On October 21st, 1909, 125 residents of an affluent Minneapolis neighborhood approached William Simpson, who’d just bought a plot in the area, and told him to leave. The Simpsons would be the second Black family in the otherwise white neighborhood, where they intended to build a home.
When the Simpsons refused offers to buy them out, their neighbors tried blocking their home’s construction. They finally moved into their house, but the incident had a ripple effect. Just a few months after the mob harassed the Simpsons, the first racially restrictive covenant was put into place in Minneapolis.
Covenants are agreements in property deeds that are intended to regulate how the property is to be used. Beginning in the mid-1800s, people in the United States and elsewhere began employing them in a new way: specifically, to racially restrict properties.
They wrote clauses into deeds that were meant to prevent all future owners from selling or leasing to certain racial and ethnic groups, especially Black people. Between 1920 and 1950, these racial covenants spread like wildfire throughout the US, making cities more segregated and the suburbs more restricted.
In the county encompassing Minneapolis, racial covenants eventually appeared on the deeds to more than 25,000 homes. Not only was this legal, but the US Federal Housing Administration promoted racial covenants in their underwriting manual.
While constructing new homes, real estate developers began racially restricting them from the outset. Developments were planned as dream communities for American families— but for white people only.
In 1947, one company began building what became widely recognized as the prototype of the postwar American suburb: Levittown, New York. It was a community of more than 17,000 identical homes. They cost around $7,000 each and were intended to be affordable for returning World War II veterans.
But, according to Levittown’s racial covenants, none of the houses could “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race,” with one exception: servants. Between 1950 and 1970,
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the population of the American suburbs nearly doubled as white people flocked to more racially homogenous areas in a phenomenon known as “white flight.” The suburbs spread, replacing native ecosystems with miles of pavement and water-guzzling lawns.
And their diffuse layout necessitated car travel. American automobile production quadrupled between 1946 and 1955, cementing the nation’s dependence on cars. Federal programs like the G.I. Bill offered American veterans favorable lending rates for buying homes.
But it was difficult for people of color to take advantage of such resources. Racial covenants restricted them from certain neighborhoods. And, at the same time, government programs labelled neighborhoods of color bad investments and often refused to insure mortgages in those areas.
Therefore, banks usually wouldn’t lend money to people purchasing property in neighborhoods of color— a practice that became known as redlining. So, instead of owning homes that increased in value over time, creating wealth that could be passed to future generations, many people of color were forced to spend their income on rent.
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And even when they were able to buy property, their home’s value was less likely to increase. The suburbs boasted cul-de-sacs and dead ends that minimized traffic. Meanwhile, city planners often identified redlined neighborhoods as inexpensive areas for industrial development.
So, the massive freeway projects of the mid-20th century disproportionately cut through redlined neighborhoods, accompanied by heavy industry and pollution. As a result, many neighborhoods of color experience higher rates of drinking water contamination, asthma, and other health issues.
People targeted by racial covenants increasingly challenged them in court and, in 1968, they were finally banned under the Fair Housing Act. But the damage had been done. Racial covenants concentrated wealth and amenities in white neighborhoods and depressed the conditions and home values in neighborhoods of color.
As of 2020, about 74% of white families in the US owned their homes, while about 44% of Black families did. That gap is greatest in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Across the country, neighborhoods remain segregated and 90% of all suburban counties are predominantly white.
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Some landlords, real estate agents, and lenders still discriminate against people based on race— rejecting them, steering them to and away from certain neighborhoods, or providing inaccessibly high interest rates.
Gentrification and exclusionary zoning practices also still displace and keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods. Racial covenants are now illegal. But they can still be seen on many housing deeds.
The legacy of racial covenants is etched across the pristine lawns of the American suburbs. It’s a footnote in the demographic divides of every city. And it’s one of the insidious architects of the hidden inequalities that shape our world.