Benefiting from racial covenants several generations later

One white Chicago resident describes how racial covenants contributed to his ability to purchase a home in the city:

Photo by Karl Solano on Pexels.com

I think that pride in accomplishment is healthy, but there’s another sense to my pride in homeownership that is, or was, harmful. It’s painful to admit this, but I think I had an unconscious sense that by navigating all the hurdles to home ownership, I proved myself to be “deserving.” That I am, perhaps, more clever, harder-working, more reliable, and somehow more “worthy” of owning my own home than others who haven’t accomplished that.

And to be clear, I knew that my ability to buy a house was, in part, the result of privilege, related to historical and ongoing racism. I have known for years, in an abstract, intellectual way, that my family had pathways to middle-class stability that were not available to others. That inequity was intentional, and racist. My family is white, and I know my grandparents benefited from subsidized mortgages and education benefits that were part of the GI Bill of Rights, which was structured in a way to exclude African Americans and other non-whites. I knew racial discrimination affected who gets jobs, compensation, or who gets mortgage loans.

But recently, when I became aware of an ongoing project by my WBEZ colleague Natalie Moore, my feelings about my house, and particularly that pride in homeownership, became more complicated. Natalie has been researching racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago, and inviting WBEZ listeners to research their own home, to see if it was ever subject to racially restrictive covenants. Racial deeds and covenants have been getting a lot of attention recently, as more Americans are coming to understand this dimension of American racism. These deeds and covenants, which in most cases restricted white sellers to sell only to white buyers, enforced segregation, excluding millions of African Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. That exclusion limited their ability to access home ownership and the attendant opportunity to build wealth…

When I was seeking to purchase my house in McKinley Park, Linda and my father helped me with a gift that allowed me to afford the downpayment. It was a gift they may not have been able to make without the inheritance from Linda’s parents, which in turn began with her grandfather’s development that excluded Black people and Jews. The gift I received wasn’t enormous, but without it, I would have had to save for at least another year and may have missed the opportunity to buy into my neighborhood at a low cost, as prices are rising.

The Matthew Effect in action: homeownership and wealth begets more homeownership and wealth. More broadly, if you have wealth it can be invested to create more wealth while it can be difficult to start on a path to wealth with little or none to start with.

Even as Americans connect homeownership to responsible homeowners and hard work, those are not the only factors involved. Others include access to capital both for a down payment and for a mortgage and access to particular residential units and communities (whether through formal or informal reactions). And because homes can be expensive and institutions and communities can change slowly, it takes time to acknowledge, address, and change past patterns.

Illinois residents can now remove racial covenants from their deeds but this does not mean there is not more to do to address residential segregation and access to housing.

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