They say the secret to any good relationship is not to bring up the past. It’s funny then isn’t it that when confronted with almost any issue facing us today those on the right, starting with the Commander in Chief, love to blame their predecessors. Their favorite scapegoat more often than not is President Obama. In fact just this past Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, PA’s former senator Rick Santorum blamed Obama for the state of race relations in the country. Santorum tried to argue that Obama “exacerbated” racism and the result is Trump. I don’t want to analyze Santorum’s remarks, because frankly he’s not worth the time, but it reminds me of something William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." If Santorum were a proper student of history, which as evidenced by his above remarks he is not, he’d know Faulkner was right. Sadly in many parts of our country, actions in the past still affect those of us living today. Coincidentally, in 2008, then Senator Obama paraphrased Faulkner in a speech on racial inequality. Obama argued that many of the current difficulties African-American communities face can be traced in a direct line back in time through Jim Crow to slavery. I’d like to add another point on that timeline, which began during the 1930’s and FDR’s New Deal.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Bank Lobbyist Bill, which unfortunately ended up passing in the House. One of the more salient criticisms of the legislation regarded removing the protections against racial bias in lending practices established under Dodd-Frank that the current bill would erase. In the case of the Bank Lobbyist bill, the discrimination had to do with exempting institutions from reporting data on lending procedures. But there is another practice that discriminates against people based on race that requires equal attention. It’s called “redlining”.
I’m going to go into the historical weeds here, but bear with me. It’s key to understanding where we are now. Redlining is basically institutionalized racism. The term was coined in the 1960’s by sociologist John McKnight to describe the practice of designating specific areas where banks should avoid investing. The redlined areas were typically in inner cities where the majority of residents were people of color. Not only were home mortgages denied to people living in these communities but they were also deprived of banking, insurance, health insurance and essential services like supermarkets.
Redlining began with the establishment of the National Housing Act of 1934 as part of FDR’s New Deal. This in turn created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Of course, discrimination and segregation predated all of this, but under these policies the decay of inner-city neighborhoods was exacerbated because the withholding of mortgages made it more difficult for these areas to attract and keep individuals able to afford homes. In 1933 under the New Deal, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created. Initially, the intent of HOLC seemed benevolent-namely to refinance mortgages that were in default in order to prevent foreclosures. In 1935, HOLC was asked to look at 239 cities and identify “residential security maps”. The maps created by HOLC identified various levels of communities where mortgage lending would go from most desirable to least. “Type A” or those areas literally outlined in green on the maps were usually the more affluent suburbs and “Type D” areas which were typically older, urban, and predominantly black, were outlined in red, thus the term. After the maps were drawn, they were used for decades to deny loans to individuals in the redlined districts.
Below is an actual HOLC map of Philadelphia from 1936.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The damage done by HOLC’s redlining in the 1930’s lingers today. A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) concludes that the same neighborhoods designated as “hazardous zones” and “redlined” areas continue to suffer today from “inequality and lack of investment”. When comparing redlined areas on today’s maps, the study shows, “a pervasive, enduring structure of economic disadvantage in urban areas of the U.S.” Remember-this is 80 years later! Add all of this to the recent findings by Professor Philip Alston, an independent expert and the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and we have ourselves a truly sorry situation.
Watch the video below to better understand redlining and how it works.
Alston is going to present a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at the end of this month, which is the result of a study he did on a December 2017 tour of some of America’s most impoverished areas, including Los Angeles, West Virginia coal country, parts of Alabama, and hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico. His report, which was published on Friday, paints a dire picture of the state of our nation and directs scathing criticism at the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. Alston writes, “Trump is steering the country towards a ‘dramatic change of direction’ that is rewarding the rich and punishing the poor by blocking access even to the most meager necessities.” This is compounded by “a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty,” Alston told The Guardian. “If food stamps and access to Medicaid are removed, and housing subsidies cut, then the effect on people living on the margins will be drastic.” He added that the recent tax bill “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality”, saying “the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege”. Furthermore Alston cautions middle-class Americans to stop thinking they are immune from Trump’s policies. “The proposed slashing of social protection benefits will affect the middle classes every bit as much as the poor.”
Now that you are thoroughly depressed, you may be asking what is the point of all this. The point is that the plight of marginalized and underserved communities will only become more perilous if we don’t all stand up to these policies, whether they be 80 years old or are coming out of Washington as we speak.
Institutionalized discrimination is nothing new. It started 400 years ago when some of the first slaves were brought ashore in Jamestown, it continued in the antebellum South, it took place under both Democrat and Republican administrations, it occurred in tract housing developments like Levittown, the kind Malvina Reynolds wrote about in her song “Little Boxes”, and it’s happening now at the hands of our own elected officials. What should be new is our response to it.
Click here to access interactive HOLC maps from across the country that show the extent of redlining.
posted by Amy Levengood