History’s Shadows: How Race and Space are Still Connected
My best friend recently purchased a home in a nice neighborhood in Minneapolis. This is the kind of statement that seems rather banal for most (unless, like me, you live in Seattle, where homeownership is a near impossibility for many). What is remarkable about my best friend buying this home is not that she has checked off a major marker of adulthood, but rather that this home in this neighborhood would have been impossible for her to purchase fifty years ago.
You see, like me, my best friend is black. In many ways, she is the embodiment of black excellence. She is a churchgoing nurse practitioner who is married with two kids. In everything she does, she excels. I distinctly remember the time in college when she went back to haggle over a grade she received on a biology exam. She had gotten a 93 but was positive that she deserved a 97. She was right. While I laughed at her insistance over a number that would ultimately translate into the same GPA, I understood the importance of fighting for what you deserved. For people like us, every point matters.
Despite my friend’s many achievements, she is not the kind of black person who fails to understand the larger systems and histories that shape her experience. She and I have had many a late night conversation about the experience of being black women professionals and about the added adversity that comes along with our roles. Still, by any statistical measure, my best friend is an example of just how far we have come in terms of racial progress. This is why the events surrounding her recent home purchase are particularly significant.
For most of the twentieth century (not to mention the previous centuries), black Americans were largely barred from moving into white neighborhoods. Back in the 1940s, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton published a systematic study of how this took place in Chicago. More recently, Richard Rothstein published a compelling book that looks at this history through the lens of constitutional rights. What these authors, and a host of other scholars, have recorded is that race and spatial belonging have been enforced in ways ranging from bombings and anti-black race riots, to neighborhood covenants and real estate board ethics codes. It was not simply that black people were turned away from homeownership in nice (read: white) neighborhoods, or that they were systematically denied loans while white borrowers were subsidized through government funding (although all of this happened), but that black spatial belonging was defined by an intricate system of physical and legal boundaries.
While this history may seem to many like part of a bygone era, its proximity to our current moment was made abundantly clear by a document that accompanied my friend’s deed:
Back in 1927, the previous owner of this house inserted a clause stating that “said property shall never be sold, leased, mortgaged or transferred to any person of the negro race or to any person married to or living with a person of the negro race, and that if said property shall ever be so sold, leased or mortgage or transferred, the title thereto shall immediately revert and revest in the first party, her heirs or assigns. [sic]” If there were ever a clear declaration of intent to racialize space, in saecula saeculorum, this is it.
Obviously this clause has long ceased to be enforced, otherwise my best friend would not have been able to purchase the home. Yet its inclusion is a fascinating reminder of how race and space continue to be intertwined. While this document may no longer be legal, the fact that it was given to my best friend along with her deed is a reflection of how difficult it is to just erase or ignore our racial history in this country.
Today, my friend’s neighborhood remains over 82% white and the median household income is just under $75k. The number of black people living in her neighborhood is so minimal that it does not register statistically on the neighborhood’s demographic profile. The space she inhabits is, more or less, a white one. At the same time, it isn’t. Her presence there, as a black woman raising black kids, poses a challenge to the way her neighborhood is racialized. Her presence may not register statistically, but it certainly registers in other ways.
The person who owned my friend’s home in 1927 would almost certainly roll over in her grave if she knew that a black person currently owns this house. The clause she wrote attempted to project ownership over space and through time, ensuring what I am sure she saw as the well-being of the neighborhood. The fact that my friend is not only able to own this home, but also to call me and laugh about this previous homeowner’s wishes is a sign of progress. Yet both my friend and I recognize the sad irony in her situation.
To buy this home, my friend has to be the kind of exceptional black person that people invoke when they are criticizing those who are less fortunate. This feels especially poignant given Minneapolis’ ranking as one of the worst cities for black Americans to live in, largely due to geographic and economic segregation. In many ways, my friend’s dream home is a reminder of the fact that singular successes, while emotionally and personally fulfilling, do little to change the histories they rival. For her, this history is a shadow over an otherwise shining accomplishment. For others, it remains the key element that contours their reality.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.