Glimmers of hope are appearing in unexpected places. It flickers in hearts and minds long darkened by disillusionment and despair. Will this country and its people finally be willing to wrestle with the twisted lie of racial superiority that has deformed our consciousness and culture for hundreds of years? Is the accumulation of horrors and righteous disgust with the status quo enough to propel us to overcome our persistent denial about the scale and intensity of racial injustice in this country? In unexpected places, people dare to hope.

And so it is with me. As I witness the outpouring of indignation by people across racial, ethnic, economic and geographic lines, I dare to believe that an awakening has occurred and that change may be at hand. At the same time, I am sobered by the realization of how much coming-to-terms will be required if we are to dismantle the corruption of the twisted lie.

Can we do it, and if so, where do we begin? Michelle Alexander, author of the renowned book, “The New Jim Crow,” posits a starting point, writing: “We must face our racial history and our racial present. We cannot solve a problem we do not understand.” She goes on to say, “If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.” Challenging as it is, we must start by acknowledging the wrongs of the past and try to understand what we are doing in the present that serves to perpetuate them.

Last October, Richard Rothstein gave a talk at the Congregational Church of San Mateo and helped a standing room-only crowd begin an honest reckoning with the shockingly racist history of housing policy in the United States. Author of the best-selling book “The Color of Law,” Rothstein described a crushing history in which government at all levels — federal, state and local — conspired to segregate races and exclude African Americans from home ownership. 

We heard, for example, that the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, which is celebrated for having extended home ownership to so many more Americans, had been an active and potent force in creating racial disparity. The FHA facilitated the buildout of suburban America by guaranteeing the loans of residential developers. To provide such guarantees, though, the FHA recommended — and, according to Rothstein, in some instances required — that developers include racially restrictive covenants in their subdivision property deeds. Thus developers, eager for FHA guarantees, incorporated provisions limiting ownership in their subdivisions to whites alone. While racial covenants were voided by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the onerous language still appears in huge numbers of property deeds, serving as a powerful reminder of the widespread injustice unapologetically inflicted on those who were not white.

The strategies utilized at all levels of government to create segregation and prevent African Americans from owning homes are stunning in their sheer number and variety. While it is a little known fact, the push for single-family zoning arose as part of this troubling history. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that racially explicit zoning — the deliberate use of zoning to enforce residential segregation — was unconstitutional. During his presentation at CCSM, Rothstein described how, in the wake of the 1917 decision, enthusiasm for economic zoning that could substitute for racially explicit zoning grew rapidly. Foremost among these techniques was single-family zoning. Areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes barred multi-family dwellings of any kind and made housing expensive by sheer virtue of the cost of the land on which each individual home sat. Single-family zoning served as a legal way to keep Black Americans and other minorities out.

This history has special relevance for the city of San Mateo as it wrestles with creating a new General Plan. In the current moment of national reckoning, ripe with the opportunity for growth and change, will we be honest in scrutinizing the ways in which our present continues to echo our past? Will we be honest in assessing the exclusionary impacts of various aspects of our zoning and housing policy and be willing to admit that these policies continue to dictate who can live in San Mateo and where in San Mateo they can live? Richard Rothstein writes that in recent decades “numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst.” Is that the kind of community we want to be? As Michelle Alexander said, the effort to move toward a truly egalitarian, inclusive society begins with being honest. I hope we can be.

Karyl Eldridge is vice chair of One San Mateo.

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(15) comments

Dirk van Ulden

Madeleine - I apologize for my exaggeration. However, I had been led to believe that Asians and Latinos are also people of color? Was I misinformed? According to your own sources, those population groups have increased and perhaps we should blame them as well for pushing the black population outside the County. That may comport with the narrative that white supremacy is the scapegoat for all that ails our County and the US.


Who is "we"? Not my people. Must be WASPs.

Cindy Cornell

Very important piece that should be used by our local officials when it comes to housing policy. Several cities in San Mateo County held events touting that we are non-racist without addressing the fact that the African-American population has dwindled from 10 percent to 1 percent.

Dirk van Ulden

Cindy sees racism everywhere. Perhaps the next time you can explain why the Asian and Latino population has increased more than tenfold in San Mateo County over the past 10 years? Oh, I forgot, only BLM counts in your book.

Madeline B

Perhaps you could explain, Dick, why you're lying about Latino population as you attempt to dismiss Cindy's excellent point about how incumbent homeowners are driving people of color out of San Mateo? Wikipedia says in 2011 24.9% of the county was Hispanic and says in 2019 it was only 24%. Do facts matter, or do you just like feeling smug?

Dirk van Ulden

Not true Cindy. The 2000 Census for our County clocked the black population at 3.5% and the most current 2019 estimate by the Census shows 2.8%. I am not sure where you get your figures but likely from a source that is still clinging to and mining the deplorable conditions for blacks in the 1960s. We have overcome!

Cindy Cornell

Please get our names right, at least.

Christopher Conway

What is funny is San Mateo county was free of this racist rhetoric up until a few years ago. What changed, district elections in order to elect our county supervisors. That is the only way Canepa got in in District 5 and we know from SF, district elections are the left's best way to divide and conquer. Our northern border has been breached in District 5 and now we have people, new in town, calling long time residents and police forces racist. This is what we got when we went to district elections, a divided county. It's is absolutely disgusting what the new left in San Mateo County is doing with heated racial rhetoric to the reputation and respect of every citizen who has been proud to call this county home for generations. You should be ashamed.

Christopher Conway

This entire BLM movement and the absolute guilt trip faith leaders and housing advocates in San Mateo are trying to place on our citizenry is nothing more than a political shakedown for special interests groups to get what they want. San Mateo has never had an issue with race and it is revolting for these faith leaders and housing advocates to push the baloney they are trying to push. Join me and stand against these faith leaders and housing advocates who are using race to divide our beautiful city just so that their goals can be met. This organization is dividing San Mateo in two and are going the wrong way if what they want is One San Mateo. Don't listen to these guilt trippers, they have their own agenda and it is not in San Mateo's best interest, only their own.

Mike Dunham

"San Mateo has never had an issue with race" <-- Says the guy with an image of the Knights Templar as his profile logo

It's not for white people to say whether or not a city has a problem with race, since we aren't the victims of these problems. We should be listening to our black and brown neighbors, and from everything I've heard from them, our cities on the Peninsula do, in fact, have problems with race.

Christopher Conway

You have a problem with the image of a Christian Crusader Mike? what are you implying with your statement? Innuendo is something you may do but it doesn't fly with me.

As far as "It's not for white people to say whether or not a city has a problem with race", who are you and who elected you to tell people what they can and can't do. Lastly, how long have you lived in San Mateo to tell us our city has a problem with race?

Cindy Cornell

Seriously, San Mateo has never had an issue with race. How would you know? A friend of mine who grew up in North Central would strongly disagree with you. Their family was not allowed to live anywhere else in San Mateo. Her father was discriminated against by the Army and by employers right here in San Mateo. When we go to stores together, she gets followed, I do not. Get real Chris. Listen to people who know.

Christopher Conway

How do I know, my family has lived in San Mateo county for three generations. My grandfather built more homes in San Mateo than any other builder including Bohannan. If you live in San Mateo Village, Sunnybrae, Fiesta Gardens and many other developments within the city, you live in a home my grandfather built. The racial rhetoric that is coming out now is a new phenomenon that the left uses for political reasons. We are not going to stand by and let that happen.

Tommy Tee

Cindy--you're right, he doesn't know. If he would leave his white privileged bubble for a while he might learn something.

Dirk van Ulden

Cindy - we have all been discriminated against in one form or another, Whether is was for color, ethnicity or origin, we all experienced it. The military was integrated by President Truman and my experience in the US Air Force was that particularly black servicemen were given extra attention to make them successful. Most of our NCOs were black and were like fathers to us. My wife is Latina and, yes, she was followed in some stores until she turned around and asked the staff person what her problem was. That solved it. I was the victim myself of reverse and age discrimination so the lesson is that not just one group needs to be singled out for preferential treatment or to be felt sorry for.

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