Focusing On Black Lives Means Looking At White Neighborhoods

Homogenous communities are often the result of racist beliefs and policies that never went away.

When my family moved to the Washington, DC suburbs in 1970, the White family that purchased the house next door decided not to move in after they discovered we were Black.

All of the houses in our neighborhood were new construction — beautiful, spacious colonials with large backyards. Our almost-nextdoor neighbors’ house was nearly finished, filled with fabulous upgrades. They must have lost a good sum of money by backing out of their contract to buy the house.

Evidently, it was worth the cost of not having Black neighbors.

The way I see it, their decision was a huge loss for them and a tremendous blessing for us. The family that ultimately moved in next door became lifelong friends, along with many other residents in the neighborhood. However, looking back I see something else.

As the years went by, as more Black families and immigrant-families from Latin America moved into our suburban Maryland community, White residents began a slow but steady exodus to whiter parts of the county. Needless to say, my hometown looks a lot different now. The White population has gone from 94% in 1970 to roughly 41% in 2020.

This type of demographic trend is not uncommon but it points to something ongoing— White Flight, a major reason why America’s neighborhoods remain racially segregated, perhaps more now than ever. The thing is, segregation is never accidental nor is it ever harmless.

Racist Beliefs

Aside from the gut-wrenching photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. lying on his back on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis after he’d been mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet, there’s another image of him that disturbs my soul. It captures Dr. King just after he was struck by a rock, thrown by a White counter-protestor during a march to demand open housing in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood in Chicago, IL (I saw the entire video clip in a documentary years ago).

Martin Luther King, Jr. after being struck in the head with a rock during a peaceful protest against housing discrimination in Marquette Park (Chicago Lawn), 1966 (photo from WTTW via Chicago Defender Archives)

The incident happened in 1966, while Dr. King was leading the march through the all-White community to protest the area’s practice of housing discrimination against Black residents. An unruly mob of about 700 angry, White residents showed up and began hurling rocks, bricks, bottles, cherry bombs, and racial slurs at the non-violent protestors. One of the rocks hit Dr. King in his head, causing him to fall to one knee. Stunned but not seriously hurt, he was shielded by aides as he quickly gathered himself, stood up, and resumed marching.

Although The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination, integration has never happened without resistance. If you consider where we are today — with racial segregation persisting in our nation’s big cities and taking hold of small towns— it’s clear that integration has also never been wholly sustainable.

In the case of Chicago Lawn, along with the other neighborhoods that make up Chicago’s Southwest Side, what was once an all-White community of European immigrants is now home to a majority Mexican immigrant population. The city’s South Side has become majority Black, and as that community’s most famous daughter Michelle Obama has spoken out about, White Flight is something that is imprinted in her childhood.

Statistics reveal that many White Americans don’t have the desire to live in racially balanced communities, even within diverse cities. Along with Chicago — Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York are the most White-Black segregated cities in the country. And just like in 1966, there are still residents in white enclaves who feel the need to fiercely defend their “territory.”

Just recently, a video surfaced of someone named Lee Jeffers, a White man who lives in a gated community in Palm Beach, FL. Jeffers was recorded accosting 15-year old Breonna Nelson Hicks, who is Black. Hicks’ grandfather lives in the community and she was there riding in a golf cart with her friends (who are White) when Jeffers started tailgating the teens in his car. He eventually gets out of his car and directs his comments toward Hicks:

“You don’t belong in this development,” he says “What’s your name? Where do you live?” he continues before threatening to have the teens arrested. “You do not deserve to be in here,” he says, pointing his finger at Hicks. Ultimately, her grandfather comes out of his house and gives Jeffers a piece of his mind. After the video went viral, Jeffers was placed on leave from his job. He has since apologized.

Unfortunately, laws can’t change decades of racist social conditioning — the constant drumbeat of false, disparaging messages that have made White people believe that being neighbors with Black people is somehow a bad thing.

These damaging narratives are steeped in racist beliefs that espouse the “black criminal who will rob every house on the block,” and “the lazy black kids who will bring down the schools.” Oh yeah, and what about the “property values will go down if black families move into the neighborhood” explanation?

Or what about the “you do not deserve to be in here” argument?

Until White Americans come to terms with their biases; until they care enough to seek the truth and challenge the things they’ve been conditioned to believe about Black people, then segregation will continue to divide us. This reckoning should also include an understanding of how racist housing policies created environments that have made it difficult for so many Black families to thrive.

This is really important, especially for those White people who want to be allies because it's difficult to completely reconcile your beliefs without knowing the full history of what Black Americans have been up against.

Please read on, because knowing our struggle will help you to act with clarity and compassion in the fight for equality.

Racist Policies

Discriminatory housing policies were not only practiced throughout much of the 20th century, but they were also sanctioned by our federal and local governments. Keeping in mind that homeownership is the main source of generational wealth for most Americans, racist policies have historically kept Black Americans locked out of neighborhoods where properties were valued at the top of the scale. This has resulted in separate, unequal communities and schools, and economic disparities between White and Black Americans that still exist today. Here are three policies you should know about:

1. Racially Restrictive Covenants

These covenants were often inserted into a home’s deed by the developer. Used nationwide, they were legally-binding contractual agreements that stated a property could not be sold to specific ethnic groups, usually Black Americans. These covenants were effective in preventing Black homebuyers from purchasing houses in white neighborhoods from the 1920s until they were ruled unenforceable in 1948.

Restrictive covenants were used heavily in Washington, DC, which kept Black residents confined to subpar, overcrowded housing. In Los Angeles, it’s believed that 80% of the homes were restricted. My cousin grew up in Southern California and she owns a home in South Los Angeles. She decided to preserve the covenant in her property’s deed to send a message to those who never thought someone who looked like her would ever live in that community.

2. Redlining

Redlining was a practice that banks and lenders used to deny mortgage loans to homebuyers in so-called “high risk” neighborhoods. More often than not, redlining was targeted at Black homebuyers who wanted to purchase homes in Black or integrated communities — areas were home values were artificially deflated.

It was called ‘redlining’ because the real estate agents, who made the appraisals, used red ink to outline the neighborhoods that were considered “risky” — areas they decided homebuyers were most likely to default on their loans. Yet, often the only determining risk factor was that Black residents lived in the neighborhood.

Redlining map of Philadelphia, PA, 1936 (public domain photo)

What’s worse is that the federal government was fully involved in this practice. First, the appraisers worked on behalf of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored entity that was established in 1933 under the New Deal. Then, The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) not only refused to insure loans in redlined neighborhoods, but the FHA also discouraged banks from granting loans to homebuyers in urban neighborhoods. This also made it nearly impossible for redlined residents to obtain loans for home maintenance and repairs, which often resulted in neighborhood decline.

According to Dana Anderson of Redfin, over the last 40 years, homeowners in redlined neighborhoods have lost 52% (roughly $212,000) in personal wealth generated from increases in property values as opposed to homeowners in White neighborhoods.

3. The G.I. Bill (yes, really)

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, aka the G.I. Bill of Rights, was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help World War II veterans reacclimate into society. One of the provisions in the G. I. Bill was to provide low-interest, little-money-down mortgage loans.

Sounds wonderful, right? Here’s the thing.

The states were responsible for administering the provisions under the G.I. Bill, yet the benefits did not override a state’s Jim Crow and de facto segregation laws.

Therefore, while many Black veterans did take advantage of these benefits, many more, particularly those who lived in the South, could not. Often, Black veterans were denied mortgage loans and unable to purchase homes in the federally-subsidized suburbs, as opposed to the millions of White veterans who did. As a result, the members of the new middle-class, those who got a headstart on accruing generational wealth, were almost exclusively White families.

Discriminatory housing practices are illegal now but that hasn't stopped them from occurring in other forms. Just last year, reporters from Newsday released their findings of a three-year, undercover investigation into the real estate practices on Long Island, NY. They discovered that the area’s largest brokerage firms consistently directed White homebuyers to White neighborhoods while directing Black and Brown homebuyers to more diverse communities, where property values tend to be artificially deflated. And across the country, local zoning ordinances also keep communities segregated.

In her book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly writes:

“The cruelty of racial prejudice was so often accompanied by absurdity, a range of arbitrary rules and distinctions that subverted the shared interested of people who had been taught to see themselves as irreconcilably different.”

Segregation is absurd. It’s willful division that produces no real benefits and it weakens our country.

I think one reason Michelle Obama speaks about the White Flight in her childhood neighborhood is because it’s something you really never forget and you don’t understand it when you’re young. All you know is that many of your friends have moved away. Although now, it must be somewhat amusing for Mrs. Obama to think about all of the families that moved away from her — the future First Lady of the United States.

When I think about where I grew up, I’m also amused because many of us Black kids from Silver Spring, Maryland — a once racially restrictive “sundown town” — grew up to be pretty badass.

Systemic racism prevents so many Black children in America from ever realizing their full potential. Yet, we’ve been blessed despite the odds. We’ve had to carry the stress of having to be twice as good as our White peers. Still, many of us went to college, including ivy league schools, and some of us have master’s degrees and PhDs. We are doctors, engineers, lawyers, and big company executives.

We are business owners, school principals, and tenured college professors. We are the parents of wonderful children.

One of us is a national news broadcaster — shoutout to the lovely Fredricka Whitfield. Another is a brilliant and wildly successful comedian — hey, Dave Chappelle. One young woman became a world-class, Olympic gymnast —kudos to the magnificent Dominique Dawes.

We claim talented Hollywood actors — Michael Ealy and my friend Lyn Alicia Henderson. A couple of us were even star players in the NFL — wassup Vencie Glenn and Erik McMillan?

So, yes. A few us went bigtime. Yet, most of us are just ordinary hardworking people from ordinary hardworking families, and we just want what all Americans want — to live peacefully (in a good, safe neighborhood).

Writing a book and other things that I hope will decolonize your mind.

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