Department Of Yet Another Thing We Should Have Learned In School, But Didn’t
As part of the ongoing ruminations, discussions, and revelations  re systemic injustice, I’m going to sharea couple of redlining and racial deed restriction stories.
Keep calm and hold on to your crumpets, Countess. It’s not exactly what you’re thinking.
Redlining, as y’all may know, is the historically documented, illegal, discriminatory phenomenon, practiced in both Canada and the USA, in which there was/is an organized denial of financial services (by federal and local governmental agencies as well as the private sector) to certain geographic areas of a community, based on demographics. The most common form of redlining is via banks, mortgage lenders and/or insurance companies “drawing a red line” around areas where they would avoid investments, most frequently inner-city neighborhoods with a majority black population.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, two of my college roommates (LW and SG) and I made a day trip from UC Davis to the Bay Area, to see our former roommate who and was living and working in Palo Alto. We had directions to her apartment but no map of the area, and when we took the University Ave. exit from 101, driver SG turned the wrong way – she went east, instead of west.
A police car pulled up alongside ours (the cop car was in the left lane of the two lane eastbound road), matching our speed. There were two officers in the car: Driver Cop was white, Passenger Cop was Latino. Passenger Cop rolled down his window, signaled for SG to roll down hers, then called out, “Are you girls lost?”
We didn’t think so, until he’d asked us that. SG said that we were going to Palo Alto. “You’re headed the wrong way,” Passenger Cop replied. “You need to turn around; you’re headed toward East Palo Alto.”
I immediately thought, Wait – this is strange. He doesn’t know us or where we’re going. One second after SG thanked the cop, from the back seat of SG’s car I called out, “How did you know we were headed in the wrong direction?”
“You’re the wrong color,” Passenger Cop replied. I could see the smirk on Driver Cop’s face as he punched the accelerator and their car sped on past us.
We were was flummoxed…and knew nothing about East Palo Alto (including, prior to that encounter, that it even existed.) When we got to our friend’s apartment and shared the story, she told us that East Palo Alto (“EPA”) was definitely *not* Palo Alto; it was an unincorporated (at that time) community on the other side of the tracks, so to speak – a high crime area with a majority Black and Latino population.
I didn’t then (and still don’t now) fully know how I felt about our encounter with the cops. We were, in fact, lost, as in going the wrong way. No GPS back then; all we had were our friend’s directions. We’d have figured it out, eventually. If it had indeed been dangerous for three white college-aged “girls,” two of them blonde,  to drive through EPA, then sure, we were grateful…but also, we were somewhat creeped out, both by being the subject of the cops’ assumptions, and that such assumptions could be accurate.
Fast forward, approximately one and a half years (post college graduation). I am living and working in Palo Alto, and living in the same apartment complex as the afore-mentioned former roommate. Palo Alto was an expensive place for renters (still is, and exponentially more so), but the apartment complex I was in had reasonable rents. Turns out that that (the affordable rent) was because that particular apartment complex was in a buffer zone of sorts, between Palo Alto and EPA. Although my mailing address listed Palo Alto as my city, my zip code indicated that buffer zone, which followed the San Francisquito creek on its meandering way, paralleling and then crossing the freeway.
Living in the EPA-Palo Alto buffer zone but working in Palo Alto “proper,” I became aware of the many improper attitudes Palo Alto residents had toward those residing on the other side of the creek. On my daily morning runs I would head down the street of my apartment complex and take a pedestrian bridge across the creek, a bridge which, I learned, was referred to as “the butthole” by some of the Palo Alto residents on the other side. I enjoyed running through those residents’ neighborhoods; the houses were gorgeous, the streets wide and clean…so different from those on “my side” of the tracks.
Not long after I moved to Palo Alto from Davis I went to a Palo Alto Bank of America to give them my address change and order new checks. I filled out what seemed like too much paperwork for those basic changes. The Very Friendly Young Bank Teller scanned the various pages, asking me twice to confirm my new address and contact information. As she began collating the papers, she gave me a conspiratorial wink. “It’s a good thing you’re just ordering new checks,” she giggled, “and not applying for a mortgage.”
Say what? Sure, I was a bit young to want, or be able to, apply for a home loan, and even if I wanted one my meager salary would not have qualified me for such…but she didn’t know my salary, or anything else about me. Could she tell by – what, the the way I was dressed? – that I couldn’t afford Palo Alto real estate?
“I don’t get it. Why is it good that I’m *not* applying for a mortgage?” I asked her. She pointed toward my paperwork and said that, “with that zip code,” I would be unable to get a bank loan. Of any kind.
While often incorrectly assumed to be part of the city of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto has always been a separate entity since its founding as an unincorporated community until its incorporation in July 1983….The two cities are separated only by San Francisquito Creek and, largely, the Bayshore Freeway….
In 1990, 43% of East Palo Alto’s residents were African Americans, which was the result of redlining practices and racial deed restrictions in Palo Alto.
(from the Wikipedia entry on East Palo Alto, history)
At least two more times, while living in the buffer zone, I heard references to redlining, a practice I’d hitherto had no knowledge about. Reference #2: out for drinks one night after work with a co-worker and his friends, one of whom was a Stanford MBA student. MBA dude, after discovering where I live, gave me the nudge nudge wink wink and “joked” about the fact that I couldn’t get a loan if I continued to live in “that area.”
Moiself recently told these stories to friend RB, who’d moved to Oregon from the Midwest after retiring from her job at a bank. We were having a COVID-safe lunch in a park, talking about the Black Lives Matter concerns. I told RB I was gobsmacked by comments from so many white people who seem to know nothing of our nation’s history of systematic racism, particularly re wealth acquisition. Specifically, I’d recently read several remarks by people who said they understood that redlining and other discriminatory practices had existed, but that that was “long ago” and “mostly in the South.”
From the vantage point of my physically-distant picnic blanket, I saw RB’s eyes roll in disgust. “Yeah, right.” She laughed bitterly, and said that in the 1980s her bank, like most banks in the US, did a paperwork audit and removed any traces of redlining and/or discriminatory language from their loan guidelines, but that “everyone” (as in, the bank’s employees) knew that the practice still existed…only then, it became harder to prove.
* * *
Department of Racial Deed Restrictions
The first house Bay Area friends LPH and DH bought was an adorable cottage up in the hills. When it came time for the paperwork, their real estate agent  rather sheepishly pointed out a passage in the deed that she wanted them to be aware of, before they came upon it themselves. It was a certain clause that houses built before the late 1960’s used to have in their deeds, and it was still in there, but they could have the deed redone to remove the embarrassing relic….
The clause stated that no “colored person” could reside on the property, except in the capacity of a maid or household help, and then only in separate quarters built for that purpose. Such clauses were known as a racial covenants. LPH’s and DH’s initial reaction was to keep the original wording, to show later to their children…or anyone who might say that such discrimination belonged to a bygone era or another geographic location, and not the “enlightened” West Coast.
“What’s In Your Deed? …. Look deep in the fine print. Many residents…have this clause in their deeds: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property.”
Racial deed restrictions became common after 1926 when the U.S. Supreme Court validated their use. The restrictions were an enforceable contract and an owner who violated them risked forfeiting the property. Many neighborhoods prohibited the sale or rental of property to Asian Americans and Jews as well as Blacks. In 1948, the court…declared that racial restrictions would no longer be enforced, but the decision did nothing to alter the other structures of segregation. It remained perfectly legal for realtors and property owners to discriminate on the basis of race.
( “Racial Restrictive Covenants: Segregated Seattle,”
Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project )
* * *
Department Of Meritocracy, Schmocracy
Americans are, compared with populations of other countries, particularly enthusiastic about the idea of meritocracy, a system that rewards merit (ability + effort) with success. Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence and skills and are less likely to believe that family wealth plays a key role in getting ahead.…
….one company study…examined almost 9,000 employees…at a large service-sector company. The company was committed to diversity and had implemented a merit-driven compensation system intended to reward high-level performance and to reward all employees equitably.
But analysis revealed some very non-meritocratic outcomes. Women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score. Despite stating that “performance is the primary bases for all salary increases,” the reality was that women, minorities, and those born outside the U.S. needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.”
( “The False Promise of Meritocracy,” The Atlantic” )
When people talk (in both education and work settings) about rewarding merit, what they forget – what they don’t even think about – is that people often tend to equate merit with access to resources. Consider the children who had access to all kinds of experiences which make them look “well rounded” in school and job applications: dance, sports, music lessons from an early age, Scouting, summer camp and other extracurricular and cultural activities. Yes, perhaps at a certain point those kids had to motivate themselves to practice the violin, but the thing is, their parents could afford music lessons and instrument rentals in the first place.
That idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps implies that you (a), have boots, and (b) the boots have straps on them.
At my father’s retirement party, a Black co-worker spoke about how my father had taken “under his wing” (championed and mentored) people who hadn’t traditionally been promoted in their agency, such as “minorities and women.” Before he retired my dad told me about a female co-worker – a secretary, whom he’d noticed had qualities which would be well-suited to the position of field agent. To the bafflement of his male peers, he recommended her for the agent training program. Dad said that, in his opinion, prejudice against women being promoted was more unconscious than overt: it wasn’t that, when looking to promote from within, managers evaluated the available pool of talent and realized, “Sue has the mathematical, investigative and organizational skills to be a good field agent – oh-oh, Sue’s a woman, never mind.” It’s that they didn’t even think of evaluating her in the first place, because she was a woman
My father’s mentoring of female and non-white agents was his contribution to affirmative action, although he probably didn’t think of it in those terms.
I’ve no doubt that my father, at some point in his life, used that bootstraps expression, in terms of overcoming his background of crushing poverty, under-education and family dysfunction.  Judging from other conversations we had over the years (and the fear-mongering literature from conservative religious and political organizations that I was sad to see on their coffee table, when I was visiting my parents at their home), I’m sure my father also fell for the conservative party line that affirmative action was bad and people who need aren’t qualified or don’t know how to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” like he considered himself to have done.
Except, of course, that he didn’t.
The myth of the self-made man is just that – a myth. Everyone who “makes it” has been helped, either actively (e.g. having mentors and opportunities) or passively (being born into an advantaged class, or at least, *not* being born into a disadvantaged class).
My father’s father was illiterate; he never completed grade 2, never learned to read. My dad and his siblings were forced by their father  to drop out of school at age 13 (“They don’t need schooling to farm”) and contribute to the family resources. My father had no high school diploma, and was only able to go on to school after The War  because he was eligible for the GI Bill. He had no bootstraps to pull himself up by (except for his paratrooper boots), but that was ok, because the GI Bill gave him some.
President Bill Clinton declared [the GI Bill] “the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,” adding that it “helped to unleash a prosperity never before known.”
For white people, that is.
The lack of access to a family home meant a long-term loss of wealth for black Americans. A family home purchased in 1946 in a good neighborhood with a strong tax base and solid schools, became financial wealth to pass onto family members, borrow against to start a business, or to send kids to college….
Historian Ira Katznelson has documented how and why black Americans received far less assistance from social programs than white Americans, and argues that the G.I bill was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow laws. He cites a study declaring it was “as though the GI Bill had been earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’ ”
Thousands of black veterans were denied admission to colleges, loans for housing and business, and excluded from job-training programs. Programs funded by federal money were directed by local officials, who especially in the south, drastically favored white applicants over black….
(“How African American WWII Veterans Were Scorned By the G.I. Bill”
The Progressive 11-10-17)
Despite my father’s background, he was able to go “back” to school, get an education, and apply for the kind of jobs that non-white GIs with similar (or worse, or better) backgrounds were not.
After getting a good job thanks to his GI Bill-enabled education, when my father and mother applied for a mortgage they were not subject to the discriminatory lending practices, redlining, and racial deed covenants which Black job applicants and prospective home-owners faced. If my parents were alive I’m sure we could have many “interesting” conversations  about these things, about the ways our society has been structured to promote and maintain the kind of systemic inequality that most of us (white) folks don’t think about, or even know about, because…well, because we don’t have to. It’s not in our face; it’s not part of our day-to-day experience. Sure, there were times when money was tight and my folks worried about paying the mortgage, but they were able to get a mortgage in the first place.
As a child, my father compared his circumstances to that of other tenant farm families, and the last thing he would have called himself was advantaged or privileged. But despite his family’s griding poverty, he was white and he was male – which in that time and place gave him a one-up over all females, and over any equally ambitious boy who may have even been better educated but whose skin was black. The poorest white boys was at least a white boy, guaranteed that there’d be someone (non-white or female) below him.
A (male) cyclist once offered this metaphor on privilege:
When a cyclist goes uphill against the wind, he is conscious of those obstacles. With every breath he takes, with every rotation of the pedals, he is aware that he’s going uphill against the wind. When he turns the corner, going downhill with the wind at his back, after a while he stops appreciating the advantage – he stops even noticing it. He just enjoys the ride…and eventually may even think, “Hey, I’m really fast.”
* * *
Pun For The Day
I got fired on my first day as a bank teller.
A customer asked me to check her balance, so I pushed her over.
* * *
May you pull someone else up with your bootstraps;
May you never have to be (or live in) a buffer zone;
May we all enjoy a ride downhill with the wind at our backs;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
* * *
 Well, to some white folks. Others have known about this for hundreds of years.
 Yes, this is an important detail, or was to me at the time. I had noticed that in the “racially-charged” incidents at my high school, which was majority Hispanic-surnamed by the time I graduated, blonde females seemed to be particularly targeted for harassment. More than one Chicano friend confirmed my suspicions.
 They do not have the original paperwork anymore, so I may not get the exact wording correct, but the story they told me was burned on my brain.
 that we didn’t find out about it until his kids were well grown and in fact he died without knowing the extent of what we have come to know
 His mother finally stood up to his father with regards to the youngest child, and said, “This one gets to stay in school!” and so my Aunt Lucille got to graduate high school.
 He told us it was a college, but really, it was an accountancy trade school.
 At my behest, ahem.
Oct 12, 2020 @ 09:58:42
Excellent essay on systemic racism.
Oct 12, 2020 @ 11:14:50
Thanks, Katie. Until that giggling teller unintentionally “enlightened” me way back when (and she might have gotten reprimanded, or fired, for doing so, had a manager heard her), I, like most white folks I’d wager, had no idea that redlining was a thing.