Chris Rock: You know what’s so sad, man? You know what’s wild? Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a f*** where you at in America, If you on Martin Luther King Boulevard there’s some violence going down. Gene: That, of course, is Chris Rock’s famous joke about streets named for Martin Luther King Jr., which tend to be in — let’s say distressed areas. And he’s not wrong, because if you look at the way housing segregation works in America you can see how things ended up this way. Once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it. OK, let’s look at MLK Boulevard in Baltimore. I want to show you how to see housing segregation in schools, in health, in family wealth, in policing. But first, an explanatory comma. It’s the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression. FDR is president. He wants to bring economic relief to millions of Americans through a collection of federal programs and projects called The New Deal. One part of that “new deal” was The National Housing Act of 1934, which introduced ideas like the 30-year mortgage and low, fixed interest rates. So now you have all these lower-income people who can afford homes, but how do you make sure they don’t default on their new mortgages? Enter the Home Owners Loan Corp. The HOLC created residential security maps. And these maps? They’re where the term redlining comes from. Green meant “best area, best people,” aka businessmen; blue meant “good people,” like white-collar families; yellow meant a “declining area,” with working class families; and red meant “detrimental influences, hazardous,” like “foreign-born” people, “low-class whites,” and — most significantly — “Negroes.” Again and again on these HOLC maps, one of the most consistent criteria for redlined neighborhoods is the presence of black and
brown people. Let’s be clear. Studies show that people who lived in redlined areas were not necessarily more likely to default on their mortgages. But redlining made it difficult — if not impossible — to buy or refinance. So landlords abandon their properties. City services become unreliable. In most places, crime increases. And property values drop. All of these conditions fester for 30 years as white people flee to the brand new suburbs popping up all over the country. Many of those suburbs institute rules, called covenants, that explicitly forbid selling homes to black people. And all of this was perfectly legal. Now it’s 1968. And MLK is assassinated. News Report: Good evening. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, 39 years old, The apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement has been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn. Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn. In the aftermath, Congress passes the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It’s a policy meant to encourage equal housing opportunities regardless of race, or religion or national origin. And it offers protections for future homeowners and renters, but does little to fix the damage already done. Over the next 50 years, the Fair Housing Act is rarely enforced. So you can still see housing segregation and its effects, in Baltimore and often along any MLK Boulevard in any U.S. city. Like its effects on wealth. So homeownership is the major way Americans create wealth, right? Well, discrimination in housing is the major reason that black families up and down the income scale have a tiny fraction of the family wealth that white families do — even white families with less education and lower incomes. For almost 30 years, 98 percent of FHA loans were handed out to white borrowers. Not only were black neighborhoods redlined, and not only was the Fair Housing Act selectively enforced, if at all, but it is still today much harder for a black person to get a mortgage or home loan than it is for a white person. John: Families are fearful of speaking up about a basic human right that should be afforded to everyone in the world but definitely in the richest country in the world. And housing segregation in schools. The primary way that Americans pay for public schools is by paying property taxes. People who live in more valuable homes have better-funded local schools, better-paid teachers, better school facilities and more resources. Here’s a feedback loop: The better the schools in a neighborhood, the more those homes in that neighborhood are worth. And the higher the property values of those homes, the more money there is for schools. And so on and so on. And housing segregation in health. Because of urban planning that benefited those richer, whiter neighborhoods, people of color are more likely to live near industrial plants that spew toxic fumes; they’re more likely to live far away from grocery stores with fresh food, and in places where
the water isn’t drinkable. They’re more likely to live in neighborhoods with crumbling infrastructure, and in homes with toxic paint. Karen: When you’re living with rats, roaches, and things like that — that’s deplorable. You cannot have that kind of stuff with children running around in the building. A building that may be full of lead. And, not coincidentally, people of color have higher incidences of certain cancers, asthma and heart disease. And housing segregation in policing. Housing segregation means we are having vastly different experiences with crime and vastly different experiences with policing. Because our neighborhoods are so segregated, sometimes racial profiling can be camouflaged as spatial profiling — where living in certain areas can make you more likely to be stopped by the police. And it means people have a lot of unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system just because of where they live. Reggie: The problem in our city? The police and the citizens are fighting. They keep targeting my brothers and sisters who don’t really have nothing. And that heavy, aggressive kind of policing that you see in black neighborhoods in particular makes people feel like they can’t trust the police. And when people don’t trust the police, crimes go unsolved and people have to find other ways to keep themselves safe. But, of course, it’s not just Baltimore. Because housing segregation and discrimination fundamentally shape the lives of people in nearly every major American city. It really is in everything. To hear more about how race shapes American life, visit npr.org/codeswitch. I’m Gene Demby. Be easy.