The difficulty in removing racial covenants from deeds

Many properties in the United States had racial covenants written into their deeds where it was stated that the property could not be sold to people of particular racial and ethnic groups. Removing those statements on deeds today can be a difficult task:

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Cisneros, who is white, said she wanted the covenant removed immediately and went to the county recorder’s office. What she thought would be a simple process actually was cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. She took time off work and had to get access to a private subscription service typically available only to title companies and real estate lawyers. There were forms to fill out that required her to know how property records work. She also had to pay for every document she filed…

In the end, Cisneros learned that the offensive language couldn’t be removed. That is often the case in other cities if officials there believe that it’s wrong to erase a covenant from the public record. Instead, the county agreed to attach a piece of paper to Cisneros’ covenant disavowing the language…

Sullivan knew the only way to rid the language from the record was to lobby elected officials. She teamed up with a neighbor, and together they convinced Illinois Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech to sponsor a bill. The lawmaker found an ally in Democratic state Sen. Adriane Johnson. The bill allows property owners and homeowners associations to remove the offensive and unlawful language from covenants for no more than $10 through their recorder of deeds office and in 30 days or less, Johnson said. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in July. It takes effect in January 2022…

Illinois becomes the latest state to enact a law to remove or amend racially restrictive covenants from property records. Maryland passed a law in 2020 that allows property owners to go to court and have the covenants removed for free. And in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a bill that streamlines the process to remove the language. Several other states, including Connecticut and Virginia, have similar laws.

I could see how many Americans today would want to strike the racial covenant from their current property but their ability to do so depends on local laws. Righting past wrongs is no quick task, even when later actions have nullified the effects of the earlier language in these deeds.

And there could be a lot of racial covenants out there:

It’s impossible to know exactly how many racially restrictive covenants remain on the books throughout the U.S., though Winling and others who study the issue estimate there are millions. The more than 3,000 counties throughout the U.S. maintain land records, and each has a different way of recording and searching for them. Some counties, such as San Diego County and Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, have digitized their records, making it easier to find the outlawed covenants. But in most counties, property records are still paper documents that sit in file cabinets and on shelves. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, finding one deed with a covenant means poring through ledgers in the windowless basement room of the county recorder’s office in downtown Chicago. It’s a painstaking process that can take hours to yield one result.

The deeds and the potential racial covenants contained therein highlight how land and property is acquired, obtained, and passed along in the United States. There is much to consider there: how was the land acquired and from whom? Who does it benefit now and in the future?

Doctors connecting health and land use policies

A recent document from the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges asks doctors to address health inequities by prioritizing structural conditions. Here is one example involving land use which first asks the conventional question and then highlights a health equity perspective:

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How can we promote healthy behavior?

How can we democratize land use policies through greater public participation to ensure healthy living conditions?

The second perspective highlights a structural perspective in two ways.

  1. Healthy behavior leans more toward an individualistic perspective. A person who has health concerns should adapt their behavior in order to be more healthy. In contrast, healthy living conditions suggests there is a broader context for the individual’s health. Healthy living conditions can help lead to healthier individuals.
  2. With healthy living conditions in mind, the new question highlights two ways that healthy living conditions come about: land use policies and greater public participation. This likely refers to research and experiences certain communities have with decisions made about where to locate land uses – ranging from coal power plants to landfills to manufacturing facilities with toxic output and more – that then affect health. Such decisions involve power, race/ethnicity, and social class as well as decision-making processes.

More broadly, land use in the United States is often determined by zoning and profit-seeking. Zoning often has the goal of protecting single-family homes. Land and location can be turned into money. Health is not a primary concern in all of these decisions even as it can lead to better health outcomes for some compared to others.

h/t Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Sociologist Oliver Cox and the intertwined analysis of race and class

I read Jamlle Bouie in the New York Times last week describing the work of sociologist Oliver Cox. Here is part of the summary of Cox’s analysis:

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Cox was writing at a time when mainstream analysis of race in the United States made liberal use of an analogy to the Indian caste system in order to illustrate the vast gulf of experience that lay between Black and white Americans. His book was a rebuttal to this idea as well as an original argument in its own right.

Over the course of 600 pages, Cox provides a systematic study of caste, class and race relations, underscoring the paramount differences between caste and race, and, most important, tying race to the class system. “Racial antagonism,” he writes in the prologue, “is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.”

Put differently, to the extent that Cox had a single problem with the caste analysis of American racism, it was that it abstracted racial conflict away from its origins in the development of American capitalism. The effect was to treat racism as a timeless force, outside the logic of history…

“Race prejudice,” Cox writes, “developed gradually in Western society as capitalism and nationalism developed. It is a divisive attitude seeking to alienate dominant group sympathy from an ‘inferior’ race, a whole people, for the purpose of facilitating its exploitation.” What’s more, “The greater the immediacy of the exploitative need, the more insistent were the arguments supporting the rationalizations.”

Analyzing single social forces, such as ones as powerful as race in the United States, without considering how they intersect with or are intertwined with other social forces leads to incomplete analysis. It can be tempting, particularly when considering particular policy options, to reduce social phenomena to a singular factor and try to address that. But, as Cox suggests, only thinking about race without considering how it is embedded in a powerful economic system is not reflective of how the society works.

Today, it can be relatively easy to do the same: address race all by itself and attack racial prejudice and discrimination. But, race in the United States has been and continues to be tied to many other areas that also need addressing. The one that I have studied the most is residential segregation. This is both a consequence of the outworking of race and spatial patterns as well as an ongoing contributor to their continued intersection. And because where people live has consequences for numerous areas of their life, organizing residences and communities by race affects a lot. Residential segregation also is tied closely to social class both in how class is linked to race and ethnicity in the United States but also in the system of land development that privileges profits and leads to uneven development.

Uneven development by neighborhood continues in Chicago

Examining both population change and development activity across Chicago neighborhoods between 2010 and 2020 reveals stark differences:

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Overall, the city’s population increased by about 50,000 during that decade. But aside from those top 10 communities — which are found mostly on the North Side or near downtown — the rest of the city actually declined in population by more than 40,000 people.

WBEZ conducted an analysis of growth in Chicago community areas within the past decade, examining growth in population, new construction permits, jobs, and licenses issued to new businesses. The analysis showed that majority-white communities, collectively, experienced high growth in all areas: population, jobs, new construction and new businesses. The same was true for areas experiencing significant growth in white population, like the Near West Side and the Near South Side…

When compared with majority-Black and majority-Latino communities, and communities with no majority racial or ethnic group, majority-white communities also had higher rates of job growth, new construction and new businesses…

“Race is a big factor in the growth and development and revitalization in Chicago communities,” said Saunders, who studies Rust Belt cities and urban dynamics. “It’s a big factor that many people do not want to acknowledge.”

Such disparities across Chicago neighborhoods and the role of race are not new. The 77 community areas and how many neighborhoods have had different reputations and resources available. For decades, Chicagoans have celebrated how these different communities can have a common identity while knowing that this did not mean they were treated the same.

What may be newer is that this issue has received more attention in recent years. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was criticized for efforts directed at downtown and wealthier areas. He was Chicago’s leader for a good portion of the decade. Chicago remained an important global city, but those benefits did not reach all residents or neighborhoods. Many called for this to change.

And this is not an issue limited to Chicago or just big cities. Uneven or unequal development is a prominent feature of communities in our current system. Within metropolitan regions, some suburbs are wealthy and continue to accrue residents and businesses (see the example of Arlington Heights in the Chicago news) while others struggle. These patterns often follow race-based settlement patterns and residential segregation.

This could be a critically important issue for the twenty-first century: how to encourage development and growth within places that historically have not attracted residents or capital. Without significant interventions, these patterns do not easily change.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

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In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

Why large communities just for 55+ residents may not be a good thing

One researcher suggests the development of 55+ only communities limits opportunities for the residents and the communities:

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Del Webb of Sun City fame recognized that, rather than rocking away their “golden years” in the northern cold, older adults could be convinced to pull up roots, leave empty nests and move to communities of similar people and lives of leisure. A radio jingle promoting this new model of living sang out: “Don’t let retirement get you down! Be happy in Sun City, it’s a paradise town.”

But is a town without the sounds of children and a diversity of races and styles really a paradise?

A growing number of older adults say no, recognizing that living with neighbors of all ages and from all walks of life just makes sense. They realize that intergenerational connections are not just valuable for them but for their communities and country.

They recognize that ageism will not be defeated by a retreat to age-segregated corners, but only by engagement, collaboration and dialogue across age, race and class divides. They believe that there is more to graying than playing.

I wonder how housing and community organized by age fits with ongoing and persistent processes of residential sorting by race/ethnicity and social class in the United States. Looking at the Census QuickFacts for The Villages, Florida shows the community is almost 97% white and the poverty rate is 4.6%. Since wealth in the United States is related to race and ethnicity, how racially segregated are 55+ communities?

This commentary also hints at a broader issue in the United States: why is aging treated as it is? Why aren’t older adults seen as resources rather than liabilities? Why aren’t intergenerational relationships and communities celebrated more? These communities might be considered the physical embodiment of particular cultural values in the United States.

“Creativity of the young” and the digital divide in working student play with technology into learning

I recently saw a Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the savvy use of technology by a seven year old:

Kids can access their parents multiple ways today and vice versa. This letter suggests the observer was “captivated” by this technology use, hinting at the resourcefulness of the boy.

This response is interesting to compare to the findings of a sociology book I recently browsed. In Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew Rafalow found that schools differed less on their access to or use of technology in learning but in how they treated the student’s creative use of that technology. From the conclusion:

The students that I profiled in the previous chapter suggest that kids’ potential as budding technologists gets bifurcated as they pass through middle school. Despite the fact that digital play with peers led to the development of digital skills with online communication, media editing and production, and even the basics of programming logic, these eighth-graders reported different conceptions of whether online play was acceptable or even welcome in schools. While students at a school for mostly White and wealthy youth came to see digital play, including social media and video games, as fun and even necessary for achievement, students at schools serving less privileged and mostly students of color were taught that play at school was either irrelevant or threatening to schooling. Schools differently disciplined digital play, and in doing so, they different shaped how young people came to evaluate their own digital self-worth in these settings. (135)

Restating the argument a few pages later:

My takeaway from this project is that cultural resources are not like a currency you can hand to anyone in exchange for rewards. The students in this study varied by race-ethnticity and social class, and each developed a set of digital skills in online communication, collaboration, and digital production from play with friends online. Despite each student’s access to this knowledge, only students at the school serving wealthy and predominantly White children were given the right to treat their digital knowledge as currency to be exchanged for achievement. The school organizational context determines not only what ideal cultural resources are but also who the buyer can be to facilitate the exchange. Working- and middle-class Latinx and Asian American youth at Chávez and Sheldon had the same resources but were not permitted to exchange them for a reward. (154)

As Rafalow notes, this is what class reproduction – intersecting with race and ethnicity – looks like in today’s world. Just as Bourdieu suggested with art and music, digital technology is widely available but who it is for and how it is supposed to be used differs by group. Is digital creativity lauded and celebrated for a kid who people think might be headed for success and a creative class career or is it discouraged or punished because it is distracting from acquiring necessary skills?

Black homeownership rate barely improved since 1970

One marker of success in the United States is homeownership, particularly in the suburbs. Yet, the Black homeownership rate has not increased much over the last five decades:

After this chart at the top, the rest of the article is an in-depth look at race, lending, and housing in the Los Angeles area. While some of the story involves factors pre-1960s, there is also much after the Civil Rights Movement that has limited homeownership. All groups on the chart had higher homeownership rates into the early 2000s but conditions changed for Blacks such that they experienced a decline.

All of this makes the recent efforts in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, all the more interesting. The discussions of reparations there have settled on providing funds for housing. From the City of Evanston FAQs:

In July 2019, the Equity and Empowerment Commission held community meetings to solicit feedback from community members on what reparations would look like for the City of Evanston. Affordable housing and economic development were the top priorities identified during those meetings. A report was submitted to the City Council for consideration and was the basis for  Resolution 126-R-19, “Establishing the City of Evanston Reparations Fund and the Reparations Subcommittee.”

Reparations, and any process for restorative relief, must connect between the harm imposed and the City. The strongest case for reparations by the City of Evanston is in the area of housing, where there is sufficient evidence showing the City’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early City zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.

View the Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community, 1900 – 1960 (and Present) draft report written by Dino Robinson of Shorefront Legacy and Dr. Jenny Thompson of Evanston History Center.

With housing underlying much wealth in the United States, it is important to address this issue in the long run.

Brooklyn Center, MN and the Fergusonization of suburbs

Suburbs like Brooklyn Center, Minnesota and Ferguson, Missouri are places that have undergone significant changes in recent decades:

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U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that Brooklyn Center is the most rapidly segregating community in Minnesota. In 1990, the city was 90 percent white; its poverty rate was low, at 5 percent. Three decades later, the city is 38 percent white and its poverty rate has tripled, to 15 percent. It is now the poorest major suburb in the Twin Cities region, and it has a higher percentage of residents of color than any other major municipality in the area. Ferguson underwent nearly identical changes in the years before a police officer shot Michael Brown to death in 2014; the city transitioned from 85 percent white in 1980 to 29 percent white in 2010. Over the same period, its poverty rate almost quadrupled…

Suburbs usually remain vibrant and thriving as they become more racially integrated. But eventually a tipping point is reached, and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation begin to be felt. When this happens, middle-class residents—mostly white, but not entirely—begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population; Ferguson has lost 49 percent. Economic opportunity has vanished too. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has fallen by about $9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost a sixth of its middle- and upper-income residents. In Ferguson, median incomes have dropped by nearly $15,000 during the same period…

The suburbs that these dynamics leave behind replicate many of the same conditions that existed in segregated center-city neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in those enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact—police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers—appear colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s killing, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of its city council were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with a large number of nonresidents, who also may be disproportionately white. Even private economic arrangements in segregated places can be extractive in nature. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Brooklyn Center was the largest suburban hub of subprime lending in the Twin Cities area. Tragically, the residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many had attempted to escape by leaving major cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty, and police violence…

The Fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem, uniting many far-flung communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have anything in common. Census data show that in 2010, more than 20 percent of the suburban population in major American metros lived in a predominantly nonwhite suburb reminiscent of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that share has grown every year since. Because the forces causing resegregation are larger than any one municipality, individual suburbs are unable to solve this problem by acting alone. But solutions do exist.

The demographics of many suburban communities have changed in recent decades with more racial and ethnic minorities moving to and living in suburbs, including Ferguson, and more people in poverty in the suburbs. Yet, as the piece above notes, this does not necessarily mean new suburban residents are evenly spread throughout suburban regions. When new residents show up, white residents and wealthier residents tend to leave for other locations.

Sociologist Samuel Kye has research that looks at ongoing white flight in the suburbs. Here is the abstract for a published article from 2018 titled “The Persistence of White Flight in Middle-Class Suburbia”:

Scholars have continued to debate the extent to which white flight remains racially motivated or, in contrast, the result of socioeconomic concerns that proxy locations of minority residence. Using 1990–2010 census data, this study contributes to this debate by re-examining white flight in a sample of both poor and middle-class suburban neighborhoods. Findings fail to provide evidence in support of the racial proxy hypothesis. To the contrary, for neighborhoods with a larger non-white presence, white flight is instead more likely in middle-class as opposed to poorer neighborhoods. These results not only confirm the continued salience of race for white flight, but also suggest that racial white flight may be motivated to an even greater extent in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods. Theoretically, these findings point to the decoupling of economic and racial residential integration, as white flight may persist for groups even despite higher levels of socioeconomic attainment.

In the past, a move to the suburbs would have been positive for numerous groups. It represented success and finding the American Dream. This is not necessarily the case today; residential segregation patterns plus inequality in the suburbs means just living in the suburbs is not necessarily a step up.

White flight spontaneous or planned?

Sociologist Orly Clergé’s 2019 book The New Noir: Race, Identity & Diaspora in Black Suburbia includes the history of Blacks moving to New York and its suburbs. In her study, Clergé talks to both Black residents and white residents of suburban communities. Here is how Clergé responds to the claim by some white residents that their families left neighborhoods spontaneously as Black residents moved in:

Although White flight is discussed as a spontaneous response to Black in-migration, White fight and flight were well thought-out, collective, strategic, and immoral acts against Black people condoned by the state. (101)

White flight is the American phenomena where white residents left urban neighborhoods for the suburbs when Blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities moved in. This is most common in the decades after World War Two when government policy and community changes combined to lead to often rapid turnover in cities. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the population moved from +90% white to a significant Black majority in just a decade or two.

A number of studies explain how white flight happened in particular cities such as in Detroit as detailed by Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis or Atlanta as discussed by Kruse in White Flight. White flight affected all areas of life, ranging from the suburbanization of jobs as Wilson highlights in When Work Disappears and the move of white churches to the suburbs (an area I have done a little work in with a study of Protestant denominations in the Chicago region).

What the quote above highlights is just how prepared white residents were regarding potential changes in their neighborhood. Over the course of at least a few decades, whites deployed a range of techniques that culminated in white flight: restrictive deeds and covenants, blockbusting, redlining, and threats and violence. As each of these techniques was rendered illegal or went against public opinion, white residents moved onto the next option. And white flight was eventually the choice as white residents left en masse. It did not just happen; it was part of well-established patterns of exclusion that would then continue in suburban communities.