Critical Conversation on Racism, Rent and Real Estate

The landscape of housing isn’t happenstance. It’s the product of racist policies and white supremacy. As articulated by local historians and community leaders, the nation-leading inequities in homeownership in the Twin Cities are the product of intentional harms — that require targeted reparations and policy solutions to directly address a legacy of racial exclusion that lives with us all today.

Part of the “Racism, Rent and Real Estate: Fair Housing Reframed” event series, the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) hosted a discussion centered on new research revealing what communities of color have known for decades — that structural barriers and legalized discrimination barred many people of color from buying property and building wealth for most of the last century.

Grounded in a presentation from the Mapping Prejudice project and facilitated by Neeraj Mehta of the McKnight Foundation, the conversation featured insight from community members and Owen Duckworth, Director of Organizing and Policy at The Alliance; Mahmoud El-Kati, writer, lecturer, and commentator; Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Council member for Ward 5; and Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, UROC’s Director of Community Outreach.

Seeding the discussion, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, co-founder of the Mapping Prejudice project, identified the early 20th Century as a pivotal moment in urban planning that embedded racial inequities in housing and wealth creation. “Racism and racist ideologies were used and deployed in new ways,” he explained during his presentation. “It’s a process geographers have called the racialization of space: the idea that the quality of an area, the financial stability of an area, the value of an area are linked with the racial category of the residents. It was a new brand, a new way to deploy white supremacy that was embraced by all white people, and there was an explosion of new tools and mechanisms enforcing segregation.”

Racial covenants were among the most widely wielded and deeply impactful tools, appearing first in Minneapolis in 1910 and becoming commonplace by the 1930s. Just a few lines of text in a warranty deed, these covenants made it illegal for anyone who wasn’t white to own or occupy a piece of land. “A lot of it had to do with the emerging real estate industry that used racism to sell land,” he said. “And it wasn’t just existing neighborhoods; new development was reserved exclusively for the use of white people. Before roads were extended, before houses were built or utility lines laid, the first thing developers were doing was racially restricting the land so these new neighborhoods would have to be white. It was illegal to live there if you’re black.”

“That led to not just the segregation of space but the segregation of wealth,” Ehrman-Solberg continued. “In large sections of the city it was illegal to live there if you were black, and then other sections of the city were redlined so you couldn’t get a loan. When folks did surmount those barriers and pay for a home they were often met with white violence… All of these barriers were working together to promote white homeownership and deny that ability to African Americans. While it’s been illegal now for 50 years, we’re still very very much living with the effects of these policies… White neighborhoods are the wealthiest parts of the city today. For families who could buy in down by Lake Nokomis in 1950, which at the time was affordable, the property values have skyrocketed. Black families were not able to capture those long-term financial gains.”

In addition to being locked out of building equity through homeownership, Black communities were actively obliterated by the intentional siting of freeways that preferenced the movement of white people over the continuity of neighborhoods of color. “There’s nothing natural or preordained about these segregative patterns and differentiation in wealth,” Ehrman-Solberg emphasized. “It was deliberately built and constructed.”

And yet, racial covenants are widely unknown, even — or perhaps, especially — to the countless white homeowners who benefited. The goal of Mapping Prejudice is to both engage that public in reckoning with this history and map every racial covenant in Minneapolis, which would be the first for any city in the nation.

Turning from presentation to conversation, Neeraj Mehta, Director of Learning at the McKnight Foundation, opened the floor to the audience. Reacting to the troubling but close-to-home content, community members amplified the intentional harm to people of color, the attempted erasure of Native American from this land years before racial covenants, and the fact that, even today, new housing developments in Black communities are being marketed to white residents migrating from other parts of the city or the suburbs.

For Kirsten Delegard, co-founder of the Mapping Prejudice project, the goal of the effort isn’t academic. “Our team always says we’re making a case for reparations,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing this work. By saying this was intentional, that there was nothing accidental about it, we hope we’re providing evidence for redress and also a road map for political mobilization… Before we move forward and summon the political will needed to make these changes, people have to reckon with a new collective understanding of our past. I spend a lot of time doing presentations for white audiences around town… and a lot of people aren’t there yet.”

Recording, Part 1

Delving deeper into Delegard’s comments, Elder Mahmoud El-Kati emphasized the need to accurately diagnose the issue. “There’s a Chinese proverb that half of the solution to any problem is having the correct definition of the problem,” he said. “We don’t have the correct definition of the problem in America. The problem in America and most of the western world is the doctrine and ideology of white supremacy. That’s the common denominator where everything comes from… Race is a relatively new idea in the human family. It hasn’t been around that long. These are modern categories that all have to do with power.”

Connecting to the history of housing, Mehta posed a question for the panel: So what does this version of white supremacy mean for where we are today?

For Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, UROC’s Director of Community Outreach, obscuring structural racism and white supremacy undermines community integrity. “One of the symptoms of this is that many black children and families believe it’s their fault that they don’t understand money or something is wrong with them that they can’t build wealth,” she said. “That’s a painful symptom. When we talk about why Plymouth Avenue looks the way it does some people say, ‘Well, we don’t know how to take care of anything…’ But it is not our fault and there is a system working against us.”

Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Councilmember for Ward 5, agreed that understanding the past is a precursor for meaningful discussion about solutions. “Knowing the history really can help drive the solutions because we can more accurately understand who we’re delivering solutions for,” he said. “It’s the job of elected officials to be champions and fight for resources for their ward, and when I have conversations with people about what could improve the neighborhood, and I say a term like reparations, a lot of black folks have this gut reaction that we don’t want a hand-out… So it’s important to know the history in driving toward this reparations-minded way to govern. Because it’s not a government hand-out. It’s what we deserve given the groundwork that’s been laid for us.”

“A lot of folks myself included grew up with this internalized bootstrap theory,” he added. “Even if we know it’s wrong, we have this notion that I gotta do it myself, I gotta earn it. But, no. Your family should be able to give you an inheritance, you should be able to have that but you don’t because of this history. Black folks have not had that control over land, haven’t had access to that legacy or inheritance or site control.”

Owen Duckworth, Director of Community Organizing at The Alliance, underscored how today’s challenges are fortified by those historic barriers. “When you generationally restrict access to certain parts of the city, when you don’t allow for building and passing of wealth from families of color, this is why we see the inequities in homeownership and who’s a renter and who’s a homeowner in our region,” he said. “It plays out in the current conversations of gentrification and displacement pressures. Some of that is a knowledge and understanding of who owns the land and property in the places we see as communities of color. There’s an understanding, either implicit or explicit, that the people living in those communities don’t have the deeds on those homes or on the land. A lot of fair housing conversations and fair housing law acknowledge and attempt to address segregation or deliver integration but there’s no frame on displacement. I remember a couple of years ago reading a line said ‘American apartheid is built on both perpetual segregation and perpetual displacement.’ And that a piece of the conversation we need to begin to talk about in terms of who’s being impacted by gentrification pressures and increasing interest in who’s living in the core cities.”

“I think that’s connected to all the maps that we saw and who’s been given access to homeownership, which neighborhoods have been redlines and that cycle continues. We have to see these current issues of gentrification and displacement the same way we look back historically at racial covenants and redlined and be horrified at them, and I think we have to respond with the same degree of urgency and outrage right now as communities are being displaced.”

Recording, Part 2

Moving to the audience, that urgency and outrage were clear. A local organizer lifted up the determination and drive necessary from the community to push policymakers to make good on their progressive values, while several attendees expressed the disillusionment among their millennial peers, who are facing the barriers of racist policies and deeply ingrained white supremacy — and are ready to take action, both inside and outside the system.

For Duckworth, addressing those barriers starts with shifting power. “Power inequities are the basis for the inequities we see in all the other aspects of our society,” he said. “Sometimes I’m in spaces where people are showing maps and showing statistics and come back to what do we do now? What are the policies we can pursue, engagement strategies and set of investments? All of those are the right questions, but I think there’s also the question of who’s at the table? Who has power in the process? Who’s able to set, say, a party platform? For instance, black women are the most consistent voting base of the Democratic party but how many places in the process of setting the agenda, even at a local level, are black women actively given space to engage in forming that agenda? At the core of all this, we have to acknowledge, is power inequity and white supremacy, which is vested in and institutionalized in all our collective logic.”

So when it comes to addressing the policies or investments that create even short-term change, projects like Mapping Prejudice reframe the context of the conversation. “When you show people maps like these or talk about the history and intentionality of structural racism you go from a conversation with policymakers of ‘Yeah, I think we can allocate a small chunk of resources to meet basic needs around shelter and housing,’ and you begin to talk about this [housing] is something that’s been massively invested in by government. To me, we have to get to a point of talking about solutions that get back to that point. It’s not going to be market-based solutions. It’s not going to be just building luxury apartments at high density that’s going to deliver affordable housing for our communities. The market has never worked for a lot of us and, in fact, folks who have gotten stable housing haven’t gotten it because of market forces but intentional government investment. So at many different scales we need to be building toward those narratives to create those possibilities and then doing the organizing work and engagement work to demand the city, county, state and federal government massively invest in housing and wealth building resources targeted to communities of color… All of this is working to shift power because, if we have different power arrangements, we’ll get a starkly different set of outcomes in our communities.”

Shifting that power will require engagement and action from white people, members of the audience emphasized. One community leader asked that presentations, like Mapping Prejudice, be shared in predominantly black neighborhoods. “This is information that has impacted us and we wonder why,” she said. “It was intentional and purposeful and it was put upon us.”

Another audience member addressed white people directly. “Now that you’ve seen this, how does it make you feel,” she asked. “What are you going to tell your friends? Just like our friends are black, your friends are white. You have to talk to them, and tell them it’s time for us to heal. We can’t keep having this racial divide.”

In his closing thoughts, Mehta urged attendees to investigate their role in addressing this legacy of racial exclusion. “There is a cost to repairing a history of robbery spanning generations and the cost is different for all of us,” he said. “Some of us need to give up money. Some of us need to give up land or believing myths and lies and false narratives. But it costs something. We can’t assume we can repair this history with sympathy or empathy. Part of what the data does is shows us this is intentional. It’s on purpose… As you leave, think about what’s the cost to you — and what’s the cost to us as a society.”

Watch a full recording of the conversation on Facebook — and learn more about the Racism, Rent and Real Estate series here.