Unresolved, Con’t. — The Tools of Containment

Historic marker for the now-gone Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit.  Source: detroit1701.org

After reflecting on my post from a couple days ago, I realized there are many people who are unclear on the 20th and 21st century tactics that have been utilized to contain and exclude African-Americans since their migration to Northern cities began more than 100 years ago.  Today, I’m going to give a quick rundown of ten — 10 — tactics that have been used to some degree in America’s cities.  This is not a definitive or exhaustive list, but it captures the kind of actions that black Southern migrants encountered at their arrival in cities, and what blacks continue to face to some degree today.

I’ve listed these in the approximate order of their implementation.

Exclusionary Zoning.  Some of the earliest American zoning ordinances, dating to the very start of the 20th century, explicitly barred “undesirable” minorities from the purchase or rental of residential properties in certain parts of a city.  Explicit racial zoning was declared unconstitutional in 1917, but it did not take long for city leaders and real estate boards to figure out that exclusion could be accomplished using economic strategies instead of explicitly discriminatory ones.  Exclusionary zoning practices still exist in one form or another today.

Restrictive Covenants.  The Encyclopedia of Chicago says this about restrictive covenants:

“Restrictive covenants can limit a variety of options for homeowners, from landscaping to structural modifications to circumstances of sale or rental. Racially restrictive covenants, in particular, are contractual agreements among property owners that prohibit the purchase, lease, or occupation of their premises by a particular group of people, usually African Americans. Rare in Chicago before the 1920s, their widespread use followed the Great Migration of southern blacks, the wave of housing-related racial violence which plagued the city between 1917 and 1921, and the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1917 declaration that residential segregation ordinances were unconstitutional…

The Chicago Real Estate Board (CREB) campaigned to blanket the city with such covenants and even provided a model contract, with a standard covenant drafted by Nathan William MacChesney, a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. In the fall of 1927, the CREB dispatched speakers across the city to promote the racial restrictions.”

Redlining.  This tactic, which arose during the New Deal but didn’t acquire a name as an exclusionary policy until 30 years later, seems to be gaining awareness by the general public.  The assumptions made by federal mortgage insurers followed the assumptions included in restrictive covenants; therefore no mortgages for potential black homebuyers.

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 led to two “race-neutral” policies that had discriminatory ramifications:

Urban Renewal.  The general thinking among policymakers at the time was that city investment could be stimulated by the clearance of unsightly slums and the construction of more contemporary uses.  The Housing Act of 1949 authorized billions of dollars of funding to be used for land acquisition and clearance, and gave cities greater leeway for their usage than they’d ever enjoyed before.  That resulted in the clearance of slum areas, but also the loss of historic neighborhoods that were loved by existing residents.

Public Housing Policy.  The new legislation led to millions of federal tax dollars flowing into cities nationwide for the construction of public housing.  Most cities used the funding to create stronger buffers between black and white ethnic communities.  In Chicago’s case, outlying neighborhoods fought hard to keep public housing out of their community.  Most public housing ended up being constructed adjacent to the neighborhoods where blacks were restricted.

Infrastructure Disinvestment.  By the 1950’s the trajectory of slums was certainly headed downward, and cities were facing stiff competition from suburbs.  To do so, cities had to make judicious decisions about where to invest in roads and sidewalks, schools, parks and other city infrastructure facilities.  When picking winners and losers, elected officials will side with those whose votes put them in office, and side against those whose votes matter little.  The decline of neighborhoods begins to accelerate.

The real estate industry did its part with the following practices:

Racial Steering.  Real estate agents steered prospective homebuyers toward certain neighborhoods, often to reinforce existing segregation patterns;

Blockbusting played on the fears of white residents living in homes near black neighborhoods.  They were often encouraged by real estate agents to sell before values dropped too low because of an influx of blacks.  Blacks, however, would buy at exorbitantly high prices, leading to high sales commissions.

Fallout from the urban unrest of the 60’s and 70’s gets us to where we are today:

Strong Policing Tactics.  The numerous riots of the 60’s and the tensions of the 70’s led to a desire for more protectionist policing.  Cities nationwide began arming their police forces with military-strength, creating special forces like SWAT teams, and operated with extremely heightened awareness in distressed communities.

Arresting and Sentencing Disparities have become the most recent step in the process.  The tough-on-crime, War-on-Drugs narrative has pushed our nation’s courts and prison system past their capacity, and limited the economic prospects for millions of young men and women.


Back to the Rust Belt.  I cannot claim with certainty that Rust Belt cities were the innovators of the above policies.  However, I can say that Rust Belt cities were the best utilizers of such policies, and gave rise to their utilization nationwide.  That’s why it’s incumbent upon the Rust Belt to resolve its racial legacy, so the rest of the nation can learn from the experience.


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