Recent scholarship and reporting on racial disparities in the United States have emphasized the role of public policy—especially federal policy—in the creation of what the 1968 Kerner Commission famously dubbed “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” This is especially true of housing policy. Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White (2005) skewers the stark exclusion of African-American veterans from the benefits of the GI Bill. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2017) offers a damning synthesis on how the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) embraced Jim Crow. More recently, the digitization of the infamous “residential security” redlining maps prepared by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the late 1930s has spurred academic interest in the connections between the HOLC’s bluntly racial assessments and contemporary disparities.
This condemnation of federal policy is certainly warranted. Even the constraints of the New Deal coalition (in which the Democratic majority was, as Katznelson observes, a “strange marriage of Sweden and South Africa”) cannot excuse the FHA’s slavish deference to racial prejudice in private realty. One can and should expect more of a public agency, wielding billions in housing subsidies in one hand and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the other, than a set of underwriting guidelines that “could well have been culled from the Nuremberg Laws,” as housing activist Charles Abrams observed in 1955.
But is it true, as Rothstein’s subtitle suggests, that “government segregated America”? Not really. As new work on the scope of private racial restrictions underscores, racial segregation in American cities (especially Northern and border cities) was largely accomplished by private interests and private action long before the FHA spent a dime or the HOLC opened its first bottle of red ink.
Race-restrictive deed covenants and agreements reserved the occupancy of individual lots or entire residential subdivisions to those (in the phrasing preferred by developers in St. Louis County) “wholly of the Caucasian Race.” The result was a sort of pointillist apartheid, filled in parcel by parcel, block by block, and subdivision by subdivision, on a scale sufficient to quarantine existing pockets of African-American residency and mark new developments as largely off limits. The innovative Mapping Prejudice project has crowdsourced the discovery of more than 26,000 restricted properties in Greater Minneapolis. My own work on St. Louis (a border setting with a much larger African-American population) has uncovered an even more extensive fabric of restriction: almost 2,000 private agreements, encompassing nearly two-thirds of the region’s residential properties by 1950.
In Greater St. Louis, private restriction took two forms. In suburban St. Louis County and the southern reaches of the city, racial restrictions were imposed by the developers of new subdivisions (coded orange on the map), often as part of an elaborate catalog of constraints on land use and building design. The 1926 plat of Baldwin Terrace, one of over 1,100 restricted subdivisions erected in St. Louis and St. Louis County between 1900 and 1950, is typical: it set standards for housing value and design and prohibited any “nuisance” use of property—defined here as any “dairy, livery stable, soap or glue factory” or occupancy “by any person or persons other than those of the Caucasian Race.”
On the city’s northside, where the housing stock was already well-developed, restrictions were assembled through door-to-door petitions (coded red on the map) in an effort to “hem in” African Americans. The “uniform restriction agreement” in wide use in St. Louis by the early 1930s sought to “preserve the character of said neighborhood as a desirable place of residence for persons of the Caucasian Race” by ensuring that homeowners not “erect, maintain, operate, or permit to be erected, maintained or operated any slaughterhouse, junk shop or rag-picking establishment” or “sell, convey, lease, or rent to a negro or negroes.”
Such restrictions were largely responsible for the steep increase in residential segregation in Northern cities between the First World War and the end of the Second World War. In St. Louis and elsewhere, segregation grew dramatically during this period. By the time the Supreme Court ruled, in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), that state enforcement of such restrictions violated the Equal Protection Clause, the boundaries between black and white occupancy were deeply inscribed in the urban landscape. Such restrictions rendered formal and routine—even respectable and prudent—what had long been accomplished through intimidation or violence. They hardened assumptions about racial occupancy and property values that would become central tenets of professional realty, property appraisal, and home finance.
The intensity and impact of these private restrictions sheds new light on the public policies that followed. Federal housing policies emulated or adapted the logic and assumptions of private restrictions. They locked down the segregation that private restrictions had crafted, but they did not invent it.
Recent scholarship on the HOLC has retreated from earlier claims of broad and systematic exclusion. The short-lived program was primarily intended to bail out lenders, and it did so by making or securing loans even in neighborhoods it rated as “hazardous.” But the HOLC often imposed higher insurance and interest rates on African-American homeowners, and it sustained segregation by only loaning to African Americans in established African-American neighborhoods. Given the limited circulation of the HOLC maps and ratings, they are perhaps better thought of as the equivalent of a photograph taken by a red-light camera—a snapshot of a transgression but not the crime itself. Their “area description” neighborhood appraisals channel the conventional thinking of private realty.
The FHA did more lasting damage, primarily through its routine and blind deference to private realty and private lenders (a pattern underscored in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s blistering dissection of the low-income homeownership programs of the 1960s). This deference put a public imprimatur on racialized appraisal standards that remain largely in place. The FHA also accommodated and promoted private racial restrictions in new construction long after the Shelley decision in 1948.
But it is important to put those policies in perspective. In the first half of the twentieth century, private interests built elaborate rings of restriction around African-American neighborhoods and prohibited African-American occupancy of large swaths of new construction. In St. Louis County—where the suburban housing boom, the Great Migration, and the era of private restriction proceeded in lockstep—nearly 90 percent of new homes platted before 1950 were race-restricted. The FHA, by contrast, insured only about a fifth of new housing starts between 1935 (its first full year of operation) and 1955.
More to the point, the FHA and other federal housing policies were always—and remain—little more than a poorly regulated trough for private housing interests. They exist not to secure homeownership but to sustain the residential construction and home finance industries with direct subsidies, socialized risk, and tax breaks. In that role, they have always parroted the goals, motives, and prejudices of private interests and deferred to their assessment of what boosted—or threatened—the value of private property.
The segregation of the American city was conceived, accomplished, and justified largely by private action in response to the demographic upheaval of the Great Migration. Federal housing policies unconscionably doubled down on both segregation and its assumptions, but the damage was already done.
Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of, most recently, Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality and Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs.