Money  /  Debunk

Who Segregated America?

Federal housing policies contributed to the segregation of American cities in the twentieth century. But it was private interests that led the way.

Recent scholarship and reporting on racial disparities in the United States have emphasized the role of public policy—especially federal policy—in the creation of what the 1968 Kerner Commission famously dubbed “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” This is especially true of housing policy. Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White (2005) skewers the stark exclusion of African-American veterans from the benefits of the GI Bill. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2017) offers a damning synthesis on how the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) embraced Jim Crow. More recently, the digitization of the infamous “residential security” redlining maps prepared by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the late 1930s has spurred academic interest in the connections between the HOLC’s bluntly racial assessments and contemporary disparities.

This condemnation of federal policy is certainly warranted. Even the constraints of the New Deal coalition (in which the Democratic majority was, as Katznelson observes, a “strange marriage of Sweden and South Africa”) cannot excuse the FHA’s slavish deference to racial prejudice in private realty. One can and should expect more of a public agency, wielding billions in housing subsidies in one hand and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the other, than a set of underwriting guidelines that “could well have been culled from the Nuremberg Laws,” as housing activist Charles Abrams observed in 1955.

But is it true, as Rothstein’s subtitle suggests, that “government segregated America”? Not really. As new work on the scope of private racial restrictions underscores, racial segregation in American cities (especially Northern and border cities) was largely accomplished by private interests and private action long before the FHA spent a dime or the HOLC opened its first bottle of red ink.

Race-restrictive deed covenants and agreements reserved the occupancy of individual lots or entire residential subdivisions to those (in the phrasing preferred by developers in St. Louis County) “wholly of the Caucasian Race.” The result was a sort of pointillist apartheid, filled in parcel by parcel, block by block, and subdivision by subdivision, on a scale sufficient to quarantine existing pockets of African-American residency and mark new developments as largely off limits. The innovative Mapping Prejudice project has crowdsourced the discovery of more than 26,000 restricted properties in Greater Minneapolis. My own work on St. Louis (a border setting with a much larger African-American population) has uncovered an even more extensive fabric of restriction: almost 2,000 private agreements, encompassing nearly two-thirds of the region’s residential properties by 1950.