Redlining maps show racism and white supremacy "in 1930s technicolor"

"But then you find the maps", such as this one of the Chicago Metropolitan Area in 1940.

This is how Robert Gioielli describes the insight and specificity of the maps highlighted in the post, "The Tyranny of the Map: Rethinking Redlining," from The Metropole, the official blog of the Urban History Association.

Gioielli's post emphasizes the difficulty of teaching and learning about past state-sanctioned discrimination's ongoing impacts and consequences.

"Violence—of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—is usually the easiest to illustrate and explain, because it's the most horrific. It's also because generations of Americans have been taught that racism is only about violence that stems from hatred, primarily from sneering Southern plantation owners and rednecks in white hoods. Racism is about bigoted interpersonal interactions, we are told, and thus rooted in our own morality. Structural racism, especially as it relates to American cities, can be more difficult to communicate."

Stories, documentaries, oral histories, and even photos can only communicate so much. Denial, disavowal, and refusal to consider the ongoing consequences of historical policies and laws embedded in culture are challenging learning barriers.

In 1938,

"a federal agency, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), created 'Residential Security' maps of major American cities. These maps document how loan officers, appraisers, and real estate professionals evaluated mortgage lending risk during the era immediately before the surge of suburbanization in the 1950s. Neighborhoods considered high risk or "Hazardous" were often "redlined" by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investment which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents."

The maps reveal

"racism and white supremacy in full 1930s, Wizard of Oz technicolor. Detailed and specific, all the more valuable because almost every major American city had one, and students can find places and neighborhoods they know, have lived in, had family from. For a scholar of twentieth-century United States history, especially one who researches and teaches urban and environmental history, the HOLC maps have long been a keystone slide in my teaching presentations, something to build out the entire lecture, unit, or even course. This is what structural racism means, when the state and its private-capital partners decide winners and losers, build generational wealth in one community, and condemn other groups to be starved of resources for decades."

The Mapping Inequality project is the most extensive built-out accessible database of these maps.

Redlining is one practice of state-sanctioned and privately exploited discrimination. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor examines in Race for Profit, deed covenants, redlining, block-busting, and private-public ownership schemes are other contemporary and historical ways space has been policed to reinforce segregation. These "discriminatory 'best practices' of the real estate industry made it resistant to change in adhering to new fair housing legislation."

These maps demonstrate the consequences of state-sanctioned discrimination created and reproduced through policy and law, which impacts media coverage and cultural meaning-making.

These policies, at least for housing appraisals, can be traced to the Federal Housing Administration's Underwriting Manual, produced in 1938. The manual was the management element of public policy.

"If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values."

As Yamahtta Taylor writes,

"The premise of these underwriting criteria spelled out the rationale for redlining and shaped the practices of the FHA well into the twentieth century. The 1948 Supreme Court decision Shelley v Kremer, banning states from enforcing racial covenants in the sale of housing…the decision, however, was read narrowly, applied only to restricted covenants, and did not ban housing discrimination against African Americans or other nonwhites, only the states specific role in implementing or enforcing it."

Tying segregation to competition and ownership of property, i.e., the maintenance of white-only spaces assumes the supremacy of one group of people, cultures, and communities over another.

Again, Yamahtta Taylor:

"The FHA, and, later, the Veterans Administration (V) exclusion of African Americans was virtually complete; ten years after the 1949 National Housing Act, less than 2 percent of FHA-insured properties went to non-whites. The results devastated the ability of African Americans [and other nonwhites] to upgrade their housing."

This is not simply about owning property but creating equity and increasing net worth.

In other words, policies impact the life chances of different populations. Limiting access to health care – preventative or in crisis, housing, and education – means that people will die faster and more often. New research demonstrates that populations living in conservative areas die quicker and younger. When policies are driven by the ideology of not spending money on poor people because they get what they deserve, and rich people work harder, it is challenging to learn about structural inequality because it also inevitably means placing oneself within that structure. But that is a different post.

If you stick with Gioielli's post long enough (or this one, for that matter), the very maps that reveal technicolor white supremacy also obscure other dynamics, social forces, and decision-making political and economic entities.

Specifically, concerning redlining, Gioielli began to "wonder whether the concept, especially as communicated through these maps, has outlived its usefulness."

"Its simplicity and straightforward visual force have made it almost too powerful. The intervening decades of structural inequality and policy decisions since the 1930s have become hidden, blinding us to all the other ways that individual, corporate, and governmental decision-making produces the highly-unequal metropolises many of us live in and contribute to today. I fear that it's become too easy to blame the architects of this system from a century ago, putting black hats on hundreds of faceless and nameless bureaucrats. Through a process of trying to understand the origins of a key aspect of structural racism, have we actually moved backward and constructed a new moralistic story that obscures more than it illuminates?"

In focusing on the FHA maps, illuminating the devastating impacts of structural racism, they did not map the "local private actors in every American city fully endorsed, sponsored, and assisted with the design and implementation of redlining policies." Because maps are algorithms with keys and logics, there are always limitations, assumptions, biases, and borders; other maps can be designed.

As a result, the Homeowners Loan Corporation Residential Security maps (HOLC maps), which formed the basis of this powerful analytical tool demonstrating the depth and breadth of redlining in its consequences, were only part of the picture.

Gioielli explains,

"These important new perspectives help us understand that although the actions of the HOLC and other federal agencies in the 1930s were fundamental to making racialized property markets national policy, they were not cut from whole cloth in Washington, DC. They were the product of existing and dominant practices and ideologies in cities around the country."

These dominant practices and ideologies are still with us today. Maps are calendars of world-making. They mark the imagination of knowing in time – place, people, flora and fauna, names, and meanings. Maps are borders that create meanings attached to those demarcations and the humans living in bordered adjacent areas. Maps are also contested forms of knowing.

As Gioielli counsels,

"Shifting our thinking doesn't mean we let the federal government off the hook. On the contrary, our popular obsession with the HOLC map lets generations of local real estate agents, "hometown" banks, and property developers in every major American city off the hook."

The winner of four national book awards from professional associations, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award, and a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Race for Profit does this intellectual labor to help shift our thinking.

"Race for Profit uncovers how exploitative real estate practices continued well after housing discrimination was banned. The same racist structures and individuals remained intact after redlining's end, and close relationships between regulators and the industry created incentives to ignore improprieties. Meanwhile, new policies meant to encourage low-income homeownership created new methods to exploit Black homeowners. The federal government guaranteed urban mortgages in an attempt to overcome resistance to lending to Black buyers – as if unprofitability, rather than racism, was the cause of housing segregation. Bankers, investors, and real estate agents took advantage of the perverse incentives, targeting the Black women most likely to fail to keep up their home payments and slip into foreclosure, multiplying their profits. As a result, by the end of the 1970s, the nation's first programs to encourage Black homeownership ended with tens of thousands of foreclosures in Black communities across the country. The push to uplift Black homeownership had descended into a goldmine for realtors and mortgage lenders, and a ready-made cudgel for the champions of deregulation to wield against government intervention of any kind."

How does new knowledge impact already-drawn conclusions when we learn something? How does further information impact questions about other outcomes, causes and effects, and consequences? This type of recognition could be an antidote to anti-intellectualism.

According to sociologist Avery Gordon,

"Whatever its specific form, anti-intellectualism ultimately involves refusing to theorize. It involves refusing to reflect critically, refusing to see the operating general assumptions, either 'limited domain assumptions' or 'world hypotheses," in both large-scale social organizations and in everyday actions, thoughts, or inactions."