By the time the civil-rights revolution of the early 1960s petered out in white backlash, black power, urban rioting, and Vietnam, truly important gains had been achieved. De juresegregation and Jim Crow were dead. In schools and other public facilities, in voting rights and jury service, revolutionary change had been wrought.

Not so in housing. Even in 1964, the high point of the federal commitment to civil rights, when the nation’s first southern president in a century was intoning, “We shall overcome,” the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing said: “Today, in the very eye of the storm of the Negro revolution, the ghetto stands–largely unassailed–as the rock upon which rests segregated living patterns which pervade and vitiate almost every phase of Negro and Negro-white relationships.”

Four years later, after black rioting in over two dozen cities had rocked and frightened the nation, the Kerner Commission Report warned that the underlying forces leading to civil disorder were continuing to gain momentum. The “most basic” force, it said, was “the accelerating segregation of low-income, disadvantaged Negroes within the ghettos of the largest American cities.”

Then, for a brief, unbelievable moment–under, of all people, newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon–the nation seemed poised to do something. In January 1970, George Romney, Nixon’s first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, pronounced that it was vital for subsidized housing to be dispersed more broadly than it had been in the past. That April, Nixon supported Romney’s emerging policy. “There must be an end,” said the President’s Report on National Housing Goals, “to the concentration of the poor in land-short central cities, and the inaccessibility to the growth of employment opportunities in suburban areas.” The objective was to achieve “open communities” that provided jobs and housing for families of all income levels and races. To that end, legislation would be introduced to prohibit local governments from discriminating against federally subsidized housing. Whereupon, as “a necessary first step in ending the ominous trend toward stratification of our society by race and by income,” Romney sent to Congress a proposal to empower the federal government to override local ordinances that excluded federally subsidized housing.

But the unbelievable moment was just that. The inevitable local opposition appeared, Nixon ducked, Romney was defrocked, and the proffered legislation was deep-sixed. In a televised press conference, followed by a formal Presidential Statement on Equal Opportunity in Housing, Nixon told the country, “I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.” By choosing the “forced integration” phrase, said the Wall Street Journal, the President knocked the props out from under George Romney and “draped the dreaded race-mixing shroud over the entire Romney effort to move subsidized housing beyond city limits.”

Thus ended the first and last serious effort of the executive branch of the federal government to deal with what Romney (and the Kerner Report and Gunnar Myrdal before him) had called the nation’s most serious domestic issue. The legislative branch, increasingly dominated by white suburbia, was never–absent presidential leadership–a candidate for dispersing the ghetto. And, in 1974, the door to the judicial branch was shut when the Supreme Court ruled (in a five-to-four decision) that suburban school districts could not be required to help desegregate Detroit’s nearly all-black schools.

There we were. And there we remain. In the intervening decades, instead of enabling “them” to escape their entrapment by moving to “our” better neighborhoods, we have tried to fix up the ghetto, “gild” it as it used to be called, by attracting development and services to it–thus, model cities, enterprise zones, community development corporations, empowerment zones, the inner city as “untapped market.” But experience tells us we are kidding ourselves. This is trying to break up the ghetto on the cheap–by leaving ghetto residents in place–and it doesn’t work.

Now Owen Fiss adds his voice to the chorus of those who say that “housing mobility” is the way to deal effectively with the concentrated poverty and racial segregation of the black ghetto. The only way, says Fiss, is to give ghetto dwellers an opportunity to leave. “[M]ove poor people into rich neighborhoods,” says another urban analyst. “For the ghetto kid, making it, 99 percent of the time, goes with getting out of the ghetto,” says a third. “Get them out of the ghettos. This is the most powerful way,” says a fourth. (Some others do carp unpersuasively against what is called “ghetto dispersal” or “housing mobility.” See the work of Jon Powell, a leading scholar of concentrated poverty, for a comprehensive look at the debate and a rebuttal to those critics.)

Fiss rightly emphasizes the issue of justice. White society, including white governments, created the black ghetto. (“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” said the Kerner Report.) Therefore, says Fiss, white society, including its governments, must in justice undertake all action needed to end the near-caste structure of American society.

Yes, but how? Fiss tells us we should use federal rent subsidies, enough of them to enable all ghetto residents wishing to move to do so. And we should require realtors and landlords in designated receiving communities to accept the subsidies (and the families who accompany them), rendering it impossible for local communities to thwart the relocation. But how do we move beyond where Richard Nixon positioned us thirty years ago, when he told us that forced integration of the suburbs was not in the national interest? If anything the nation is now dug in more deeply than ever. Residential segregation of blacks hasintensified since the Nixon era. Despite an economic boom, black ghettos in our largest cities are worse than ever and bigger than ever. Against the rising economic tide the ghetto still stands, unassailed. A few years ago, when political opposition surfaced, a democratic administration killed a modest proposed expansion of a small HUD experiment to try out the very rent subsidies Fiss recommends. Republican or Democrat, Nixon or Clinton, when it comes to white suburbia accepting black ghetto dwellers as neighbors, it doesn’t seem to matter.

So, what to do? Actually there is a tiny gleam of hope, not for doing the ghetto dispersal job Fiss demands, but for taking a first small step in that general direction. A part of the black ghetto in big cities consists of neighborhoods dominated by public housing, frequently the infamous high-rises. The buildings are now thirty to 45 years old. Never having been adequately maintained, they are now badly deteriorated and would cost a fortune to repair. A few years ago, Congress decided not to throw good money after bad and required public housing authorities to close the worst of them. Miraculously, Congress also said don’t replace today’s ghettos with tomorrow’s. Instead, it told the housing authorities to create mixed-income communities that include public housing. And it changed some laws to help make it possible to achieve the mixed-income objective.

This is not the same as ghetto gilding. The goal is not the chimera of revitalizing a poverty community but the very different goal of transforming a poverty community into a mixed-income community. It can’t be done everywhere. The site must be near an existing amenity, such as an attractive waterfront or university or medical center. Bargain rents may be required, at least initially. And so on. Things must be done which can attract working, non-poor families to reside in the community that is to include public housing families. But in some places it is doable. For example, in part of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green redevelopment, 20 percent of a group of $250,000 townhomes are actually public housing. Housing mobility is an integral part of the technique, for reducing dense concentrations of impoverished families is a precondition to attracting working families.

This is a prescription for breaking up some parts of some ghettos. Putting aside discussion–it would require a separate article–of exactly how and where it can be accomplished, and how the efforts, begun in the mid-1990s, are faring, the question remains, where do the displaced families go? The answer is in four parts: some go to other ghettos (that is, other public housing developments); some “disappear”–that is, faced with involuntary departure they choose to leave public housing and move in with family or friends, rent in the private market, or become homeless; some go to the low-rise replacement public housing built on-site as part of the new mixed-income community; and some relocate into private housing using the rent subsidy program Fiss espouses. This last group affords us an opportunity to try to learn how to do on a small scale what Fiss recommends.

Though the scale is small, the task is formidable, for two reasons. First, without some mechanism for providing units in tight rental markets, many families will find there is simply no housing available in better neighborhoods at rents the government is willing to subsidize. Second, even where vacant units in such neighborhoods exist, many landlords are unwilling, for reasons of racial discrimination or disinclination to become involved in the red tape of a government program, to rent their units to ghetto dwellers bearing government vouchers.

But we can and should try to overcome the obstacles. Good counseling can produce families who can be “certified” by reputable agencies as acceptable tenants. Red tape can be cut. HUD can permit higher “exception” rents to be paid in certain sub-markets where market rents are high. Here and there around the country small scale mobility programs are being tinkered with and fine-tuned. Because of the imperative of families who by congressional directive must perforce go somewhere, there is a new impetus for this tinkering and fine-tuning. Undoubtedly we will learn more about how to “do” mobility, and some ghetto families will as a result be enabled to take the traditional American route to social and economic advancement–moving to a better neighborhood. And so will the ghetto families who are lucky enough to get the public housing units in the new mixed-income community, though theirs is not a spatial move but a “move” to a transformed neighborhood.

Perhaps, if we are really lucky (though history testifies against the possibility), these small steps will lead the country and Congress to understand that mixed-income and mobility can both be made to work. In that event these small beginnings in public housing ghettos will become stepping stones on the path to justice that Fiss rightly says we must take. But let us not close on a feel-good note of false uplift. We should remember Tom Wicker’s original judgment on the 1968 Kerner Report, that the urban rioters of the 1960s were “the personification of [the] nation’s shame, of its deepest failure, of its greatest challenge.” Twenty years later, in his introduction to the 1988 edition of the report, Wicker added, “In the teeming ghettos that persist in our cities, the lot of their children is little changed.” If, after a dozen more years, a tiny gleam of hope can now be perceived, let us acknowledge that it emanates not from a willingness to do justice but from a reluctance to throw good money after bad.