There are two reasons to read history. One is to get lost in it, and the other is to learn from it. I’ve always been more interested in the latter. When economists started published papers on “redlining” a few years ago, it didn’t seem like they were giving us that choice. This was history that we were still lost in, whether we read about it or not.
So, I wrote a book to understand why.
The practice of redlining long predates the word. It was coined in the 1960s to describe the maps that mortgage lenders used to find creditworthy borrowers. The neighborhoods were color-coded to indicate risk. Red was the worst. The lines they drew divided our cities in ways both old and new. Lenders had been differentiating between neighborhoods for decades, even before the maps were drawn. But these maps weren’t made by the lenders. They were made by appraisers working for the federal government, and they dictated the flow of capital — both private and public — until they were outlawed in 1968.
Every semester, I show my students the maps. They’re overtly racist. The appraisers weren’t shy about their motives. Keeping races in their places may not have been their only goal, but it was clearly high on the list. They said so in terms that would offend modern ears and eyes.
They didn’t invent segregation. But they did institutionalize it. They made it the official policy of the United States government, not only to concentrate Black residents in redlined neighborhoods but also to siphon resources away from them. Even as Black families climbed the socioeconomic ladder in the mid-20th century, redlining denied them access to homeownership, to wealth creation, to the very definition of the American dream.
The federal government commissioned the maps over 80 years ago, but they predict a lot of differences between neighborhoods to this day: life expectancy, crime, housing value, poverty, income, wealth, built environment, natural environment, even COVID-19 deaths. If everybody had equal access to opportunity in every neighborhood, that correlation wouldn’t be so strong. Places would change. Their reputation in the 1930s wouldn’t determine the fate of the residents nearly a century later. Redlining froze them in place, like Pompeii caked in the ashes of a long forgotten eruption.
I don’t know if it was James Joyce or Stephen Dedalus who said that history “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Both, maybe. But I know they would have felt that way about redlining.
Keeping Races in Their Places is the story of that nightmare. It begins by asking what Black migrants hoped to find when they flooded into cities in the early 20th century — what promise the new land held for them — and what reality they encountered upon their arrival. It then asks why everyone in power — lenders, appraisers, policymakers, voters — felt it was necessary to stifle these dreams, to pack the new residents in confined spaces where they could not borrow or buy or thrive…or leave. It follows these residents through the generations, as they fought mightily for Black banking and fair housing. Leading these fights were heroes whose names have been left out of too many history books: Richard R. Wright and Dorothy Gautreaux, Doris Bland and Gale Cincotta. These men and women tried to awaken us from the nightmare. Above all, this book asks whether they succeeded.
Over the years, many brilliant scholars have answered this question in part, piece by piece, exposing the causes and long-term effects of redlining from the Great Migration to the Great Recession and beyond. This book is my small homage to their patient, painstaking probing. When strung together in one narrative, this scholarship reveals how we found ourselves steeped in so many injustices, from the Black-White wealth gap to the concentration of poverty and deprivation to the never-ending disease of prejudice and discrimination, and why the darkest moments of our history refuse to release us from their cold and deadly grasp.
In the coming weeks and months, you will hear a lot from me about this topic. Like all history, I believe it has lessons to teach us, but more importantly, I believe it is long past time to acknowledge its lingering hold on our divided and inequitable present. For now, I hope you will click here to read more about the book, buy yourself a copy, and join me in trying to awaken from this long national nightmare.