Before Trump Was a Racist Commander-in-Chief, He Was a Racist Real Estate Executive

Newly released files from the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s company document pervasive discrimination against people of color.

Rachel Johnson February 17, 2017

Donald Trump with his father Fred in 1988. (Time Life Pictures / Getty)

This week the FBI released to the pub­lic near­ly 400 pages of doc­u­ments asso­ci­at­ed with the bureau’s 1970s inves­ti­ga­tion of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in the Trump family’s real estate com­pa­ny, Trump Man­age­ment, Incor­po­rat­ed. Don­ald Trump was at the time the pres­i­dent of the com­pa­ny, while his father Fred Trump was chairman.

The man alleged that Fred Trump told him to “get rid” of the black residents in the complex by offering to pay their $500 down payment for cheap housing elsewhere.

While relat­ed doc­u­ments had already been obtained and report­ed on by the Wash­ing­ton Post and oth­er out­lets via the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, this new release is sig­nif­i­cant because it pro­vides the pub­lic imme­di­ate access to mate­r­i­al from the inves­ti­ga­tion. The doc­u­ments offer an unmedi­at­ed view into Trump’s long record of racism, a per­son­al his­to­ry that sheds light on a water­shed moment in civ­il rights history.

The fed­er­al law­suit brought against Don­ald Trump and his father Fred Trump start­ed the same way as so many oth­er civ­il rights cas­es: with a test. In 1972, the Urban League decid­ed to test” the com­pa­nies’ hous­ing poli­cies by send­ing both white and black vol­un­teers seek­ing apart­ments. In case after case, they allege, black appli­cants were told there were no vacan­cies while white appli­cants were shown an apart­ment and giv­en an appli­ca­tion. Hous­ing activists became so con­vinced of their case against Trump Man­age­ment, Inc., that they alert­ed the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ). The DOJ charged Trump and his com­pa­ny in vio­la­tion of the 1968 Fair Hous­ing Act — which for­bade dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing on the basis of race — in Octo­ber 1973.

The DOJ’s inves­ti­ga­tion into Trump would not have been pos­si­ble with­out pres­sure from a pow­er­ful grass­roots fair hous­ing move­ment, which relent­less­ly advo­cat­ed for inte­gra­tion, expand­ed tenant’s rights, and an end to exclu­sion­ary and exploita­tive prac­tices like redlin­ing, which barred com­mu­ni­ties of col­or from access to mort­gage loans, and block­bust­ing, in which real estate agents would con­vince white home­own­ers in racial­ly tran­si­tion­ing neigh­bor­hoods to sell their homes at low prices, and then re-sell them at inflat­ed prices to black homebuyers.

When Mar­tin Luther King arrived on the West side of Chica­go in 1965, intend­ing to make fair hous­ing a focal point in the North­ern civ­il rights move­ment, he part­nered with a grass­roots open hous­ing move­ment already in full swing. By that year, the Nation­al Com­mit­tee Against Dis­crim­i­na­tion (NCDH), a leg­isla­tive-lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to com­bat­ing hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, count­ed 1,000 fair hous­ing groups in the U.S., many of which were con­cen­trat­ed in the urban North. The strength of fair hous­ing activism can be seen in the leg­isla­tive suc­cess of fair hous­ing laws. NCDH sup­port­ers and state and local hous­ing groups suc­cess­ful­ly pres­sured state after state and city after city to pass fair hous­ing laws,” writes his­to­ri­an Thomas Sug­rue in Sweet Land of Lib­er­ty: The For­got­ten Strug­gle for Civ­il Rights in the North. By 1967, 24 states had passed laws against hous­ing discrimination.

In New York City the fair hous­ing move­ment was par­tic­u­lar­ly strong. In 1958, a whole decade before the pas­sage of nation­al leg­is­la­tion, the city enact­ed its Fair Hous­ing Act, which banned dis­crim­i­na­tion in res­i­den­tial hous­ing. Along with the New York Urban League, in 1964 NCDH used fed­er­al fund­ing from the War on Pover­ty to pilot a new pro­gram, Oper­a­tion Open City. 1967 Open City report stat­ed that the project’s objec­tives were to com­bat the hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion which keeps non-white New York­ers in racial ghet­tos.” Along with pro­mot­ing inte­gra­tion through edu­ca­tion pro­grams, Open City pro­vid­ed assis­tance to minor­i­ty fam­i­lies mov­ing into major­i­ty white neigh­bor­hoods. In so doing, how­ev­er, the Urban League uncov­ered wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion from land­lords across the city. In 1967, the Orga­ni­za­tion began rou­tine­ly send­ing check­ers” to apart­ments in major­i­ty white neigh­bor­hoods — includ­ing Trump’s properties.

The FBI’s Probe

The Trump files are illu­mi­nat­ing in their abil­i­ty to reveal what Sug­rue describes as the furtive tac­tics” real estate agents used after the Fair Hous­ing Act to main­tain seg­re­ga­tion. The FBI doc­u­ments reveal sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion against poten­tial black renters — includ­ing alle­ga­tions of fab­ri­cat­ing rental leas­es, lying about the cost of rent and reject­ing finan­cial­ly qual­i­fied black applicants.

Trump employ­ees, accord­ing to the files, were instruct­ed to write codes, includ­ing the let­ter C” for col­ored,” on the rental appli­ca­tions of blacks and Puer­to Ricans. Trump’s cod­ing sys­tem recalls the real estate codes used by the fed­er­al government’s Home Own­ers Loan Cor­po­ra­tion dur­ing the New Deal. In res­i­den­tial secu­ri­ty maps” based on com­mon prac­tices in state and local ordi­nances as well as the real estate indus­try, the gov­ern­ment col­or-cod­ed areas with high pop­u­la­tions of peo­ple of col­or as red” — high-risk. This prac­tice, known as redlin­ing, denied mort­gage cap­i­tal to neigh­bor­hoods with high pop­u­la­tions of non-whites — shut­ting out African Amer­i­cans from home­own­er­ship and the accom­pa­ny­ing wealth creation.

Many of the FBI doc­u­ments ref­er­ence pho­ny leas­es” that Trump employ­ees alleged­ly showed to black appli­cants to con­vince them that an apart­ment had already been rent­ed. In an inter­view with fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tors, one employ­ee stat­ed that he believed pho­ny leas­es were a com­mon prac­tice” at the com­pa­ny and had heard about their use from at least two build­ing super­in­ten­dents. Anoth­er employ­ee detailed how he was instruct­ed by man­age­ment to lie about the cost of rent to deter black appli­cants. A door­man who had worked at 2650 Ocean Park­way in Brook­lyn sub­mit­ted a hand­writ­ten state­ment alleg­ing that his super­vi­sor instruct­ed him to tell African Amer­i­cans the rent was twice as much as it real­ly was.” 

Sub­tler forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion men­tioned in the files includ­ed requir­ing that appli­cants’ income be more than four times the month­ly rent, which made even cheap apart­ments out of reach for many low-income black renters.

Even if black appli­cants could afford the rent, they were rou­tine­ly turned away. A for­mer rental super­vi­sor at Tysens Park apart­ments in Stat­en Island — a com­plex that was over­whelm­ing­ly white — told the FBI that he had been instruct­ed by a supe­ri­or not to rent to African Amer­i­cans or peo­ple on wel­fare. After a finan­cial­ly qual­i­fied black cou­ple sub­mit­ted an appli­ca­tion, the super­vi­sor recount­ed that he was told, they’re black and that’s that.” More­over, the man alleged that Fred Trump told him to get rid” of the black res­i­dents in the com­plex by offer­ing to pay their $500 down pay­ment for cheap hous­ing elsewhere.

Sim­i­lar­ly, a for­mer build­ing super­in­ten­dent at Lawrence Tow­ers Apart­ments in Brook­lyn says he received instruc­tions from the Trump Man­age­ment Office con­cern­ing spe­cial han­dling of appli­ca­tions from Black fam­i­lies.” This two-track sys­tem meant that finan­cial­ly qual­i­fied white appli­cants were auto­mat­i­cal­ly approved, while black appli­cants were sent direct­ly to the Trump office.

While the files do not clar­i­fy what hap­pened to black appli­cants once they arrived at the Trump office, evi­dence sug­gests they were direct­ed to apart­ment com­plex­es with major­i­ty non­white res­i­dents. This prac­tice, known as steer­ing, involves direct­ing white renters and buy­ers to major­i­ty-white neigh­bor­hoods, and black buy­ers and renters to major­i­ty-black neigh­bor­hoods. It was com­mon with­in the real estate indus­try after the pas­sage of the Fair Hous­ing Act in 1968. The Wash­ing­ton Post reports alle­ga­tions that Trump and his asso­ciates fre­quent­ly steered minori­ties to one Brook­lyn com­plex, Patio Gar­dens, that was 40 per­cent black. Oth­er Trump-owned loca­tions, includ­ing Ocean Ter­race and Lin­coln Shore apart­ments, had almost no black residents.

The Fair Hous­ing Legacy

Ulti­mate­ly, the DOJ suit result­ed in a fed­er­al court order — called a con­sent decree” — in which the Trumps and gov­ern­ment offi­cials came to an agree­ment on a pro­posed rem­e­dy. The Trumps were ordered to thor­ough­ly acquaint them­selves” with the Fair Hous­ing Act and place ads inform­ing peo­ple of col­or that their prop­er­ties were open for all.

Don­ald Trump, for his part, con­tin­ues to deny any wrong­do­ing, con­sis­tent with his posi­tion at the time. He filed a $100 mil­lion coun­ter­suit for defama­tion against the gov­ern­ment in 1973 (the coun­ter­suit was dis­missed). The lan­guage of the con­sent decree itself states that the set­tle­ment was in no way an admis­sion” of guilt.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment felt dif­fer­ent­ly. As the Wash­ing­ton Post has report­ed, DOJ lawyers regard­ed the set­tle­ment as a vic­to­ry for the enforce­ment of the Fair Hous­ing Act, one of the most far reach­ing [set­tle­ments] ever negotiated.”

The lega­cy of the Fair Hous­ing Act and the open hous­ing move­ment is itself mixed. While some view pas­sage of the 1968 law as a vic­to­ry against hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, which had been exclud­ed from pre­vi­ous civ­il rights bills, oth­ers see the law as most­ly sym­bol­ic. Accord­ing to soci­ol­o­gists Dou­glas Massey and Nan­cy Den­ton, the act was inten­tion­al­ly designed so that it could not work.” They argue that the bill was stripped of all enforce­ment mea­sures as a way to ensure Repub­li­can votes. Indeed, the leg­is­la­tion does not per­mit the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment to bring law­suits. Instead, the DOJ retains full pow­er of enforce­ment, with mixed results. Sug­rue argues that the tooth­less­ness of the law puts most of the onus of enforce­ment on pri­vate indi­vid­u­als” and under­fund­ed open hous­ing groups.” Even when DOJ suits were won, dam­ages were usu­al­ly low. Set­tle­ments like the one in the Trumps’ case were most common.

And even with full enforce­ment of the hous­ing law, it is not clear that the prob­lem of res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion would be solved. Seg­re­ga­tion per­sists today, and it is not only a result of income dis­par­i­ties. Massey and Den­ton have found that mid­dle- and upper-class blacks are not more like­ly to live near whites than low­er- and work­ing-class blacks. Entrenched seg­re­ga­tion con­tin­ues to dev­as­tate black com­mu­ni­ties, pro­pelled and exac­er­bat­ed by job loss due to the sub­ur­ban flight of busi­ness­es away from cities, mas­sive dis­in­vest­ment in urban low-income com­mu­ni­ties and preda­to­ry bank­ing prac­tices like the ones that fueled the Great Recession.

Don­ald Trump today bills him­self as an ally of black Amer­i­cans, con­jur­ing up dystopi­an images of the dilap­i­dat­ed inner city and threat­en­ing to call in fed­er­al troops to address the car­nage” of vio­lent crime in Chica­go. In light of such bom­bast, it is worth tak­ing a first-hand look at the case that put him in the news four decades ago. It will tell you all you need to know. 

Rachel John­son is a writer based in Chica­go. She holds a mas­ter’s degree in U.S. his­to­ry from North­west­ern University.
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