Friday, November 02, 2012

"Like termites, they undermine the structure of any neighborhood in which they creep."

"If you turn on your television these days, you hear a lot of old white people talking about this 'real America,' some apple-pie, Bedford Falls [Jimmy Stewart's town in It's a Wonderful Life], Walt Disneyfied idea of a simpler country, a 'time of innocence' that we've lost.  They're right.  It's gone.  We destroyed it so we wouldn't have to share it with black people.  We gave up real neighborhoods in real cities so we could pay more to have 'protection' inside the regional profit silos of HomeServices of America.  We gutted Blue Hills, and now you have to go to Orlando to buy it back.  Only that's the big lie at the heart of the J.C. Nichols dream.  Desirable associations aren't something you can buy.  They're something you have to make." [p. 140]

Blue Hills had been one of those ideal middle class American neighborhoods, in Kansas City.  According to author Tanner Colby, Walt Disney grew up there.  It was, like other nearby communities the kind of place
"where families used to pass their evenings on the front porch and the neighbors would stop by to say hello." [p 75]
 But it was destroyed, according to Tanner, by housing developers, like J.C. Nichols.

"But Nichols's most important contribution to the way we live wasn't something he invented himself.  He just perfected it.  And the thing he perfected was the all-white neighborhood, hardwired with restrictive covenants that dictated not only the size and shape of the house but the color of the people who could live inside.  This idea, the racialization of space, would take root deep in the nation's consciousness, for both whites and blacks alike, becoming so entrenched that all the moral might of the civil right crusade was powerless to dislodge it.  In the South, Jim Crow was just the law.  In Kansas City, J.C. Nichols turned it into a product.  Then he packaged it, commodified it, and sold it.  Whiteness was no longer just an inflated social status.  Now it was worth cash money." [p.82]
Tanner, in his book, Some Of My Best Friends Are Black, traces how private housing forces, concerned about expanding black neighborhoods used practices, like blockbusting, to scare whites into selling their houses cheaply to developers, who then resold them to blacks.  They also sold houses to the fleeing whites in suburban housing developments that had covenants that included phrases like:
"None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negores as owners or tenants."[p. 91]
One J.C. Nichols innovation was to move this restriction from individual houses to whole developments.
". . .in 1909, J.C. Nichols broke ground on Sunset Hills and Country Side, the first of his developments laid out on land unencumbered by earlier deed restrictions.  Here, he attached the racial covenant, not to the deed for the lot, but to the plot for the entire subdivision.  Thus it became harder for one person to break."[p. 92]
Colby says Nichols was the celebrated leader in the development field, appointed to the National Capital Park and Planning Commission by President Calvin Coolidge and reappointed by Presidents Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman.  Hoover, Colby reports, was a dinner guest at Nichols' home. 

Colby then discusses Nichols' friends, a group of prominent developers from around the country who were the 'brain trust' of National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB). 
"Not by coincidence in 1924 NAREB made racial discrimination official policy, updating its code of ethics to say, 'A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood members of any race or nationality . . . whose presence will clearly be detrimental to the property values of that neighborhood.  Like termites, they undermine the structure of any neighborhood in which they creep."

But government got drawn into the discrimination as well.  Colby tells us that Hoover created the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1932 to stimulate home building using government backed loans.  Roosevelt extended this program and then added the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA).
"J.C. Nichols was so intimately involved with the formation of the FHA that he was called to consult privately with FDR in the Oval Office.  When America's housing policy was drafted, whole chunks were lifted straight out of the Nichols Company handbook, practically word for word."
 He goes on to explain how using the Nichols Company handbook led to official government redlining:
"Through the HOLC (Home Owners' Loan Corporation) the federal government developed a four-tiered classification system for neighborhoods:
  • high-end, all-white neighborhoods were given the highest rating;
  • white working- and middle-class neighborhoods were given a secondary rating;
  • Jewish and ethnically mixed areas were rated third; and the lowest possible rating was given to 
  • black neighborhoods
 -regardless of the quality of the housing stock or the income of the inhabitants.  Then HOLC went through every block on every map of every city in America, giving each neighborhood a color-coded designation.  Black neighborhoods were coded red." [p.96]
This was supposedly a way to set up a metric for assigning the proper rate of interest.
". . . but black neighborhoods were not simply assigned higher interest rates. They were not assigned anything.  In a process that became known as redlining, the FHA cordoned off black neighborhoods and designated them wholly ineligible for federal subsidies and mortgages.  This was a policy based on nothing more than the say-so of the men who stood to profit from it." [p.97]
I'd read about the federal creation of redlining in Buzz Bissinger's  Pulitzer Prize winning A Prayer for the City.    So this wasn't new.  But Colby puts it into the context of Kansas City.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect was the perpetual discrimination clauses that are legally impossible to great rid of and continue to exist today. 

The early covenants expired in ten to twenty years, Colby writes.  In 1911, Nichols made them 25 years.   Then in 1913 he made them perpetual:
"He wrote all his property restrictions to be self-renewingevery twenty-five years unless a group of owners controlling the most street-facing footage opted to change those restrictions five years prior to the auto-renewal date.  It was the first use of self-perpetuating racial covenants anywhere in the country . . ."
Essentially, blacks couldn't get into these white suburbs (and the covenants were copied by most developers) and they couldn't get money to buy in black neighborhoods, which became more and more depressed.

If you live in a subdivision, you may actually find the clause.  While they may no longer be enforceable, getting them out of covenants may be difficult because of  Colby's work.  Here's a history of housing discrimination in Seattle.

I was a little skeptical of Colby's book when I picked it up at the library new book shelf.   But despite the lack of an index and a bibliography of the many works he says he consulted, Colby does a very good job of what he sets out to do:  find out why he doesn't have any black friends.  As a student of Birmingham, Alabama's premiere white school, Vestavia High when it had court ordered integration, Colby goes back to his old high school to peel back the layers to find out what had really been going on around him then, and reveal the underbelly of the 1960's civil rights movements, integration, and school busing.

He also has a section on Kansas City - where the quotes above are taken - and two more which I haven't read yet.  One on Madison Avenue and the other on churches.  These investigations were, he tells us in the preface, to understand why he didn't have any black friends.  His answer is that the US was structured in many ways to keep blacks and whites separate, even after Jim Crow laws ended.

Colby does something that is hard to do - he explains in very understandable terms, the power structures, private and public, that continue to enforce racial discrimination.  He finds some successes, but also serious problems, including the unanticipated consequences of forced school integration and housing policies intended to undo redlining.

When talking about race, there is always the problem of what 'racism' means.  Most people use it interchangeably with prejudice, but those who study the issue more closely, distinguish it as institutionally supported discrimination, rather than individual prejudice.

It's the institutionally supported discrimination - like redlining - that Colby does an excellent job of explaining.

But not only does a book like this explain what happened in the past (and have continuing effects), but it also should make people wonder what those people with access to power today are doing to make their lives more comfortable and profitable and at whose expense.  


  1. This is an excellent review of a book I hadn't heard of. I'll ensure that libraries where I live have copies. Thank you.

    You might be interested in The Detroit Wall.

    The movie “Race – The Power of an Illusion” helps to explain an answer. It all begins during the 1930’s when Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) decides to come up with an appraisal system. The evaluations help determine how much a home was worth (influencing credit) by color coding neighborhoods. The rating system was very much biased on the basis of race. Essentially, all of white suburbia was listed green for approval, while all areas with heavy minority populations received the lowest color of red. Detroit’s dirty secret is the result of this red lining; the wall was built to divide two areas, one half that would qualify as green and the other half as red. This partition eventually led to the familiar suburban / city division as seen today.
    Detroit's Worst Kept Secret and Biggest Blunder: The Eight Mile Wall

    Another important book on the subject:
    "The Origins of the Urban Crisis:
    Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue 2005"

    Discussed in depth here:
    The kiss, the wall & other true tales
    Combing Detroit archives for the seeds of racism, urban crises, social movements and economic travail.

  2. Anon, thanks for the links. This stuff permeates the country and the clauses, while legally unenforceable, still exist in many covenants because they are so hard to remove because the process is impossible.

    1. "Impossible" is a relative term. Look at how real estate title recording law was deformed to allow the operation of MERS.

    2. Anon, you're right of course. And I didn't know about MERS - the Mortgage Electronic Recording System. Thanks for the tip.


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