Some might be tempted to consider segregationist actions and events as part of the distant past, without any effect on society today. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
We know deep down that most predominantly white areas have better infrastructure, education, food, and comforts of life than do most predominantly non-white areas in our country. Why are we so segregated by geography and why, overall, do white people have more? Why is there such a pronounced racial wealth gap?
This article is for us white folks who are ready to do the work to understand the causes of housing segregation, and the ways communities perpetuate it today. Segregation isn’t just something that happened in our past. White people have been in power in a near-total sense for almost our whole history, and have built structures, institutions, and systems that create and maintain segregation and oppression.
White districts, and corresponding non-white, often African American ghettos, have resulted from legislation at local and national levels. Profitable business groups, neighborhood organizations, homeowner associations and zoning processes strengthened these divisions and led to shockingly unequal allocation of resources. City governments structured segregation into the physical landscape to funnel tax money, law enforcement, services, amenities and aid away from non-white areas and bestow them on white ones. These actions have perpetuated the second-class citizenship of African Americans since slavery and have bred unfair mistrust, discrimination and aggression toward other groups considered non-white such as people of Asian, Latinx and indigenous descent. Today, patterns set in motion by this systemic racism strongly persist.
People and organizations perpetuating these forces may not use words we associate with racism as blatantly as they might have in the last century. In fact, some may not even realize that they are participating in racist segregation. But this oppression works through everyday systems, and as such can remain hidden from our consciousness.
The purpose of this article is not to point fingers and call individuals racist. Rather, its aim is to help explain the racist systems that have created, and maintain, housing segregation. As we begin to understand our segregationist past and present, we must work to right these wrongs. The task of dismantling systemic racism is incumbent upon us today, especially those of us with a measure of resources and privilege.
Faces of Segregation
Gerald Cohn, a white San Francisco school teacher, bought a house in Berkeley. When the closing date came, he wasn’t ready to move in yet. So he rented the house to a fellow teacher, Alfred Simmons, who was African American. The Berkeley chief of police, upon learning of this rental, alerted the FBI that an African American was living in an all-white community. Mr. Cohn, who had been paying his mortgage, was now denied participation in the federal government’s mortgage insurance program for the duration of his entire life. His crime? Renting to an African American (Rothstein, pp. 66–67).
Stanford professor Wallace Stegner formed a cooperative that purchased 260 acres near campus. He wanted to commission badly-needed housing for middle- and working-class families. But his project failed because no bank would help finance construction or issue mortgages. The reason for this was that three of the 150 families slated to live in the development were African American (Rothstein, pp. 10–12).
Sing and Grace Sheng wanted to move to South San Francisco so Sing could live closer to his job as an airplane mechanic at the airport. The housing development company that had built the Shengs’ desired home didn’t like this. Company representatives notified neighbors, and tried to sue the owner of the house for the infraction of selling to non-whites. To address the dispute, homeowners convened a community meeting — in which they voted to exclude the Shengs from the housing development .
The above took place in 1946, 1950, and 1952, when government and banking institutions acted through legally sanctioned racism. The shocking injustice of situations like these, and worse, have occurred throughout our nation’s history. For too long, such incidents were the rule, not the exception. Perhaps your white parents or grandparents benefitted from these state-sponsored racist institutions. In millions of instances big and small, white families were pushed up and families of color were pushed down. Institutions, not just individuals, took wealth from the hands of African American families.
Conventional wisdom holds that our nation remains segregated due to individual private prejudice and practices. While this may be true to some extent, the reality is that government, banks, and widespread marketing campaigns worked to forcibly and insidiously segregate housing in America. This occurred in a number of ways, including: redlining, financing discrimination, restrictive racial covenants, blockbusting, segregated public housing, and state-sponsored violence. Today, white enclaves continue to wall themselves off literally and figuratively through exploitation of municipal processes to obstruct housing construction in affluent neighborhoods.
Redlining was a principal way that banks and the federal government worked to keep American cities and towns segregated. Often cited but seldom explained, what we call redlining was a racist system of false underwriting commissioned by the federal government. It formed the Home Ownership Loan Corporation (HOLC) during the Depression to help stabilize the economy, supporting banks in extending the loan repayment time from five or seven years up to 30 years. The HOLC insured these loans, meaning that in case of default the federal government would repay the lenders. HOLC leadership used a racist paradigm of inherent non-white inferiority in commissioning real estate to survey neighborhoods and report on racial and ethnic makeup (Rothstein, 2017, pp. 63–75). Each neighborhood received a numeric designation and corresponding loan risk color code where it was depicted on a map. Both home construction status — e.g. how new the homes were — as well as racial and ethnic population went into the coding. All across the country, the designations went more or less as follows:
Green — Grade A — all- or almost-all-white area, largely new construction
Blue — Grade B — predominantly white area, not all new construction
Yellow — Grade C — significant immigrant population
Red — Grade D — hazardous, e.g. “threat of undesirable racial infiltration” to the surrounding neighborhood
As economist Richard Green put it, “The principal component that determined riskiness or safety, from a lending standpoint, was racial and ethnic composition.” The HOLC then widely disseminated pamphlets warning white prospective home-buyers to beware of “inharmonious racial elements.” The idea that the very presence of people perceived to be part of a non-white race would reduce the quality of a neighborhood was perniciously peddled by those in power for generations — and it continues in our national consciousness today. It is part of a larger, unbroken narrative of white superiority created and marketed in order to justify enslavement and colonization (Kendi, 2016). Using this narrative, entities such as banks, big business, law enforcement, and government at every level worked together to delineate specifically where people of color could live. As Richard Rothstein writes, “The [Federal Housing Authority] favored mortgages in areas where boulevards or highways served to separate African American families from whites,” and the mortgages were approved for the whites, not the African Americans (Rothstein, p. 65).
Overall, the nationwide practice of redlining meant that non-whites could rarely if ever get mortgages. The discrimination also extended to loans for renovation and upkeep. This systematic racism by our most powerful institutions, combined with the exclusion of people of color from labor unions and all but menial jobs (Broussard, 1993, pp. 38–58) led to crumbling neighborhoods. Keeping minorities sequestered in specific places also meant governments could de-prioritize budgeting for law enforcement, infrastructure, green space and other municipal benefits in these geographical areas. This still occurs in some places such as New Jersey, with recent governor Chris Christie making drastic cuts to education disproportionately affecting lower-income people of color .
Though HOLC produced the map above in 1937, current residents of San Francisco will quickly recognize that today’s demographics continue to correspond to that map. Redlined areas are predominantly non-white, while the neighborhood compositions of areas colored blue and green are predominantly white. Rothstein says, “When we desegregated lunch counters, the next day, African Americans could sit down at a lunch counter… But if we desegregate a neighborhood…The next day, African Americans can’t move to affluent [districts] just because we’ve passed a law banning segregation.”
Racism for Profit and Propaganda
Additional segregationist tactics used during the 20th-century United States included blockbusting, explicitly racist housing documentation, and restrictive covenants. Blockbusting was a profit engine for real estate in which an agent would tell white people living in a particular neighborhood that minorities would be moving in down the street and that property values would decrease. (There was no a priori reason why property values would decrease other than the scare tactics deployed by government and business.) The real estate agency would then quickly buy up houses at a low price to sell them at a high price to minority families, who had little choice of where to purchase property. At the same time, all across the country, racial covenants to many house deeds specified that only whites could live there. For example: “The…property…shall never be occupied, used or resided on by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, except in the capacity of a servant or domestic….” Neighbors in predominantly white areas mandated homeowner membership in associations, which also had rules forbidding sale to non-whites (Rothstein, pp. 79–81).
It was a restrictive covenant that formed the basis for neighbors preventing Grace and Sing Sheng, whose story is summarized above, from living in South San Francisco. Restrictive covenants and neighborhood dissent also affected the famous baseball player Willie Mays. In 1957, neighbors initially kept him from buying the house at 175 Miraloma St. in San Francisco. The contention was the view that the mere presence of people of color would depress property values, an idea widely peddled by our federal government in the HOLC pamphlets and by real estate blockbusters. Eventually Mays was able to buy the house, only to leave after a rock crashed through the front window with a hateful note attached. Undoubtedly, many non-whites, knowing they would face such conditions, did not even try to live in white neighborhoods.
The Role of Zoning in Segregation
After explicit racism in housing was deemed illegal, neighborhoods did not suddenly embrace integration. White-controlled institutions and areas turned to low-density zoning regulations with the hope that they would continue segregation. And it worked.
The first ever zoning law was passed in San Francisco in 1870. Called the Cubic Air ordinance, it ostensibly served to ensure people in boarding houses had enough space to live. However, in practice, police arrested only Chinese living in the boarding houses, never whites under the same conditions. After a court struck down the law, arrests of Chinese nevertheless continued, particularly after the state passed a similar law.
Subsequent zoning measures similarly purported at least in part to protect people’s health, but they also had powerfully segregationist elements. Many city planning commissions throughout the US explicitly relegated African Americans to the least desirable parts of town. Norfolk, VA and Kansas City, MO did this in defiance of court decisions, as late as 1987 (Rothstein, p. 48). Cities added single-family-only zoning to places where racist covenants required homeowners to sell only to whites. This way, city governments could control diffusion of non-whites and lower-income whites into multi-family properties by forcing those types of construction near industrial zones, liquor stores, houses of prostitution and the like. If African American families began to move into a predominantly white area, city planners could then zone that area to industrial, and could allow factories and junkyards to locate there (Rothstein, p. 50). These practices began in St. Louis with the infamous planner Harlan Bartholomew, who was “responsible for much of the racial discrimination that was written into zoning laws across the nation.”
San Francisco continued to participate in racial zoning beyond the Cubic Air Ordinance. By the 1920s, the San Francisco Planning Commission had carved up the city into Residential, Light and Heavy Industrial, Commercial, and Unrestricted zones. The Planning Commission during that time period openly admitted that parts of the Fillmore were designated as Residential rather than Commercial or Light Industrial areas to prevent Japanese businesses from growing stronger in that part of the city.
Later in the decade, the Commission established single-family residential areas all throughout the western parts of the city. The explanation was to encourage “desirable” neighborhoods and high property values. These benefits accrued to families — largely white families — that already owned homes in these segregated neighborhoods. The exclusion of multi-family buildings was specifically intended to keep out families of color.
Throughout the middle of the 20th century, San Francisco engaged in a practice of razing poorer neighborhoods, displacing communities of color, and zoning much of the area inside the city limits as single-family or duplex. This kept property values too high for non-whites to return. These patterns persist in San Francisco today.
The White Subsidy
Another way that whites in power have maintained segregation was through encouragement of “white flight.” The prevailing notion regarding this phenomenon is that prejudicial beliefs of white city dwellers caused them to flee neighborhoods when people they deemed belonging to another race, mainly African Americans, moved nearby. While this may be part of the story, whites often had incentives unavailable to people from racial minorities. Low-rate mortgages in neighborhoods rated Grade A or Grade B by the HOLC (see redlining map above) were available to white families in new white suburban neighborhoods. These loans were granted almost exclusively to white people on an unjust basis. Many whites received such loans when moving away from public housing, a program begun in the 1930s for working and middle class families and explicitly segregated by the federal government. While whites took advantage of the low-cost mortgages in brand new neighborhoods available to them, African Americans remained behind in overcrowded conditions, and weren’t even allowed to move into the public housing designated for whites after it became vacant. City governments disinvested from upkeep, law enforcement, and services (Rothstein, pp. 34, 50).
In a shocking nationwide wave of victim-blaming and horrific displacement, cities including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and pursued a wave of “urban renewal” in which entire neighborhoods were demolished. A notorious example of this campaign occurred in San Francisco’s Fillmore district during the 1950’s and 1960s in which thousands of mostly African American residents were displaced (Public Broadcasting System, 2000). Today, Geary Blvd still serves the function that 1956 San Francisco City Hall had originally intended: as a dividing line between the higher-income, overwhelmingly white northern Fillmore and lower-income southern Fillmore. This followed closely on the heels of the previous brutal displacement in the 1940s, when city officials rounded up all the Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the Fillmore and imprisoned them in internment camps (Public Broadcasting System, 2000).
Presumably as a mitigation strategy against demolition and displacement, San Francisco later added laws allowing for neighborhood residents to have more local control: the ability to petition City Hall, have input in local decisions at planning commission hearings, dispute proposed neighborhood changes. What this has created, however, is a system dominated by those with enough money and time on their hands to obstruct more inclusive housing in wealthy neighborhoods . As Hunter Oatman-Stanford writes: “In San Francisco…privileged neighbors have often appropriated low-income residents’ fears of gentrification and eviction to block any new housing, despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that in markets with high demand, adding housing of any kind typically helps decrease displacement .” Ironically, then, the local control ordinances originally created as a partial remedy to inequality are being used instead to cement it in place.
The Profound Harms of State-Sponsored Segregation
The US was not always so segregated. With the rise of industry early in the 20th century, people of various races, ethnicities and origins mixed together in working-class neighborhoods. For example, American writer Langston Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland and attested to its mixed character in his autobiography. Before 1936, Harlem, New York was a racially and ethnically diverse area. Not all neighborhoods were perfectly integrated, and some had predominantly one or another race or ethnicity. But the division and inequality was not as stark as they would later come to be due to the systematic tools of segregation. By 2010, 90% of African Americans would have had to move elsewhere to create communities reflecting the national racial proportions. This is largely because our most powerful institutions, controlled by whites, have rigidified, exacerbated and enforced segregation. They have done this through unequal legislation and application thereof, unfairly differential financing, and intensive nationwide propaganda. In this way, resources have been consistently concentrated to flow to whites and away from non-whites (Rothstein, pp. 20–34).
Although housing segregation began in its most explicit form decades ago, it is imperative that we understand and face the systems perpetuating it today. For generations, whites were allowed and encouraged to buy homes in desirable areas at low cost, with loans insured by the government, at a time when a working-class family could afford to do so. When housing developments in Daly City, California were established in the 1940s, a home costing $10,000 (Rothstein, p. 90) was accessible for a white family on the U.S. median annual salary of $3,100 . Today, an average home in Daly City costs close to $1,000,000 — many times the median US salary today of $62,000. The white working- or middle-class family of yesteryear could build generational wealth and send their children to college much more easily than others could. This amounts to what California Endowment Senior Vice President Dr. Anthony Iton calls “generations of affirmative action for whites.”
This inequality widens as children born in lower-income neighborhoods attend poorer schools funded by lower property taxes, are more likely to have to deal with instability, are farther away from nutritious food, and are less likely to be able to afford college. Economist Raj Chetty showed empirically that lower-income children placed in higher-income areas by age 13 go on to earn 31% more as adults. Across the board, little upward economic mobility is available to Americans — less so than in other countries. Many African American children have the deck stacked against them throughout life when they are born into difficult circumstances largely built by the most powerful structures in our nation.
For some people, it might be tempting to consider actions and events like these as part of the distant past, without any effect on society today. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Cory Booker*, today still a relatively young politician, was almost prevented from living in a New Jersey neighborhood when a white property owner punched Booker’s father in the face for putting a down payment on a house. Only by hiring a civil rights lawyer ahead of time, and organizing a bait-and-switch with a white family pretending to buy the house, did Booker’s family succeed in buying the house.
One reality that must be factored into the United States’ segregationist legacy is the likely millions of families of color that did not even try to live in a neighborhood they might have wanted. They knew they could face persecution and often violence without recourse or refuge. In his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, historian Richard Rothstein catalogues cases from 1952 to as late as 1985 in which African American families were attacked with mob violence while law enforcement supported the assaults, looked on in merriment, threw white families in jail for selling a home to African Americans (Rothstein pp. 139–151).
If these cases seem surprising, they also remained off the radar of five justices of the US Supreme Court in 2007. The court struck down a public school racial integration plan on the ground that segregation did not arise because of government action or inaction (Rothstein, p. 151). Unfortunately and painfully, government policy, action, and enforcement or lack thereof has a lot to do with segregation. This Supreme Court decision did not take into account the systemically racist history of our nation.
Fair Housing In Name Only
In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act. This law made it illegal to discriminate based on race in renting, buying or selling homes. George Romney*, who was governor of Michigan and father of Senator Mitt Romney*, became the federal secretary of Housing and Urban Development shortly after the Fair Housing Act was passed. The law required cities receiving federal funds to affirmatively advance residential integration. The elder Romney urged President Nixon to carry out the Fair Housing Act by withholding federal funds from areas of the country that fought desegregation. Nixon stopped this at every turn.
Anti-density zoning practices continue to this day, functioning to increase racial segregation. In an article published by the National Institutes of Health, Rothwell and Massey report a definitive link between housing density and desegregation in U.S. cities. When housing density increases — multi-family units are allowed — segregation decreases. When cities implement laws to allow only low-density housing, such as single-family construction only, segregation increases . In order to start to undo the pernicious effects of racial segregation and finally comply with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, anti-density zoning must end. We can, and must, encourage more families of color to join our overall better-resourced, predominantly white neighborhoods.
What happens often today, unfortunately, is that residents in wealthy white neighborhoods oppose new and inclusive housing construction to preserve “neighborhood character” or “way of life.” This perpetuates the harmful, unjust, segregationist status quo built throughout our history by government, business, and private citizenry alike. For the good of society, we have to work toward equality and call out actions that would keep us segregated, regardless of conscious individual intention.
Because rich people often don’t let new housing into their communities, builders turn to lower-income communities, sparking debates about gentrification and displacement. What we as a society need to do instead is put lower-income housing in wealthy areas, and encourage integration, in order to help protect communities in other parts of the city from displacement. Indeed, even allowing housing of any kind in wealthier communities could help decrease displacement in lower-income communities (see Oatman-Stanford, 2018; Badger, 2016; Zuk and Chapple, 2016; Reizenwitz, 2017).
These problems are enormous, and most of us here today didn’t start or cause them. However, those of us who live in the more wealthy, predominantly white areas have to get involved. Our neighborhoods prosper at the expense of communities of color. If we face our segregationist past and how it still acts upon all of us today, we could work toward better overall economic production, happier and healthier children, less violence, less fear and mistrust. Doing this doesn’t mean pointing fingers at individuals and guessing at their intentions, but instead coming together to understand our past and make a better future.
Let us stop looking the other way, citing difficulties in solving these problems as reasons to forget about them. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
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