Little Rock It turns out that when you never fix something that is broken, it just stays broken, even if ignored. We all know that’s the truth, whether a leaky faucet, a flattening tire, or our own sorry selves. Looking the other way, pretending it’s not a problem, or, worse, hoping it will all fix itself, just never really works out. This isn’t just the universal law of plumbing, automobiles and our own physical health. This is also true when it comes to public policy and foundational problems of race and class that have plagued our nation virtually from our first steps on this continent’s soil.
The latest proof in a long line is a recently released study, funded partially by the Environmental Protection Agency, and published by the American Chemical Society. According to the authors, the study was looking at “…how redlining, a discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice from the 1930s by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), relates to present-day intraurban air pollution disparities in 202 U.S. cities.” In an unsurprising finding, air pollution, eighty years later, was significantly worse in these originally redlined areas. As the Times notes, “To this day, historically redlined neighborhoods are more likely to have high populations of Black, Latino and Asian residents than areas that were favorably assessed at the time.”
The authors are clear that redlining per se was not the only factor that created this multi-generational environmental legacy of health hazards for our communities. Redlining didn’t create racism or classism. The practice simply encoded longstanding inequities and segregation of nonwhite races and lower income families in federally mandated public policy. It hardly matters at this point which was the chicken and what was the egg. Did polluting plants and extraction industries locate in lower income communities because the land was cheaper and it was easier to dislocate families or did their location near rail yards, access to ports, and availability of raw materials, and their exploitative, anti-labor wage policies and poor public transportation and housing policy force lower income, immigrant, and nonwhite families to live as close to the pollution spewing plants and their jobs as they could?
There can’t be any doubt at this late date that redlining was – perhaps I should say “is” – a policy built on the legacy of slavery and other discriminatory practices embedded in land policies that were enshrined in the founding documents of America. If only landowners and men could vote, then how else would land use evolve for less desirable businesses and work other than in areas outside of where those citizen landowners lived? Slow walk forward into the Civil War and the way that Reconstruction saw anti-slavery forces “lose the peace” and segregationists and lost-causers hold sway, publicly in the South and privately elsewhere, including, as historians and researchers have documented, in almost all the polices of the New Deal. These were the compromises made for the votes to make the deals, and they birthed redlining as an inevitable outcome. Loans were of course riskier in these areas, as the federal policy advised, but of course banks weren’t making many loans to lower income and nonwhite families anyway with or without redlining maps. Read the Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, if you have any doubt about it.
The real question after these eighty years or 250 years, is when are we going to get serious about inequity in our country and the poison of discrimination based on race, class, and gender, and finally do something about it? Our country has always been broken, but we still don’t seem to be ready and willing to fix it.