage of housing in Chinatown. Yet, just when they were able to convince the Housing Authority to do so by building Ping Yuen, the NAACP came and took it away from them.

The Banks case is a small chapter in the story of the emergence of a more racially egalitarian legal order in the United States, but it illustrates a significant point about that story: civil rights history looks different when viewed through a multiracial lens. Banks demonstrates that different racial groups may have different definitions of equality and different approaches to achieving it. The conflict between the Chinese American community and the African American community over public housing thus resulted in different interpretations of the Equal Protection Clause. While one racial group might see separate but equal as a degrading relic of Jim Crow oppression, another might see it as a potent symbol of its newfound political power.

For more on the story of the conflicts endemic to a multiracial fight for civil rights, including a discussion of the Banks case, see Mark Brilliant’s fantastic The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. Banks also pops up in two great books about Asian communities in California: Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California; and Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For “the new objects of racial scorn,” see Scott Tang’s essay “Becoming the New Objects of Racial Scorn: Racial Politics and Racial Hierarchy in Postwar San Francisco, 1945-1960” in Jeff Roche, ed., The Political Culture of the New West.