NAR apologized for its racist past in 2020. But what’s happened since?

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The National Association of Realtors (NAR) was established in 1908, followed the next year by the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These two organizations, from inception, have been on opposite sides of the homeownership struggle for more than 100 years.

In 1947, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) entered the scene with a focus on equal opportunity and civil rights advocacy for African American real estate professionals, consumers and communities in America. 


While NAREB focused on improving economic equity through homeownership, the NAACP was working more comprehensively to end the widespread practice of lynching, end racial segregation in schools, housing and banking policies and practices nationwide, secure voting rights and safety, and improve conditions of equitable access to resources and opportunity across related sectors of education and employment. 

The pathway to equity necessarily starts with access to resources and opportunity, but the destination is equitable ownership of the American dream of prosperity. And that dream of generational wealth is encapsulated in land and homeownership.

This is the dream the NAR believed in for white Americans while simultaneously working in concert with the government and financial sectors to deny the same opportunities to Black Americans and other populations of color. This racist mass conspiracy operated in plain sight for generations.      

In recent years, NAR issued a public apology, according to a Nov. 19, 2020, article published by Realtor Magazine:

In 2018, during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the National Association of Realtors laid bare its painful past in perpetuating housing discrimination across America. While the leadership team acknowledged at the time that the organization had been “on the wrong side of history” and vowed to work harder to treat all home buyers and sellers equitably, the sentiments stopped short of a full-on apology.

On Thursday, NAR apologized.

During a virtual summit on diversity and inclusion hosted by The Hill, a top political website, and co-sponsored by NAR, 2021 President Charlie Oppler said unequivocally that NAR’s past policies in support of racist practices, including steering, redlining, and creating covenants that prohibited nonwhite people from living in certain communities, were wrong.

“What Realtors did was an outrage to our morals and our ideals. It was a betrayal of our commitment to fairness and equality,” said Oppler, who participated in the presentation along with NAR’s director of fair housing policy Bryan Greene. “We are sorry.”

“We are sorry” was a good first step. The question is, what happened next?

The answer seems logically apparent: At that point, the NAR, NAREB and NAACP could have established a partnership with a mutual mission of informing, educating and empowering the nation with a common ground of knowledge and understanding of today’s racial dynamics in housing, education and community economic development through an informed and empathetic lens of historical context.

All Americans today inherited a 20th-century society of racialized laws, economic systems, public policies and private sector practices that none of us created. No blame. No shame. But we also inherited responsibility for the society that we will pass to future generations.

Of course, we cannot change what we don’t know. We cannot teach what we don’t know. And as a society, we don’t know the truth about our societal inheritance.

We weren’t taught the whole truth in K-12 or higher education about how America’s housing and community landscape was created and evolved. We didn’t learn the truth through our faith communities, professional development courses, media messaging or political affiliations.

Nowhere in our spheres of influence was the whole story explained in detail. We don’t have a working knowledge of it. And you, the reader, still don’t know this important story that underlies the entire landscape of racial dynamics in society today on every level: education, housing, land use and business ownership. That’s not your fault. But you do own responsibility for the next step: education.

If equity equals ownership to homeowners and investors, then certainly nonwhite racial groups who were discriminated against for generations believed that equity equaled, or should have equaled, owning an equitable share of the American dream of prosperity.

A tale of 2 organizations — and 2 Americas

The NAACP was formed in 1909 by a coalition of Black and white Americans as an organization to help achieve the goal of social and economic advancement and progress of nonwhite populations in a nation that considered itself to be a white America. Homeownership was a key element to unlocking the door to that dream then, as it is now.

The National Association of Realtors was established to ensure that only white Americans were privileged to pursue equitable ownership of the American dream. It has now apologized for its role in preventing nonwhite populations from equitable access to the American Dream.

The NAR was founded as the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges on May 12, 1908, in Chicago. With 120 founding members, 19 boards, and one state association, the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges’ objective was “to unite the real estate men of America for the purpose of effectively exerting a combined influence upon matters affecting real estate interests.”

Later that same year, in Springfield, Illinois, an angry mob of 5,000 destroyed Black homes and businesses. They lynched two prominent Black men. This hostile behavior was a frequent occurrence across the country, often triggered by incendiary lies told by white women accusing a Black man (or even young Black teens) of imaginary sexual assaults. However, this particular riot led immediately to the establishment of the NAACP.

The NAR’s 1924 Code of Ethics codified its racist practices in policy. For example, Article 34 states:

A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.

The racist policies and practices of the NAR which essentially “prevent[ed] anyone who wasn’t a white male” from joining the trade organization led to the creation of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) out of Tampa, Florida, in 1947.

The National Business League (NBL), founded by Booker T. Washington in the early 1900s, worked in alignment with the NAACP. The NBL would become a chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) when it was formed in 1947 as a civil rights organization for real estate professionals and consumers to do the work that NAR would not. The NAACP and NAREB have an aligned and shared history.

Starting in the 1930s, the NAACP incorporated lawsuits into its advocacy strategy. Housing was one of the primary pillars of the NAACP’s legal challenges, which aligned with the advocacy work of NAREB.

In 1963, when NAREB’s advocacy resulted in California passing into law the Rumford Fair Housing Act, the NAR’s California chapter worked to get a ballot measure (Proposition 14) passed that repealed the law the next year.

In 1968, when Congress followed up with the federal Fair Housing Act, the NAR again stood opposed to the law.

The Redress Movement goes in-depth into the complex issues of discrimination in housing in our country and gives a very thorough overview of milestone events.

Today, many Americans are beneficiaries of the 20th-century status quo while others are members of demographic groups whose parents, grandparents and other ancestors were systemically denied and deprived of land and homeownership.

That deprivation of targeted demographic groups in our society was juxtaposed by the federal and state governments giving more than 270 million acres of lands to white Americans over the course of more than a century during and following the Civil War. That’s an economic foundation that can be traced to generational wealth today.

It’s not too late for NAR, NAREB and the NAACP to become partners

So, what can a partnership between the NAR, NAREB and the NAACP do today to address the egregious harms of the past?

The education of America can potentially disrupt the near-ubiquitous false narratives that omit and distort the truth of our societal inheritance. The narratives we were taught are designed to diminish and dismiss harmful policies of the past as having little or no impact on the present day. This belief underscores pervasive myths that prevail across the real estate industry today and its interdependent financial and political infrastructure. Willful ignorance and embrace of a pervasive lie has seemingly absolved everyone of any responsibility.

NAR’s apology in 2020 exposes the lie that has spanned many generations. The NAR acknowledged extraordinary harm done both intentionally and inadvertently to many generations of nonwhite Americans through systemic segregationist laws, policies and practices that continue to have present-day implications.

Today, there continues to be ongoing harm that didn’t magically stop when the sectors of society (real estate, government and banking) that were complicit in the caustic conspiracy apologized.

An apology does not absolve everyone of any actions required for repair. Apologizing is merely the first step in a long process of reconciliation and transformation. But many more steps need to be taken in the journey toward transforming systemic conditions of a 20th-century segregationist society we all inherited into a 21st-century inclusive society we can be proud to pass to future generations. Here are a few ideas for consideration.

The NAR, NAREB and NAACP can take three immediate steps to begin to address and mitigate more than a century of harmful discrimination against populations of color:

  1. Similar to political campaigns and marketing messages, the organizations can co-create messaging campaigns to raise awareness nationwide of the mass conspiracy between governments (federal, state and local), the real estate industry, developers and the finance industry. Messaging campaigns are effective tools for disseminating important information and have mass influence.
  2. The NAR, NAREB and NAACP can host a series of local community conversations that inform, educate and empower communities with knowledge and understanding of racial dynamics in society today through an informed lens of historical context. The problems of the past didn’t magically disappear, as co-authors Richard Rothstein and his daughter, Leah Rothstein, argue in their book Just Action. They offer specific steps local communities can adopt to address the challenges in their regions. These steps require an understanding of the historical landscape of systemic racism in America that permeated every sector of society and was embedded in laws, economic systems, public policies and private sector practices. (Note: This is the work my wife and I do at
  3. The NAR, NAREB and NAACP can convene local stakeholders and stewards of economic systems together with policymakers. This process already occurs in every region of the nation through the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) planning process, funded by the Economic Development Administration (EDA). Community housing activists, educators and local residents can work together to design a local Inclusive Economic Strategy and Action Plan that centers and prioritizes pathways to homeownership for populations of color and other residents among the most vulnerable populations (MVP). This Inclusive Strategic Action Plan can be overlaid or integrated into existing CEDS plans.

This is not about blame or shame

Of course, the reconciliation process isn’t about blame or shame. None of us are to blame for the past. But we all inherited a racially segregated housing landscape rooted in the ideology of racial hierarchy (valuing and devaluing humans by the mythological construct of race) and white supremacy.

The responsibility we also inherited is the decision of whether to sustain the status quo or make substantive and sustainable changes that produce a different set of conditions for future generations to inherit.

Richard Rothstein, who also wrote The Color of Law, gave an excellent interview on why undoing housing discrimination is taking so long in our country.

According to Rothstein, we cannot determine how to redesign, reform and reconstruct the systems we inherited without first fully understanding what we inherited and how the laws, economic systems, public policies and private sector practices have evolved (or not) over time.

We must all have a working knowledge of America’s land, economic and housing history, from the original establishment of government ownership over lands by colonies and states to the history of private sector ownership that has shaped our present-day conditions.

The work of informing, educating and empowering the nation with critical knowledge and understanding of current conditions through a lens of historical context can be conducted through a national strategic alliance between three legacy organizations that have been involved in efforts to obtain the American dream of homeownership and prosperity for their constituencies throughout their shared history. The NAR has now acknowledged its role in denying that dream to many people of color and apologized. That’s a good step. But it is Step 1.

The NAACP brings a comprehensive approach to the advocacy work. Houses sit in communities. Communities have school districts, businesses and parks — the kind of valued assets that help prospective homebuyers make choices. Such community assets can also determine the value of lands and homes.

The NAACP and NAREB have worked on the same side of the advocacy equation for generations, with one having a more comprehensive lens of improving community conditions while the other is more focused on changing conditions across the real estate sector. Now there’s a window of opportunity for the NAR, one of the most powerful organizations in one of the nation’s most powerful economic sectors, to become a powerful ally. 

The next step is education. The NAR, NAREB and NAACP can now begin to work together to inform and educate the nation and envision together a more equitable and inclusive America for a 21st-century multiracial, multicultural society.

Mike Green is a cultural economist and co-founder of Common Ground Conversations on Race in America. Connect with Mike on Linkedin and his website. 

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