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The Tyranny of the Maps: Rethinking Redlining

Teaching the history of racism in America can be a difficult thing. Not because students deny it, but because it is something that is so ubiquitous, so all encompassing, that many (particularly white) students let the idea roll over and past them. They know racism existed in the past and people did racist things, but they have difficulty understanding how it changes over time, morphs and moves, taking on a different character and structure depending on time and place.

This makes any document, evidence, or concept that can explain racism and white supremacy so valuable in every American history classroom. Violence—of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—is usually the easiest to illustrate and explain, because it’s the most horrific. It’s also because generations of Americans have been taught that racism is only about violence that stems from hatred, primarily from sneering Southern plantation owners and rednecks in white hoods. Racism is about bigoted interpersonal interactions, we are told, and thus rooted in our own morality. Structural racism, especially as it relates to American cities, can be more difficult to communicate. Census records that show neighborhood segregation, numbers and charts of arrest rates, or homeownership—all of these have been tabulated by generations of researchers eager to document and quantify the often-mundane world of structural inequality. This data is easy to compile in a handout or Powerpoint slide. But they are often best at showing the results of racist practices and not the policies themselves. And they don’t do the work of helping students understand the impact on individual lives, families, and communities.

But then you find the maps. The Homeowners Loan Corporation Residential Security maps (HOLC maps). They are racism and white supremacy in full 1930s, Wizard of Oz technicolor. Detailed and specific, all the more valuable because almost every major American city had one, and students can find places and neighborhoods they know, have lived in, had family from. For a scholar of twentieth-century United States history, especially one who researches and teaches urban and environmental history, the HOLC maps have long been a keystone slide in my teaching presentations, something to build out the entire lecture, unit, or even course. This is what structural racism means, when the state and its private-capital partners decide winners and losers, build generational wealth in one community, and condemn other groups to be starved of resources for decades.

I first started using HOLC maps in 2008, right out of graduate school. Google’s image search was relatively new, but it was easy to find scanned versions of the maps on various websites and depositories. They were always best paired with the actual HOLC research reports, which provided detailed descriptions of each neighborhood, justifying that investment was high risk because of “Negro incursion” or “low-class Italians.” They were also extraordinarily helpful for introducing the concept of “redlining,” the practice of denying mortgage credit to a community because of its racial and sometimes ethnic makeup. I always emphasized redlining originated before the 1930s and continued long after, but it became codified and federally sanctioned during the New Deal.

For about my first decade of teaching, redlining remained a specialist concept, something that students might only previously be familiar with if they had taken an urban sociology course. But then everything changed around 2014, when Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic.[1] The primary goal of the piece was to expand the conversation about reparations to include housing discrimination, and it helped shed a bright light on practices like redlining, shadow mortgage markets, and contract buying. These and other concepts had been well-known to urbanists but had little traction outside certain academic and policy circles. Only a few months after that piece was published, the Ferguson protests erupted after the murder of Michael Brown, accelerating Americans’ new national search for origins of structural inequality. Within a year, my classes went from blank stares when I mentioned redlining, to a few nodding heads and raised hands from students who were familiar with the concept, with a few who had read Coates’s article. Three years later, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, with a big, brightly-colored HOLC map right on the cover, became a bestseller, further popularizing the concepts and ideas of redlining.[2] Maybe the most powerful tool to explain redlining was the publication of Mapping Inequality, a sophisticated and interactive database of every known HOLC map, with thousands of corresponding neighborhood security reports for communities across the United States.[3] Attention to these resources surged in popularity again in 2020, as redlining became a powerful way for Americans to try to quantify and understand the history of the structural inequality that led to the murder of George Floyd and sparked a summer of protest and activism. 

From the perspective of an urban and environmental historian who strives to communicate to colleagues, students, and my community, the social and ecological impact of decades of structural racism, the general ubiquity and common knowledge of the concept of redlining, especially as communicated through the HOLC maps, is tremendously valuable. It provides an entry point to challenging and complex discussions. But nevertheless, I wonder whether the concept, especially as communicated through these maps, has outlived its usefulness. Its simplicity and straightforward visual force have made it almost too powerful. The intervening decades of structural inequality and policy decisions since the 1930s have become hidden, blinding us to all the other ways that individual, corporate, and governmental decision making produces the highly-unequal metropolises many of us live in and contribute to today. I fear that it’s become too easy to blame the architects of this system from a century ago, putting black hats on hundreds of faceless and nameless bureaucrats. Through a process of trying to understand the origins of a key aspect of structural racism, have we actually moved backward and constructed a new moralistic story that obscures more than it illuminates?

Read entire article at The Metropole