Lesson Plan

The Geography of Racism: Housing Policy


This 12-minute video shows students how racism has affected the built landscape and physical infrastructure of American cities, and how experimental voucher programs have been used to relocate Black families from poor neighborhoods to more prosperous ones. Using data to explore how geography can become destiny for many young people, the video helps students see the intersection of racism and urban planning in American cities. Useful for lessons focused on how values and culture become embedded in the landscape of urban areas, the video shows how geographic data can be used to inform policy decisions.

Content Advisory:

This video shows protesters using racist language.


Students will learn:

  • How racism is ingrained in the infrastructure and built landscape of American cities.
  • How inequalities in urban geography affect the lives of city’s residents.
  • How experimental housing programs have sought to counteract the effects of racism.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Civil Rights
  • Black History
  • Human Geography
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • Race in U.S. History
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took his fight for civil rights to Chicago in hope of ending housing discrimination.

He failed, but his example encouraged Dorothy Gautreaux and other plaintiffs to file suit against the Chicago Housing Authority, charging it with racial discrimination.

The city had some 18,000 public housing apartments, almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs argued that the city had deliberately pursued that policy to prevent Black people from moving into white neighborhoods. They sought a court order that ordered public housing be built in white neighborhoods.

After a protracted court fight, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in favor of the plaintiffs.

To comply with the order, the government tapped a relatively new voucher plan that relocated a few thousand families from Chicago public housing to predominantly white middle-class suburbs with better housing, schools and job opportunities.

By the 1990s, social researchers found that the voucher program had dramatized the impact of geography on opportunity. Families who moved to the suburbs were distinctly better off than their inner-city counterparts.

Parents found better paying jobs, better housing, and a better quality of life. Their children were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and obtain better paying jobs than their inner-city counterparts.

That lesson – that a better environment can provide better opportunities – continues to inform public housing programs today. But the inequality bred of geography that gave rise to Gautreaux more than 50 years ago remains, and often makes zip code a determinant of destiny.

Essential Questions

  • What was the Gautreaux lawsuit filed by Alexander Polikoff in U.S. District Court? What was the suit asking the Court to decide? Which side eventually won?
  • What landmark legislation was signed by President Lyndon Johnson following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death?
  • Why did Valencia Morris want to leave her public housing project and use a Gautreaux Program voucher to relocate to an apartment in an all-white suburban neighborhood? What opportunities did her children have in her new neighborhood that weren’t available in the old neighborhood?
  • What did Lawrence Katz discover in 2014 about the long-term results of voucher programs that allowed families to relocate to more prosperous neighborhoods?

Lesson Procedure

  • How was racism ingrained in the built landscape and infrastructure of Chicago in the 1960s? How did this affect the lives of the city’s Black residents?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of a voucher-based mobility approach that relocates families out of poor neighborhoods? What problems does this approach solve, and what problems does it leave unaddressed?
  • Apart from voucher programs for housing, what other investments or programs could address inequalities in modern urban geography?
  • Racism is a negative cultural value that is ingrained in the geography of most American cities. Are there other negative cultural values that are observable in the built landscape and infrastructure of modern cities? What are the ways in which we have embedded negative values into the landscape of our cities?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "A New Housing Program to Fight Poverty has an Unexpected History"Retro Report
Housing Bias and the Roots of SegregationRetro Report
Audio Interview: "Exploring America's Racist Housing Policies"WNYC

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical process relates to another historical process.

Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC).

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com