By Pavan Potti
DAVIS — On May 2, Congregation Bet Haverim hosted its first out of four webinars titled “The Color of Law,” where members and participants can discuss and learn from Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book of the same title. The purpose of these webinars is to educate people on housing segregation policies and the presence of systemic racism in our society.
Panelists for the first webinar included Ellen Kolarik and Jill Van Zanten from the Social Justice Committee of the Davis Lutheran Church of Incarnation.
The panelists started off by providing definitions for vocabulary they would be using which would be important and recurring concepts through the webinars. The two terms mentioned were de facto segregation, which is segregation as the result of personal choices, and de jure segregation, which is segregation as a result of law and public policy (infringement of constitutional rights).
The panelists then transitioned over to a video that emphasized housing policies that had given unfair advantages to white Americans while creating issues for minority communities.
For example, the mid-1900s saw the federal government providing many opportunities to white Americans to buy their own homes, while minorities were often declined this opportunity, instead falling prey to predatory lending and subprime mortgages that went up to as high as 250 percent of their income. The video acknowledged how this served as strong proof of redlining, systematic exclusion or limitation of marginalized groups from things like loans or mortgages.
The video also provided some statistics, stating that the mid-1900s saw African Americans having ⅙ of white people’s wealth whereas that ratio has dropped to 1/10 today. The Housing Crisis of 2007 also hit the African American and Hispanic communities very hard. By 2013, many minority families lost around 20 years of wealth in the six-year period.
For the white Americans who gained more housing opportunities from the federal government, they not only had more financial stability, but their youth were also in a better position to succeed moving forward. In fact, studies concluded that children of homeowners were more likely to graduate high school and college as well as had fewer behavioral problems.
According to healthcare professionals, this difference is attributed to the high cortisol levels that people living in minority communities have. Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, is meant to aid the body in extremely stressful situations. These professionals mentioned that they had noticed consistently high levels of cortisol within poor minority members, mostly because of feelings of neglect, suppression, and financial insecurity. Such levels of the hormone have long-term effects for these communities as high cortisol levels induce risk for cardiovascular diseases.
After establishing some key terms as well as diving into how housing segregation has left its mark on history, the panelists presented a case study.
They described the life of an African American man named Frank Stevenson, who was born in Louisiana in 1924 in what was known as “the poorest place in the United States.”
After seventh grade, Stevenson moved to New Orleans and then Richmond, California to seek work opportunities. There also happened to be a housing shortage at the time.
The federal government, through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), sponsored market rate public housing for only white war industry workers. The FHA also made loans to development companies, creating mass-produced suburban housing with specific criteria that these houses were intended for white people only. Additionally, the FHA issued mortgages for white Americans who wanted to move to these communities while denying such loans to people of color.
State-regulated insurance companies in California also refused home loans to African Americans as well as white Americans who were from desegregated areas. Though the California State government wanted to stop predatory sales practices, they never truly intervened.
By the 1940s, Richmond had enforced many segregated recreational activities under the context of “social harmony.” Richmond police routinely stopped African Americans and often threw them in jail if they could not show proof of local employment.
In the 1950s, the Milpitas emergency ordinance banned apartment construction and adopted racial covenants, with the intent of making sure that African Americans could not find rental housing or buy property within their communities.
For Frank Stevenson, he was finally able to purchase a home in 1970, almost 30 years after moving to California. This caused him to miss out on decades of home value appreciation.
Additionally, Stevenson was unable to pay off his mortgage and live without a monthly housing cost in his retirement, he was not able to borrow against his equity and send his children to college, and he was not able to provide much wealth for his children to build on during their lives.
Today, the wealth gap between Black and white Americans looks wider than ever before. According to Brookings Institute in 2016, the average net worth for white Americans was $171,000 while only $17,150 for African Americans.
Concluding the first webinar for this topic, the panelists instructed participants to read “The Color of Law.” They provided next steps after reading the book, urging people to seek local opportunities to create changes in their community, especially by partaking in the implementation of any affordable housing policies.
The next three meetings on this topic are scheduled to occur in May. Hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis via Zoom, these meetings will dive deeper into how housing policies impact us today.
Pavan is a third-year student studying Economics from Fremont, California.