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Civil Rights

Redlining, Gerrymandering and History

— February 14, 2022

The entrenched legacy of policies like redlining combine with voter suppression to keep the past alive in a way Americans can’t just “get over.”

Scrolling through social media the other day, I saw one those memes that reveals more about the person sharing it than they may realize. It went something like this: “Blaming people alive today for slavery is wrong, just get over racism and it would go away!” There’s a lot to take in right there, so let’s take a deep breath and start unpacking. We don’t even have to go back to pre-Civil War times to talk about how other systemic developments, like redlining and gerrymandering, keep the past alive.

Picture it: 1930s Detroit. Seventy-plus years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the descendants of those who had moved north to freedom still hadn’t found it, not really. Real estate developers were building a 6 foot high concrete wall in an alley between two residential streets. Why? Because without a physical barrier separating the dirt-road neighborhood on the east side from the planned paved-road development on the west, banks wouldn’t finance the new building project. The difference was deeper than simply how much dust would get kicked up on dry summer days. Black people lived on those dirt roads, but they wouldn’t be welcome on the other side of the wall.

Nearly a hundred years ago, ancient history now, redlining was a widespread practice whereby cities were segregated into Black and Hispanic districts and enclaves for other demographics deemed “undesirable,” literally marked with red lines on a map, where mortgage borrowers were charged exorbitant interest rates through predatory lenders, if they were able to borrow at all. Outside of the red-lined districts, not only were the loan terms friendlier, but deed restrictions on those homes often barred owners from ever selling them to non-white buyers.

As you might imagine, conditions were rather more impoverished in the redlined neighborhoods. More important in some ways, though, was the inability of property owners in those areas to build generational wealth. Outside of redlined areas, not only were the neighborhoods considered more desirable, but the easy financing meant they could be sold later at the kind of profit that allows people to retire, send the kids to college, or provide a meaningful inheritance. Not so, in Black enclaves. If they managed to avoid foreclosure, the resale value was much less.

A map of Detroit, overlaid by dots that represent demographic groups.
Race and ethnicity in Detroit, based on census data from 2000. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. Data from Census 2000. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA. This image by Erica Fischer via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Redlining prevented Black families from growing generational wealth, but it was also effective at segregating people into racially-defined neighborhoods. Even after the practice was officially outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, people were still stuck in houses and neighborhoods they couldn’t afford to leave due to poor resale value and concentrated poverty.  Lines of segregation are still visible today.

This effect is rather convenient, however, for those who seek to disenfranchise certain demographics. Gerrymandering is nothing new, but it’s a powerful tool for watering down the voting power of those that the party in power really doesn’t want to serve.

Two of the most widely-used techniques are “packing” and “cracking.” Packing is when districts are divided in such a way as to lump as many of the “undesirable” voters as possible into a single precinct, which they will likely win, but the opposing party has a better chance of winning far more representation in more surrounding districts. Cracking is when the target area is broken up and divided among several surrounding areas, so that their votes are overwhelmed by the desired majority. In this way, the persistent legacy of past redlining rolls forward into a disempowered future.

Learning about this history may make you uncomfortable, especially if your family benefited from generational wealth accrued due to redlining and maintained through voter suppression. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable, especially those who are interested in preserving the system that empowers them at the expense of those for whom justice is long overdue.

To this end, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation, like Florida’s bill SB 148, to protect those fragile feelings. SB 148 reads, in part, “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” It’s worth noting that while we can’t possibly be responsible for the actions of our ancestors, we can, and do, live in a world that’s alive with the ongoing repercussions of what our ancestors did. Whether or not that makes us uncomfortable should have less to do with our relative pallor, and more to do with the actions we’ve taken to change – or shore up – that legacy.

This is where the conservative freakout over “Critical Race Theory” (or CRT) comes in. CRT, which is a legal concept that’s never been taught in K-12 classes, asserts that racism isn’t just about the prejudices held by individuals, but has become entrenched in the legal system and policies like redlining and gerrymandering. It gets very meta, doesn’t it? What CRT is not, however, is teaching people of pallor that they are inherently bad. That’s a realization which individuals who identify with the bad guys will have to come to all on their own (spoiler: feelings may be hurt).

While the idea of sweeping our honest national heritage under the rug for another generation must be pretty appealing for those who are sweating the cultural changes unfolding around them, it’s not going to make anything better in the way they hope it will. Instead, it will raise up even more righteous opposition from those eager to be on the right side of history. Consider the tremendous energy in this campaign ad for Gary Chambers, who is running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana. Justice too long delayed is justice denied, and people will only be denied for so long.

Related: Don’t (Want To) Know Much About History


Built to keep Black from white: The story behind Detroit’s “Wailing Wall”
Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today.
Redistricting 101: ‘Cracking’ and ‘packing’
Florida advances bill that would ban making white people feel bad about racism, and no, that’s not a joke
What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?
Letters from an American: February 9, 2022
Let’s talk about identifying with the bad guy a little more….
“Scars and Bars” | Gary Chambers

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