From the presidential debates to anti-racist reading lists, redlining has gained purchase as a descriptor for many forms of spatialized dispossession. There is a tension inherent in this widened usage: the federal government’s maps from the 1930s are some of the bluntest examples of the mechanisms of segregation. Their color-coded system—green for the “Best” neighborhoods, yellow for “Definitely Declining” and red for “Hazardous”—make discriminatory lending easy to understand. Recently, at least one historian has suggested that redlining has become a narrative crutch. Rather than just an oft-repeated story, however, the spread of the term to processes beyond its original association with New Deal federal housing policy gestures to how people both acknowledge the limits of redlining’s explanatory power and still consider it the best way to account for America’s segregated geography, housing or otherwise.
As a historian of housing, I too have struggled with the limitations of redlining. In particular, its termination in 1968 makes it inadequate for answering the two questions people most frequently ask me: why does housing segregation persist nearly a century after the creation of redlining maps and what can be done to fight housing segregation today? Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership provides a blueprint that goes beyond the history of redlining to answer both.
That persistence resulted from what Taylor calls predatory inclusion, where Black Americans, low-income renters, and welfare recipients who were long shut out of the conventional housing market gained access to it on bad terms. Beginning with the Federal Housing Administration’s adoption of Section 235 and the subsequent passage of the HUD Act in 1968, the government created a public-private framework that insured unregulated mortgage banks against loss. Operators who profited from volume sales steered potential homeowners toward heavily marked up substandard structures where the buyer took on fee-laden debt. On paper, the new federal programs reversed decades of legal residential segregation by expanding homeownership opportunities. Yet the policies did little to challenge how the real estate and lending industries factored race into property value. As a result, the policies expanded a market already configured for white people to build wealth from homeownership and for low-income Black homeowners to be targeted for wealth extraction.