Mapping prejudice: How the legacy of racial covenants still haunts Minnesota today

By: - November 13, 2020 6:00 am

An example of a Hennepin County property deed with a racial covenant. Courtesy: Mapping Prejudice.

The Minneapolis City Council recently formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to examine the city’s history of racial oppression. A fertile area for examination: Covenants like the kind first documented in the 1910 sale of a property on 35th Avenue South. A covenant is a contract embedded in a property deed, in this case banning people of color from buying or even occupying land. 

Stipulating that “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent,” racial covenants like these have been illegal in Minnesota since 1962 and nationwide since 1968 with the Fair Housing Act. Yet, they can still be found lingering in property deeds throughout the highly segregated and inequity-laden city of Minneapolis — and data shows that their legacy lingers on.

In 2016, Kirsten Delegard, a historian at the University of Minnesota, set out to document the role that racial covenants have played in these inequities, even more than half a century after the covenants were banned. She co-founded Mapping Prejudice, the first-ever comprehensive visualization of racial covenants for an American city.

Her work was highly referenced in the national and international attention that befell Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd this summer. The Reformer spoke with Kirsten Delegard about what Minneapolis’ history means for the city and world we live in today as perceptions of race relations have sunk to a 20-year low.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you start Mapping Prejudice?

I was interested in doing a project that could get the broadest possible audience in Minneapolis to engage with some of the darker aspects of the city’s past. The Twin Cities have some of the highest racial disparities in the country and I felt like we could open up new conversations by looking at how we got here.

How has Mapping Prejudice tackled reaching that wider audience?

As a teacher, I have found that the most effective way to do that is, one, to have people engage directly with primary sources and, two, present things in visual terms.

The project is focused on unearthing racial covenants from historical property records. I wanted people to see that they had a direct connection with these racial restrictions, whether or not their house or their grandparents’ house or their parents’ house had one of these racial restrictions on it.

Trying to convince people that this was something that they should be spending their time doing was a little bit of a hard sell. Why would we spend all this time and energy documenting something that’s so clearly in the past when we have so many pressing problems in the here and now that we should be spending our energy addressing? 

Thinking about the killing of George Floyd in our city this summer, what does Mapping Prejudice offer these current pressing moments?

That’s the thing, there’s actually been quite a bit of research that shows that there are increased numbers of police killings in environments that are highly segregated. That is the most telling causal effect of police killings, or deadly encounters. It’s not just one poorly trained, afraid person meets a person of another race in an unfortunate place in time.

On that note, how has Minneapolis’ history with racial covenants shaped the city we live in today?

The first racial covenant was entered into the property record here in 1910. Census demographic research shows that Minneapolis was pretty integrated before that time. Of course, Native Americans had been actually exiled from the state up until that time. When I say integrated, I mean Black families were buying and living in property all over what is now Minneapolis. 

That all changes after the introduction of racial covenants driven by new ideas about what constituted a safe, stable, prosperous city, and racial segregation was seen as absolutely fundamental to that. You have neighborhood groups — white neighborhood groups, in particular — getting together, organizing to harass their Black neighbors and make sure new Black families are not moving into their neighborhoods.

You have the professionalization of the real estate industry at the same time, developing all kinds of standard practices and procedures. They pledge themselves to uphold what’s called the “neighborhood character.” Race is absolutely central in neighborhood character. All these things are going on.

By 1940, the city had actually been transformed. You have these families who have been living all over the city pushed into just a couple of small neighborhoods where you were allowed to live, where someone would rent or sell to you. The neighborhoods that had covenants in them are still the whitest areas of the Twin Cities today. 

That opened up a whole host of other things that happened to those Black neighborhoods. It started with redlining. Then that contributes to the decline of those neighborhoods, which are then either destroyed or very negatively affected by the construction of freeways. These are all cascading, intergenerational impacts of these decisions to basically reserve most of the land in the city for white people.

Have you been able to influence how people understand structural racism?

Racial covenants have such power because they’re very, very explicit about what they mean. People often say that this is the best illustration of structural racism they’ve ever seen. To help people connect the dots, I use my own family’s story. My grandparents were new Americans who were able to buy houses in Minneapolis in 1942. Even though they were new arrivals in this country, they were perceived as white.

Even though they didn’t have much income and they actually didn’t have much education, they were given this opportunity to acquire property which they took advantage of. The houses that they purchased have been assets for my family through the last three generations. My grandfather’s house was sold when he died and the proceeds were distributed to all the grandchildren and we all used that money to buy houses in other parts of the city.

How else do you measure impact? 

We’ll start with the really traditional metric which is that we got a state law passed that facilitated the process for property owners who found these covenants in their deeds to discharge them. This is a largely symbolic measure in the sense that it doesn’t address the material harms that were done by covenants, but I think it’s telling that it was passed in the Legislature almost unanimously with only one dissenting vote.

Beyond that, people have said, “Okay, I did that. Now, what’s next?” They’ve really embraced this idea that there’s just not one thing to do. The reality is that we have to comb through every institution and weed out all the ways that this same structural racism has been embedded into those institutions.

Do you see this as laying the groundwork for remedies like reparations?

It’s making a case for reparations. We’re providing data that other organizations and entities can use to put some price tags on some things. We’ve worked with a team of economists who used the dataset to determine that houses that had racial covenants on them, at any point, are today worth 15% more than houses that never had a racial covenant, even if they’re identical in every other way.

Hopefully, policymakers and elected officials will see the work that we’re doing and it will provide a new narrative frame for them to understand the moral urgency of listening to those proposals. 

More than once, President Donald Trump declined to condemn white supremacists. What have been the implications and does it make your work harder?

On the one hand, I’ve done so many talks and so many interviews over the last three years that I think there’s no one left on the planet to hear about it. Then I hear that and I think, “Okay, I still have work to do today.”

It’s crazy that this is political, frankly. This is just fact-based. This is just data. If you had talked to any Black family in Minneapolis, they would have said, “My grandmother could have told you this.” I want to be clear that we are not discovering covenants or this history.

I’m very disturbed by the fact that there’s actually been an executive order from the president that has forbidden federal agencies from discussing structural racism. Honestly, Donald Trump is not the only one. White people in this country have decided that they don’t want to look at structural racism for my whole lifetime. I think what we’re trying to do with Mapping Prejudice is get people to collectively remember this history because that is actually the only way forward for us. Until we do that first step of acknowledging and speaking, nothing is going to change.

We’re in this moment where a lot of things just seem overwhelming, but I can say that I am sustained every day by the number of people who call me, the thousands and thousands of volunteers that we’ve had to mentor the project who have documented this history and then come away from that wanting to make a difference.

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.