Civil Rights and Housing

By Erin Telesford

Civil Rights and Housing

“Wealth is where past injustices breed present suffering,” says author Mehrsa Baradaran, in the Netflix Explained series. The racial wealth gap is “a measure of the white family and the African American family that is right smack-dab in the middle, the median. The median white household’s wealth – their savings plus assets minus their debts – is $171,000. The median black household’s wealth is $17,600, and that gap is still growing.” So why is this the case?

Back when slaves were still a commodity in America, wealth was measured by how many slaves you owned. However, after Abraham Lincoln flipped the script, it was stated that “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land.” Land became the best investment for families, so Lincoln signed Special Field Order Number 15, which “set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of land, saying each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground.” However, this was overturned for black families, who had their land taken away.

Residential security maps were created to indicate the riskiness of real estate investments. Redlining was based on sociological assumptions about racial and religious minorities, not formal credit measures, and led to systematic disinvestment in poor, non-white neighborhoods. Both of these tactics were used in order to prevent minorities from living in the same neighborhoods as white people, and are still being used today.

Residential inequality in America greatly contributed to the social and wealth inequality that African Americans still face today. Where you live–the city, suburb, or district that you live in–controls your access to good schools as well as your ability to sell your home and move to a better one. This is why it is so hard for minorities to move up in line and increase their wealth. Realtors actively prevent minorities from buying houses in good areas because those were preserved for white families. Realtors were afraid the “investability” of these neighborhoods would decrease if even a single black person moved in, since all majority black neighborhoods were legally disinvested by corporations. This is why African Americans and other minorities were not able to attend fully funded schools, or able to sell their homes or break lease agreements. Money was a factor that controlled how they lived while race controlled where they were able to live.

The Kerner Commission noted that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Although segregation is illegal, realtors and landlords are still abiding by the past policies that allowed discrimination against minorities, especially African Americans, from buying homes and apartments. To this day, white Americans are able to attend good schools and increase their wealth, while African Americans and other minorities have to work twice as hard to get into good schools and still can’t increase their wealth because the rest of their families are still struggling in poor areas. This unfair judgment of race and residential inequality contributes to the unjust treatment of minorities and the increase of the racial wealth gap. In order to have true equality in America, we must change this.

To watch, search “Explained” on Netflix or go to Netflix.com/explained. Click the “My List” button to make sure you don’t miss an episode. You can sign up for a free trial for a month.

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