The Past of Racism Polluting Our Present: How White Suburbs Were Made

Some history I wasn’t taught in school…

Again, if you are white, don’t get defensive about this.  Just learn and be honest, and let that honesty shape your perspective on how and why things are.  I’m not calling you racist (please read my “How To Talk About Racism” post), I’m asking that you see the systemic racism that still exists in the country we live in.  Let’s start with the history:

redlining racial discriminationRedlining – Redlining refers to marking on a map in red the area of a city that a bank would not invest in (see 1936 map of Philadelphia at right).  Mortgages and loans were not given to people living in these areas.  These areas were the inner parts of the cities where blacks lived.  If you were in a redlined area, you were stuck in a redlined area.  This was all legal.  You could also, by law, be denied healthcare and insurance if you lived in these areas.

You may be wondering how blacks got concentrated into the inner cities of America in the first place…Because of WWI, foreign immigration slowed, but the demand for labor increased.  Because of the opportunity for this labor, for the first time in history large numbers of blacks were now moving from the rural South to urban cities.  This created shock and conflict for whites there, so the first black urban ghettos were formed.

Blockbusting and Steering – White Realtors and landlords would steer white people away from black neighborhoods and black people away from white neighborhoods.  Why?  Because if a black person moved into a white neighborhood, all of the white people on the block would move away, causing property values to go down.  So to keep white property values up, they had to keep black people out (see redlining, above).  If a black family did manage to move in to a white neighborhood, the Realtor would convince the white residents to move out and would pay them cash for their houses, at a very cheap rate.  They would then sell the same house at a higher price to a black family with the Realtor pocketing the profit.  This is called blockbusting.

The G.I. Bill of 1944 – The post World War II G.I. Bill was meant to give veterans benefits upon returning from the war.  Benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation.  The problem was that the G.I. Bill came out at the height of redlining laws.  What good was a low-cost mortgage or low-interest loan to a black person if no banks would give them a mortgage or a loan?  What good was money to attend college when the vast majority of universities wouldn’t accept black students?  What ended up happening is that the white veterans were able to firmly establish themselves in the suburbs, a.k.a. “The American Dream”, giving further social advantage to whites that blacks were deprived of (as well as further segregating our society).

These practices were not deemed illegal until The Fair Housing Act of 1968, and banks were not held accountable about such things until the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975.  This was not that long ago!  This was 5 years after the Beatles broke up, and 2 years before the first Star Wars movie was released, things just outside of my 30-year-old lifetime, but definitely in the thick of my parents’ and recent pop culture events that shaped my childhood memories, as well as a large chunk of my current iTunes selection.

One of the many problems associated with these discriminatory laws is that if you are depriving someone of home, land, and business ownership, you are depriving them of the ability to build wealth for your family.  If you don’t own these things, you can’t pass them along to your children.  And if you don’t have a home mortgage, you can’t take a second mortgage out in order to send your children to college.  It’s only logical and factual to see the extreme disadvantage these laws put blacks at in comparison to whites, and the massive “head start” many whites received (and receive) that many blacks did not (and do not).

Further problems that came from these discriminatory laws are the decay of urban schools and urban jobs.

The way our suburbs and inner cities were constructed leads into many other facets of America’s systemic racism, which I will save for other posts, but they are simple cause-and-effects of this very recent history.

Why does the Church in 2013, specifically white Christians, need to care about this?  1. Because this is unjust and the Bible repeatedly and very clearly tells us to stop injustice, 2. It is on our soil, 3. It was on our watch or our parents’ watch, 4. the white Evangelical church historically did very little  to help with or stand for racial equality, 6. It has created an existing system that our black brothers and sisters have to continue to fight against, and 6. the thing we least want to admit: we have benefited from it!  And with all these things, we need to realize that the Church is uniquely positioned to bring justice and reconciliation to the unjust sins of our society’s past.

If you are white like I am, just be a learner.  Please resist knee jerk responses.  Resist saying things like, “Well what am I supposed to do, sell my house and tell my parents to sell theirs, and give the money to a black person?”  These types of evasive, shut-down responses will be a temptation to many whites as we discuss the racist systems we live in.  Rather than deny the conversation, learn from it.  Realize this stuff wasn’t taught to us in school, and it should have been!  Don’t bury history, especially a history that has been so hurtful to so many, and a history we are called as Christ-followers to bring reconciliation to.

And learn not only from history itself, but from the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color, both blacks and other minorities who have grown up with very unique challenges we have not had to face.  Don’t deny or bury their experiences, but learn from them.

This is the first step to not making things worse, and then maybe, just maybe we can make them better.

Related Posts by Noah:

7 responses to The Past of Racism Polluting Our Present: How White Suburbs Were Made

  1. Again – so much varies with geography. When I was growing up much of this was very much a part of my education. In fact there were several from my school – both students and teachers – who traveled south to participate in the marches and such. By all means let’s address social injustices but why perpetuate the distinction by race? As this conservative blogger “of color” yearns for let’s all graduate to the human race:

    • Hi John, I agree that race is a man-made invention and that we are all a part of the human race, and that ultimately is how we should look at each other. But in topics of racial reconciliation, what I’ve found from my research and training (which = talking with people of color) is that being “color blind” is not the solution. In the book “Divided By Faith” by Emerson and Smith, they talk about how white Evangelicals tend to individualize the race problem, so rather than looking at systemic problems, we look at an individual black person and say “well I’m color blind, he and I are the same in God’s eyes, I will love him as a brother and he will love me back as a brother, and now the race problem is over”, whereas in the system of America, because my black brother has dark skin, he still faces systemic racism/discrimination that I don’t face. So being “color blind” is a kind of illusion to bury the systemic problem, acting like these distinctions (and discrimination) in society don’t exist, when they do. Should they exist? No, absolutely not. But if we don’t talk about the racial division and discrimination that does exist, it can feel like we are avoiding the issues that are there because we don’t want to deal with them. Until people of color are not discriminated against in our cultural system, I think we have to talk about race and color because it’s the only way to accurately talk about the discrimination people are facing. All the while though, yes I agree the end goal we are pursuing is to eradicate systemic racism, which would mean that people are no longer judged and stereotyped based on their color, and we truly would be the “human race”. So I agree that’s what the ideal is, but it’s not where our society is at, so we should use language to deal with the societal issues we are trying to identify, resist against, and change. Does that make sense? This is all a work in progress for me on figuring out the best way to communicate this, so I definitely appreciate further feedback from you John, or from any others reading, thanks.

      • I still maintain that with certain geographical exceptions the class issues are more of a problem than color issues. If you live “on the other side of the tracks” it’s quite possible to experience more difficult barriers because there can be systemic over correction that can focus more on skin color that actual need. We have tax and immigration laws that desperately need reform and generations of people struggling under economic and educational suppression of all colors. Let’s not forget the Native Americans either who haven’t made as much noise but have made much less progress. We have human trafficking, families left struggling with failed industries like steel and coal. It’s still racism when well meaning people reach out to help one brother based on the color of his skin and deny that hand to another for the same reason. Two wrongs don’t make a right – we have to address the root causes. I think it may have been one of your posts that informed me of the Christian Community Development Association ( – I think they’re on to something and it doesn’t seem to be focused on race.

        • I think that most in the CCDA would acknowledge that racial reconciliation is a key part of Christian Community Development. The CCDA was co-founded by John M. Perkins, a black leader in the Civil Rights movement, who continues to speak and teach both racial reconciliation and CCDA together. When you consider the history of how poor neighborhoods got poor, being on racist grounds, the two are naturally tied together. I get the heart of what you’re saying John, I really do. And this is why in multi-ethnic church settings, the preferred term to use is “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural” rather than “multi-racial” because yes, we are all part of one race, the human race, and multiple “races” are a societal construct. But we can’t ignore the history of racism of our past and our present, so we have to use language to attack these injustices. To talk about being color blind invalidates the experiences of people of color. They are treated differently, unjustly, because of their skin color, so we can’t ignore the reasons why this happens, we need to take them on.

          Another helpful perspective on not wanted to be “color blind” is from this short article: where the author talks about the uniqueness of being black that she doesn’t want to lose.

          This certainly doesn’t mean we should also be doing all of the things you mentioned when it comes to class, education, and economic oppression, as well as sex trafficking and similar issues. Those are issues Christians need to be passionate about, and they are all separate issues from racial reconciliation, though the two do have some overlap. But working on racial reconciliation doesn’t mean we don’t work on those other things, or that we are to only focus on race when working on those other things. Those other things are high callings of taking on injustice as well, that Christians definitely need to be passionate about.

          • John Andersen July 1, 2013 at 10:46 am

            Let me offer up a little more background which may help explain why I say that much depends on geography and why I say that you can’t build policy on blanket statements or generalities despite the use of statistics. I grew up in Prince George’s County, MD which perhaps has some unique background and influences. Parts of the county still have a “Southern” feel and with the tobacco plantations you can still find the reminders of the days of slavery. When I was growing up the neighborhoods bordering Washington DC absorbed thousands who wanted to get out of DC. At the same time we also had a heavy influx of highly educated and multi-ethnic folks supporting a booming NASA facility as well as the University of Maryland. Part of the county also became a “mecca” for middle-class African Americans. Today the county is about 65% “black” ( with several areas at or below the poverty line yet with some areas further out in the suburbs doing very well financially. Now here’s another interesting statistic – the crime rate is actually dropping:

            One of the keys is “The Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative is a holistic approach to uplifting communities through the coordination of social services, anti-crime programs and job creation.” The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike and to mix metaphors a rising tide floats all boats (and floods basements indiscriminately).

  2. Justus Ghormley October 26, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks for you post. Can you recommend any reading (Books or articles) on the topic of systemic racism? I’m a half-educated Bible professor who is slowly realizing how bad things are.

What do you think? Leave a reply...