HEMMED IN: THE ABC's OF RACE RESTRICTIVE HOUSING COVENANTS

by

Robert C. Weaver

Director of Community Services

AMERICAN COUNCIL ON RACE RELATIONS

32 West Randolph Street

Chicago 1, Illinois

 

1945

 


Prior to World War I there was little enforced segregation in housing in the North and West. Save the Orientals on the West Coast, the concentration of minorities in certain neighborhoods was due chiefly to their low incomes. Even in cities like Chicago, where today the Negro ghetto is surrounded by an iron band of restrictive agreements, Negroes lived in all sections until the second decade of the twentieth century. Then, as the cities began to grow rapidly, colored Americans were not able to get into new areas which were opened to residential use. By the end of the first World War Negroes in most northern cities had been concentrated in Black Belts. Usually these were located in the older sections of cities, contained little vacant land and afforded inadequate space for a growing population.

Overcrowding, with all its ills and social dangers followed. By 1915, the situation was so bad that a violent explosion seemed inevitable, and ultimately a wave of postwar race riots swept the nation. Negroes attempted to get out of the limited areas into which they were restricted; whites objected to their expansion. Out of the meeting of these two forces tensions evolved. The general failure of the law enforcement agencies to give equal protection to Negroes encouraged acts of violence on the part of whites. Lack of confidence in the police led many normally law-abiding Negroes to take steps to protect their lives and families, and they fought back.

ENTER RACIAL COVENANTS

The essence of the housing problem of Negroes and other nonwhite groups in the North and the West for the last twenty-five years has been a lack of space and housing facilities. This condition has arisen because colored people no longer have free access to all sections of the city. Rather, they are limited to well-defined and inadequate areas. This is affected through many devices of a doubtful and illegal nature. Zoning was used to keep Negroes out of certain areas until the Supreme Court declared such action unconstitutional. Subsequently race restrictive covenants were developed to effect a similar result through individual agreements. Economic and social pressures supplemented and sometimes were substituted for covenants. Physical violence has often been used -- especially in lower income areas.

Race restrictive housing covenants are compacts entered into by a group of property owners and real estate operators in a given neighborhood in a given neighborhood binding them not to sell, rent, lease or otherwise convey their property to colored people for a definite period unless all agree to the transaction. The constitutionality of race restrictive housing covenants has not been fully tested, and there is much doubt of it. Professor D. O. McGovney, of the University of California, for example, has stated in an article appearing in the March, 1945, issue of the California Law Review that state court enforcement of race restrictive covenants is unconstitutional.

This does not mean that a group cannot sign such agreements, but it does mean that when one or more of the signers breaks the agreement (as one or more usually does sooner or later), it may be unconstitutional for the state court to force the recalcitrant to keep his original pledge. If it is established that the state courts cannot take such action, or if these covenants are declared constitutional on any other grounds, the race restrictive covenant will no longer be an effective means of keeping Negroes or other groups out of given areas.

THEY HOG THE AVAILABLE LAND SPACE

All new low-income workers have been concentrated in the slums of American cities. With noncolored groups, this has been a first stop, dictated principally by economic status. As individuals in the group have advanced in the economic and social scale, they have moved into new and better neighborhoods. Negroes and certain other nonwhite groups have been relegated permanently to ghettos where they are forced to remain just because of their color.

Of all the instruments which effect this residential segregation, race restrictive covenants are the most dangerous. Such covenants give legal sanction (until declared unconstitutional) and consequently respectability to residential segregation. This is a significant psychological force since race restrictive housing covenants are usually most prevalent among the middle- and upper-income groups in the community. As a result of their existence, other groups resort to less formal but equally effective means of keeping minorities out. As long as the 'better people' in a community sign restrictions against certain groups and the courts enforce such agreements, other elements 'protect' their neighborhoods against minorities, too.

Closely associated with this psychological factor are the economic results of race restrictive covenants. The most important of these is the supply of housing available to minority groups on all income levels. This follows because all whites develop deep-rooted interests in all neighborhoods not already occupied by Negroes. Consequently, even when there are private funds available for the construction of more housing open to minorities, and all sites outside established ghettos are opposed; usually, these ghettos are already overpopulated, and seldom do they offer desirable sites for new construction.

There is another related effect. Negro and other minorities expand in a geographic pattern of gradual accretions to existing areas of occupancy. This occurs without regard to the type of housing involved. As a matter of fact, race restrictive covenants have not prevented and cannot prevent the expansion of living space for mounting Negro populations. They delay this movement, make the final break-through almost a rout, and create unyielding interests on the part of present occupants to keep Negroes out.

CONGESTION FOLLOWS

This result, in turn, leads to a perpetuation of overcrowding since the supply of housing and vacant land available by minorities never equals or approaches the demand. Also, the fact that dwellings ill adapted to the family needs and rent-paying abilities of low-income families are usually involved means that doubling up and physical deterioration are inevitable. It is the restriction of occupancy to whites in these higher rank areas adjacent to the Black Belt which ultimately constitutes the greatest danger to the area. For, as we have observed, this restriction becomes contagious and spreads to other areas -- areas into which low-income families normally move. Race restrictive housing covenants, by diverting the normal movement of minorities, end in forcing these groups to pour into areas adjacent to their present centers of concentration. This is assured by the fact that the internal pressures for expansion in the ghettos are so great that when any new area is open, minorities already overcrowded and restricted rush in and extend the area of overcrowding.

The only way to protect these adjacent areas is to provide adequate space and housing accommodations for minorities elsewhere. This cannot be done

MINORITIES HAVE TO BUY

While the city and the majority group suffer from the economic losses outlined above, minorities, too, are adversely affected. In the first place, minorities, because their demand for housing far exceeds the supply, have to pay higher rents and purchasing prices for less desirable accommodations. Second, when an individual belonging to a minority attempts to escape from the ghetto, he is usually forced to purchase his house. In normal times the purchase of a home is often a bad risk for a family with limited income. In the case of a minority group family the risk is accentuated since it has to offer an extremely high price in order to get a house. This is particularly true of the early entrants into new areas. Third, when a neighborhood is already well advanced toward physical and social decay, it is not unusual to offer houses in it (at inflated prices) to minority group purchasers. Often this temporarily arrests the normal decline in values.

There is another factor which is extremely pertinent at the present time. This is an inflated real estate market and prices are sure to fall within the next decade. But restrictions on space available to minority groups are now forcing many of their members to initiate or contemplate home ownership. The prospects of declining values and the low and uncertain future incomes of many potential purchasers makes home ownership doubly risky for minorities.

RACIAL COVENANTS CAUSE OVERCROWDING

The social ills of residential segregation (which results from race restrictive covenants) are too numerous to catalogue. Only the most important will be outlined, since a visit to the Black Belt or to Chinatown in any community will present them graphically to anyone who will take the trip.

Deterioration of physical facilities is the most obvious result of residential segregation. Physical deterioration is caused by economic and not racial factors. It occurs whenever and with whomever overcrowding is prevalent. But overcrowding, regardless of its cause, brings a decline of neighborhood standards and an inevitable inadequacy of neighborhood services such as street repair, garbage and trash removal, police and fire protection.

SEGREGATION SPREADS

Residential segregation causes segregation in schools, recreational facilities and other public services in areas where such segregation is prohibited by law. When groups are herded together in a given area, they are generally restricted to the use of public facilities which are located in the area where they live. At the same time, residents in other areas soon come to think of the public facilities which serve them as restricted facilities. This was graphically illustrated in the summer of 1945 when the Hyde Park Herald, a leading instrument of the proponents of race restrictive covenants, erroneously claimed that the beaches on the lake front of Chicago were "white" and "Negro" beaches.

PEOPLE FEAR AND HATE

As long as a group is relegated and confined to a physically undesirable area (as any overcrowded neighborhood inevitably becomes), its occupants are all lumped together in the minds of most people. A curious train of reasoning is initiated: the occupants of such an area are all believed to be undesirable (as indeed some are, largely because of their bad housing), and then their perpetual and universal banishment to the ghetto is defended on the basis of the imputed 'racial' characteristics. Sincere there is little intergroup contact on the basis of normal activity, such attitudes grow stronger, and segregation gains positive acceptance. Any proposal to break down the segregated pattern is automatically opposed. An illustration from the armed forces will support this observation. Democratic America has four armies: a white army, a Negro army, a Japanese-American army, and an Indian army. The Negro army is the second largest, but it is a segregated army. When, under the stress of battle, this segregation breaks down, the average soldier is convinced that some officer made a mistake!

While the majority group is developing fears and stereotypes of the minority group, the latter is acquiring and strengthening anti-majority group attitudes. The frustrations, the disappointments and the limitations of living in the ghetto become identified with the power and controls lodged in the majority group.

These mutual fears, so often fanned by housing situations, are a terrible cost for any democratic community to pay. In city after city it has been illustrated that in times of intergroup tensions or conflicts minorities concentrated in ghettos can be more easily victimized than in situations where they are fairly widely distributed. Residential segregation breeds intergroup distrust and conflict, and it accentuates the costs of these conflicts.

WHAT TO DO

There would be little use to discuss residential segregation and its principal instrument, race restrictive covenants, if all we could say about them was that, like sin, they are bad. Nor does it do much good to explain to a main who is fearful of what will happen to his neighborhood if Negroes enter it that the possible result is due to social and economic and not racial factors. He fears a result, and in the present situation, that result will probably follow. He has seen what has happened to other areas taken over by colored tenants; he is easily convinced that the entrance of any colored families will bring in many, many more and that the neighborhood will deteriorate. Even if he is a low-income person, living in a congested slum, he has imaginary vested interests in maintaining his neighborhood for white occupancy. What is needed, therefore, is such planning as will reduce the possibility of the result he envisions.

Such planning is possible. It will require an attack upon race restrictive covenants, the development of certain neighborhood controls, and the creation of more housing and more space available to minorities. In order to accomplish these highly important objectives, there must be action on several fronts involving the courts, the legislatures, the media of publicity, and direct economic action.

HOW TO DO IT

The fight against race restrictive housing covenants in the courts is of long standing. Recent legal research suggests that it has a good chance to succeed if it is carefully planned and expertly executed. The psychological, economic, and social costs of these covenants have rarely been assembled. Less frequently have they been combined with the moral issue and presented to the public. Nor has it been indicated that race restrictive covenants do not actually offer the protection they are said to afford. These things must be done in each community.

At the same time, aroused public opinion should press for state legislation barring race restrictive housing covenants. Such action, already initiated in many states, is significant for several reasons. If it is successful, it will prevent the spread of race restrictive covenants. If the legislation is not passed, its consideration will offer a forum from which the issue can be discussed and through which a large number of people can be reached.

ONE POINT OF AGREEMENT

In the final analysis, however, the solution to the housing problem of minorities and the way to remove the fear of their "invasion" into new neighborhoods is to provide more space and facilities. In this regard, the opponents and the proponents of race restrictive covenants are on common ground. On the one hand, minorities must have more housing. This housing should be designed to meet their needs and rent-paying abilities. It should not all be hand-me-downs. It should be located in relation to work opportunities and community facilities. On the other hand, those who embrace race restrictive covenants as a means of protecting high-rent neighborhoods from overcrowding by low-income families (who happen to be composed of minority group persons) will find their greatest protection in the development of adequate housing for low-income occupants.

The most significant action which both groups take, therefore, is to open new areas to minorities. This means access to established neighborhoods by members of minority groups, the construction of new housing available to minorities and the removal of race restrictive covenants.

SOME PROPERTY RESTRICTIONS ARE DESIRABLE

If, instead of restrictions on account of race, creed, and color, there were agreements binding property owners not to sell or lease except to single families, barring excessive roomers, and otherwise dealing with the type of occupancy, properties would be better protected during both white and Negro occupancy. This would protect the integrity of the neighborhood and afford an opportunity for the member of a minority group who has the means and the urge to live in a desirable neighborhood. It would also prevent, or at least lessen, the exodus of all whites upon the entrance of a few Negroes -- and this is what depresses property values. But it would do more; it would become an important factor in removing racial covenants and other restrictive devices in improved and vacant areas. Such action would permit areas open to minority group occupancy to expand more normally. It would provide more space and housing units for colored people. This, in turn, would lessen the pressure upon other neighborhoods (ill adapted from the economic point of view), permit selective infiltration of minorities into such areas, and reinforce the type of protection mentioned above.

NO NEW SEGREGATION

As soon as there is a proposal for opening new areas to certain minorities, many people assume that they should be occupied exclusively by these groups. Yet, if the neighborhoods are well planned and desirably located, and if there are adequate protections of neighborhood standards, all groups will find them attractive. From a long-run point of view, it is extremely desirable that these neighborhoods remain open to all groups in the community.

At the end of World War I we had a serious housing problem in our northern cities similar to that of today; it was the result of segregation. If we simply create more and larger segregated areas in the postwar period, we will not have solved the problem; we will have postponed it. Segregation creates racial vested interests and prevents a normal expansion of group participation. This is true in jobs, schools, and housing. To plan soundly for the future, we must plan for expansion; this means nonsegregation."


This WWW page was created by Wendy Plotkin (wendy.plotkin@asu.edu) in 1998 and updated on 1 September 2003.