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.