LETTER: Think Racism Isn’t Systemic? Think Again.

By Lena Thakor, GHS Class of 2021

A couple weeks ago my sister posted an NPR news video on our family group chat that profoundly changed the way I view racism in our country.

Next to the video she wrote, “You guys have to watch this.”

Watch the video I did.

The video centers around the racism fostered by the housing system in our country.

It starts by introducing the viewer to some programs passed as part of the New Deal, a sequence of measures passed by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help rapidly revitalize the US economy in the midst of the crippling Great Depression.

The video talks about the National Housing Act which was passed in the early 1930s to enable lower-income individuals to purchase homes by making “ mortgages and housing more affordable and accessible.”

The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation was subsequently passed to help ensure that individuals didn’t default on their mortgages. Residential Security Maps were constructed to this end, and organized districts based off of the likelihood that residents would default on their loans. 

Districts were separated in Residential Security Maps by color. Green districts were areas where individuals were very unlikely to default on their mortgages, and they were unsurprisingly filled with very wealthy individuals who happened to be largely white. Blue zones were inhabited by well-off individuals who were likewise largely white. Yellow zones were inhabited by working-class individuals who were more likely than the residents of the other two zones to default on their mortgages. Red zones were deemed “hazardous,” and were areas where residents were labelled as very likely to default on their mortgages. Foreigners and blacks were predominant in these zones. There was no real basis for why minority groups were placed in these red-lined districts; a fact that hints at the racism present in the implementation of these programs.

The National Housing Act and the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation had good intent. They were simply passed to make it easier for all Americans to buy houses, but in practice, these programs integrated segregation into our federal housing system, and contributed to a feedback loop that has resulted in drastic income inequality between blacks and whites to this day. 

As time passed, money flowed to the green and blue zones, while the red zones, or red-line districts, which lie mainly in inner cities, saw very little investment. It was far more difficult for people in red-line districts to purchase homes, as they were in high-risk areas for defaulting on their mortgages. 

 This put these individuals at a serious economic disadvantage. The most common way individuals amass wealth in the US is through their property, but individuals in red-line districts, who confronted numerous difficulties in buying property, were largely locked out of amassing wealth this way. As such, individuals in red-line districts were prevented from achieving economic mobility.

Furthermore, our nation’s public schools are funded through property taxes. Individuals living in green districts had higher property taxes, and therefore better-funded schools, whereas individuals living in red-line districts had lower property taxes, and therefore more poorly-funded schools.

This cycle also works the other way. The better public schools in a district are, the higher valued the properties in that district are, and the more money is poured into that district’s schools.

Less investment in “red-line” districts also meant less developed infrastructure in these areas. Furthermore, limited investment in such areas enabled crime to thrive. Think inner-city Baltimore or the South side of Chicago.

This government-sanctioned feedback loop persisted for around 30 years, until the government finally passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The Fair Housing Act was meant to ameliorate the ills of the housing system by providing everyone with equitable housing opportunities, but it was too little too late. By this point, many blacks were already trapped in a cycle of poverty enforced by these New Deal programs. An ugly self-sustaining system had already left its imprint on the country.

Today, the average black income is 60% of the average white income. In addition, according to the Brookings Institute, “in the average US metropolitan area, homes in neighborhoods that are at least 50% black are valued at roughly half the price of neighborhoods with few black residents.”

Yet, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, which feels like a revived Civil Rights Movement, some people still turn their noses up at the notions of “white privilege” and systemic racism. Some condemn and fail to comprehend the anger expressed through protests breaking out in cities around the country. I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from animosity toward the Black Lives Matter movement itself, but rather, from a lack of knowledge of the pervasive nature of the issue at hand.

Nobody can be blamed for feeling frustrated, or even furious, at the wrongs that have persisted at the governments’ hands.

One thing has become absolutely clear to me: Fighting racism is not a matter of ridding a system of a “few bad apples,” as has been suggested by some, but instead is about overhauling the system.

Link to NPR Video: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/04/11/601494521/video-housing-segregation-in-everything

Lena Thakor is a member of the GHS Class of 2021