Redlining and The Color of Law

author Richard Rothstein

Redlining.HOLC_map_AlbanyA few months ago, CBS News did a piece on redlining. That is the discriminatory practice in which “a mortgage lender denies loans or an insurance provider restricts services to certain areas of a community, often because of the racial characteristics of the applicant’s neighborhood.”

More amazing, though, was the report in February 2021 when CBS’s Tony Dokoupil reflects on how “his family benefitted from government housing policies that were denied to Black Americans.” And he spoke to some of the neighbors with whom he grew up. One said, essentially, that what’s past is past and we’ll do better in the future.

The problem is that the wealth gap shows “evidence of staggering racial disparities. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.”

It’s rather like running a 10K race, with the competition already at the 9K mark. It’s impossible to catch up.

The issue is not just with redlining. I’m in the midst of reading an important book entitled The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. It shows in excruciating detail that the segregation in American cities is de jure rather than de facto. It is the deliberate product of “systemic and forceful” government action, and so the government has a “constitutional as well as a moral obligation” to remedy it.

More than the month

This is why I support, more than ever, Black History Month. Not that it should be limited to February. Indeed, black history should be “taught in all schools—especially those with a small Black student population.” I’ve heard a number of times people trying to create racial awareness, only to receive pushback in their work or organizational environment. “We don’t have that many minorities here.”

My perception is that a lot of people think they know about slavery. They may be oblivious to rebellions or underestimate the brutality, but it’s on the radar. The period after the Civil War from Reconstruction to the imposition of the Black Codes, Jim Crow, and lynching, is less familiar. Stories about Wilmington, NC, and Tulsa, OK, for instance, are just now being heard in the broader population.

And of course, at least some kids have heard about MLK, Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson.

But the systemic governmental and institutional (banks, unions, real estate agents) forces that limited the creation of wealth in the black community in the 20th century have been largely a hidden phenomenon.

The maps don’t lie

Check out, for instance, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America. It shows maps from all over the country reflecting the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation policies between 1935 and 1940. The areas in red were considered economically “hazardous.” The map shown is of Albany, NY, with Arbor Hill, West Hill, and the South End in red. (Note the city actually points more to the northwest.) But it’s hardly unique. Search YOUR city.

“HOLC assumed and insisted that the residency of African Americans and immigrants, as well as working-class whites, compromised the values of homes and the security of mortgages. In this they followed the guidelines set forth by Frederick Babcock, the central figure in early twentieth-century real estate appraisal standards, in his Underwriting Manual: ‘The infiltration of inharmonious racial groups … tend to lower the levels of land values and to lessen the desirability of residential areas.'”

I may write about the book The Color of Law. Or I may let my friend Alison do so since I know she took nine pages of notes when she read it.

This month, the House of Representatives held hearings on H.R. 40 – a bill that would set up a commission to examine the institution of slavery and its impact and make recommendations for reparations to Congress. Note the effects of slavery did not end in 1865. Jim Crow segregation and enduring structural racism are endemic to our society.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “Redlining and The Color of Law”

  1. I despair (often) at the reactions of white folks: “It was so very long ago,” at best, or maybe, “yes, but—” followed by nearly anything to make excuses. Getting white folk to even acknowledge that anything untoward has happened disintegrates into their moans about “socialism” and whatever they claim AOC is conjuring. It’s dispiriting. But, duty calls…

  2. I have not looked at your blog in ages, Roger. My apologies. My timing was good, as I have recently obtained a copy of “The Color of Law”, and recently finished reading “The Warmth of Other Suns”. I agree that more needs to be taught, and not just one month and the highlights. We need to see and understand the cruelty of the past, and make sure we change the present and future.

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