An American Dilemma; “Eloquent” Racism Through Redlining
By Terri L. Crawford, JD
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery; Ninety years of Jim Crow; Sixty years of separate but equal; Thirty-five years of racist housing policy; Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
America’s public policy practices were distinctly shaped by a pattern of racial politics to the detriment of marginalized populations. One of the most atrocious of these policies was introduced with The National Fair Housing Act of 1934, the landmark legislation that created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA was enacted to regulate interest and mortgage rates after the banking crisis of the 1930s. The agency’s creation brought redlining to cities across America, including Omaha. It made home ownership accessible to White people by guaranteeing loans, while overtly refusing to back loans to Blacks or those who lived near them. Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment in the Black community, consequently denying equal opportunities for home ownership wherever Black people lived.
Any discussion of redlining must also examine racial exclusion and environmental racism in the form of the building of toxic waste facilities in African American neighborhoods. The United Church of Christ and its “Commission for Racial Justice” have been the leading organizational force in the environmental justice movement since the late 70s. Their recent studies concluded that racial considerations were a strong “statistical predictor” of hazardous waste facility locations, citing the probability of such sites occurring randomly as 1 in 10,000. Scholars and experts conclude that these choices reflected the desire to avoid the deterioration of White neighborhoods when Black neighborhoods were available as alternatives. Hazardous conditions and risk of harm to Black life were not considerations in the policymaking decision. In fact, the study concluded, zoning and planning boards often made explicit exceptions to their residential neighborhood rules to permit dangerous or known polluting industries to locate in Black areas.
Locally, the Douglas Motors Plant opened in 1918 at 4024 North 30th Street, near Druid Hill School. After the plant was shut down during the Great Depression, Exide Corporation manufactured batteries in the building during the 1990s. It became part of Omaha’s massive, federally-designated Superfund cleanup site due to its toxicity. EPA officials confirmed in 2014 that Omaha’s lead site had become the largest residential lead remediation site in the U.S. The hazardous conditions were not generally known to residents or discussed with the community.
Redlining in North Omaha has historical and enduring contemporary effects reaching beyond housing into socioeconomic status, the educational apparatus and quality of life in general. The practice allowed and encouraged racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the 1930s and continues to shape the demographic and wealth patterns of Black communities across American.
A 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a collective of national, regional and local organizations, reveals that three out of four neighborhoods “redlined” on government maps 80 years ago continue to struggle economically today. The vast majority of neighborhoods marked “hazardous” in red ink on federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps from 1935 to 1939 are today much more likely comprised of lower-income, minority residents. In the 1930s, under the auspices of the FHA, HOLC trained government surveyors in grading 239 city neighborhoods by color-coding maps green for “best,” blue for “still desirable,” yellow for “definitely declining” and red for “hazardous.” The “redlined” areas were the ones local lenders considered as credit risks, in large part because of the residents’ racial and ethnic demographics. Neighborhoods predominantly populated by African Americans, as well as Catholics, Jews, Asian and southern European immigrants were deemed undesirable. “Anyone who was not northern-European White was considered to be a detraction from the value of the area,” according the senior researcher at the NCRC and one of the study’s authors.
Before the FHA sponsored Whites-only suburbanization, Jim Crow and racial segregation had already started the process of racial exclusion in neighborhoods across the country, including North Omaha. Property owners, landlords and builders created segregated environments with racial covenants in individual home deeds that legally prohibited future resales to any Black families.
Redlining in North Omaha can trace its beginnings to the Red Summer of 1919 and the first phase of White flight from the area. After the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas County Court House, White mobs moved northward to attack Blacks in the part of the city known as the Near North Side neighborhood. U.S. army soldiers from Fort Omaha (today the site of Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus) held off the angry mob. The soldiers drew a line between the neighborhoods and told the Black residents they would be protected if they stayed within those lines. Those first “lines of protection” became symbolic and substantive demarcations of redlining efforts in Omaha.
City leaders and White citizens as proponents of racial segregation were convinced that racial exclusion would enhance their property values, and that “race covenants” were merely private agreements between individuals that could withstand any constitutional challenges. After the FHA agreed and adopted the same stance, The Supreme Court ruled in Shelly v. Kramer (1948) that, “Although not illegal per se, racial clauses in deeds and mutual agreements, if truly private, could not depend on the power of government to enforce them.” Despite the ruling, the FHA and other governmental agencies ignored the court, using tactics to circumvent the ruling and preserve state-sponsored segregation.
In Omaha and other cities, the FHA forced home builders to comply with racial covenants, further ratifying discriminatory policies. Race-based restrictive covenants could be found in historical deeds in neighborhoods across the city including Sacred Heart, Gifford Park, Kountze Place, Prospect Hill, Saratoga, Minne Lusa, Miller Park, Monmouth Park, Bemis Park and Walnut Hill.
So what is the lesson in all of this?
1. Many of the economic challenges facing our city and nation including the racial wealth gap, the homeownership divide, and inequities in credit access originate in discriminatory housing and economic policies implemented from the colonial period to present day.
2. There is an ideology that many Americans have internalized: that their accomplishments were largely the result of a “good work ethic and a determined grit.” Others who did not achieve similar success just did not work hard enough, got themselves into trouble, or were not smart about the choices they made in life. That is called the American meritocracy myth and ignores systemic racism woven into the fabric of America.
3. The reality is that White Americans have always benefited from supportive systems that propped them up, making the American Dream more attainable. Meanwhile people of color, in particular Black people, have been deliberately excluded from these same opportunities.
The final lesson is that we must begin the work of dismantling the residual effects of redlining. This begins with the acknowledgement of how redlining greatly contributed to disparities in providing or denying access to the single most important determinant of wealth for the majority of people in the U.S.—home and land ownership. This requires us to have a serious discussion and examination of the intersection between racial inequity and affordable housing on a local, state and national level.
Shall we begin?
- Dr. Terri Crawford
Terri L. Crawford, J.D; University of Nebraska Omaha, Department of Black Studies – Adjunct Professor; Political Awareness and Involvement Chair, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (OAC); Policy Director League of Women Voters Greater Omaha.