RSF Author Colin Gordon Discusses His Book: Patchwork Apartheid

June 5, 2024

Listen to Part 1 of the interview

Listen to Part 2 of the interview

Colin Gordon is the author of the RSF book Patchwork Apartheid: Private Restriction, Racial Segregation, and Urban Inequality. In Patchwork Apartheid Gordon examines the history of race-restrictive property covenants, private agreements that imposed racial restrictions on who could own or occupy property, and how their consequences reverberate today. In a new interview, Gordon discusses his findings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Colin Gordon is Professor of and Chair of History at the University of Iowa.

Q. What motivated you to write Patchwork Apartheid? What are race-restrictive property covenants? Why is it important to study them?

I was motivated to write the book, in large part, by projects in other cities that have begun to document the use of private restrictions early in the 20th century. I think it's a very important driver of residential segregation. But, until recently, it's been very hard to document. The recent digitization of local property records has made it possible to search them in ways that weren't possible before. It’s enabled us to look at the pre-history of redlining.

Q. Where were race-restrictive property covenants used? Why focus on the Midwest and the Avenue of the Saints?

It’s important to recognize that these kinds of private restrictions were the primary means of controlling the use of property in the early 20th century. At the time, there’s not much zoning, there’s not much in the way of building codes. Private agreements between property owners were the only way to protect each other from, you know, a garage that was too close to your lot or a slaughterhouse in the backyard. That kind of thing.

Racial restrictions were widely used across the country. Who was restricted depended on where you were. The Midwest had a very stark Black and White binary. Restrictions there were really intended to control the occupancy of African Americans during the years of the Great Migration. On the West Coast, restrictions were more likely to be anti-Asian, and even came a bit earlier than the restrictions in the Midwest. And in some East Coast cities, they were both anti-Black and antisemitic.

They're particularly common in the Midwest, I think, because of the timing of industrialization and urbanization. It was much easier and effective to restrict an entire subdivision at the time that it was built. Cities throughout the Midwest grew a lot in the 1920s and, as they grew, used this practice a great deal. By contrast, for example, places like New York and Philadelphia, that were largely built up before this period, had to rely on other mechanisms of segregation. In New York, landlords and co-op boards did most of the heavy lifting of segregating neighborhoods. But in the Midwest, which was growing and urbanizing very rapidly at this time, subdivision developers used private restrictions very intensively.

Q. What are the differences between subdivision restrictions and restrictions by petition? Why were different methods of restriction used?

There were two principal mechanisms. One was a subdivision restriction on new construction, which was usually done by the developer at the time that houses are built. But another mechanism that was used in some settings was assembling a restriction by petition; by going door to door to and saying, quite literally, "The colored are coming! And if we don't sign this agreement, they're going to buy across the street.” And that was a very different dynamic because that was an expression of racial anxiety in neighborhoods that were already changing. And these “petition” restrictions were much more fragile. Even white homeowners often defected out from underneath them. They were much harder to defend legally, because they required collecting signatures, the right number of signatures, and that sort of thing. Most of the legal controversy surrounding racial restrictions concerned petition covenants.

Q. How did the language in restrictive covenants change over time? What can those shifts tell us about changes in racial ideology and race categorization in the U.S.?

Early on, when these were first used, at the turn of the 20th century and through the early years of the first Great Migration, restrictions often had a eugenics logic. They would have a long laundry list of people who were excluded. And these lists, as in the eugenics movement more broadly, often included a mashup of national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, and language. So it would be, no Romanians, no Jews, no coloreds, etc. These long lists.

That gave way in the late 1920s/early 1930s, to a preference for “Caucasians only” restrictions. So, instead of saying who was not allowed, they would just say the buyer has to be Caucasian. And that gave developers a lot of discretion because there wasn't a clean agreement on what a “Caucasian” was. And it meant that in some settings you could pick and choose among different groups. Particularly with immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, that first generation of Italians, Greeks, and Romanians that were rapidly assimilating. You could shift them from a restricted to an unrestricted category over time. And so, by the end of the 1930s, what we see is developers almost exclusively using the language of “Caucasians only” or “wholly of the Caucasian race.”

Q. How were race-restrictive housing covenants enforced?

Restrictions were private contracts between individuals, and, like any private contract, you could bring a civil suit against the other party if they failed to live up to the terms of the contract. But given how prevalent these agreements were, they didn't often end up in court. They were more often enforced as a social norm. That is, people knew where the restricted neighborhoods were. Realtors and other interests respected those lines - they wouldn't show an African American family a home in a restricted neighborhood, that sort of thing.

Enforcement was pursued in the rare instances when an African American family or another restricted category actually made a point of moving into a neighborhood. And often, in the case studies that I looked at, the enforcement was not done by the homeowners, but by the local real estate board. They tried to hold the line, often at the expense of local homeowners: Say, I am a white homeowner in a restricted neighborhood, my neighborhood is changing, and I want out. I want to sell to an African American family, but the real estate board won't let me because of this agreement.

Q. The Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive deed covenants were unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer. Can you talk about the significance of the Shelley ruling in the legal history of civil rights? What were the limitations of the Shelley ruling?

Civil Rights advocates, in particular the NAACP, really struggled to get some traction on this issue. They won a lot of court cases in the 1930s and ‘40s. But almost always did so on the basis that the contracts themselves were faulty. So, they were able to challenge the covenants on the one hand, but it was very frustrating for them, because the implication of all these cases were that if all the t's were crossed in the right place, and the i's were dotted, that there was nothing wrong with the contracts. So, they really wanted to pivot that argument to one of equal protection. But to invoke the 14th Amendment, they had to show that these were not purely private agreements, that there was state action involved. So, they argued, for example, that state action was involved when the deeds were recorded in local counties, or that state action was involved because realtors were licensed by the state.

But what really won the day in Shelley vs. Kramer was the argument that when the police or the courts stepped in to enforce these agreements, that was state action. So, Shelly has this sort of peculiar result where it doesn't disallow the writing of race-restrictive deed covenants as private contracts, it just declares any state action enforcing them as unconstitutional. So, if you could find another mechanism for enforcing them you could continue to write them. And given the fact that they were seen as social norms or signals, you could continue to write them on the understanding that if somebody violated them you couldn't call the sheriff. It's not until 1968, with the Fair Housing Act, that it becomes illegal to actually write such an agreement.

Q. What role did private restrictions play in federal housing policies and the history of segregation? How have they contributed to current day inequalities?

One of the principal arguments of the book is that we've devoted too much attention to federal redlining policies and have to look earlier. Part of that has to do with looking at the trajectory of segregation in American cities, which is mostly accomplished before the federal government gets involved. When the federal government comes in, in the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression, and starts to subsidize mortgages and bail out mortgage lenders, they generally embrace racial restrictions as something that stabilizes or buttresses property values. And they do this in a really unsurprising way. Even in our most recent Great Recession, when the federal government came into the housing market, they're just looking to stabilize the market. And they're doing whatever that market demands. And at the time in the 1930s, that market demanded racial segregation. So, the New Deal agencies, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, just write restrictive covenants into their own guidelines. They view them as good things. And it's not until later in the 1950s, and particularly after the Shelly v. Kraemer case, that it's pointed out to federal agencies, you know, you're a federal agency, you have the Bill of Rights in your back pocket, maybe you shouldn't be going along with this with this kind of restriction.

But what I argue in the book is that, in many respects, by the time that happens the damage is already done. And whether you shift federal policy or whether there's a court case declaring these agreements unenforceable, nothing gets unbuilt. Nothing gets undone. And indeed, the restrictions themselves sit there in the property records like a stain to the present day. There's no mechanism for removing them. So, even though they're unenforceable in 1948, and illegal on their face in 1968, there's no real mechanism for going in and undoing the damage, for desegregating neighborhoods. And there's no way of preventing private actors like realtors and mortgage brokers from continuing to respect what they view to be stable lines of segregation. For all of these reasons, I think the segregation accomplished in the first half of the 20th century under private restriction really becomes, what we call in sociology, a durable inequality. Something that gets replicated by other actors, something whose core assumptions get accepted, and it gets sustained by other means and by other mechanisms.

Q. What policies and practices would you recommend to mitigate the harms caused by private restrictions?

It’s bigger than just the question of private restriction. It's really, “How do you undo a century of systematic discrimination in housing markets?” And one of the most damaging consequences of that, of course, is the racial wealth gap. It is the fact that even if you erased all discrimination from private housing markets today, you'd have one group of people, by virtue of the fact that they were excluded for so long, that just don't have those generations of home equity. The starting points are radically unequal.

A lot of people have studied this much more closely than I have, and they believe the answer is some form of reparations, some form for redressing that imbalance. There have been in a few locations, most notably Washington State, with reparations programs that are focused on the restrictive covenants. That is, if you can show that you were in one of the restricted categories before 1968, then you can tap into a fund that is collected from a tax on real estate transactions, which grants assistance getting into the housing market. I think that has some limited possibilities. I do think it's a mistake for these local reparations policies to just focus on homeownership, because you have to get over a certain hurdle to be in that market in the first place. A lot of people that are historically disadvantaged can’t get over that hurdle and are probably just going to rent for the rest of their lives. So, I think the programs of assistance could be more broadly based. And that they could also use a lot more money because the gap created by private restriction segregation and all the policies that sustained it is pretty substantial.


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