Q: Talk to me about history. What historical factors contributed to many U.S. cities becoming highly segregated, and how is this related to the racial inequities in COVID-19 we are seeing today?
A: In the interview linked to below, Reggie Jackson, Head Griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, describes four discriminatory housing policies and practices common in the first half of the 20th Century. Note that all of these were completely legal up until the Fair Housing Act of 1968–just 52 years ago. These practices and policies played a major role in creating the patterns of racial segregation seen today in Milwaukee and many other U.S. cities.
1. Redlining. Maps (Milwaukee’s redlining map is pictured below) created by by the Federal government in the late 1930’s were used to evaluate the riskiness of mortgage lending in different neighborhoods. Areas were identified as high-risk (i.e., red) for lending based on a number of criteria, which included the race of the people who lived there.
2. Race-restrictive housing covenants. Covenants, or special rules, were attached to the deed of a home that expressly prohibited the property from being occupied by people who were not White, which at the time included Jewish individuals and some immigrant groups.
3. Block busting. A practice by realtors in which scare tactics were used to encourage White individuals to flee neighborhoods that Black individuals were starting to move into.
4. The G.I. Bill of 1944. Mortgages made available through this bill to support veterans of World War II were systematically denied to Black veterans, but facilitated the move of White veterans out of downtown areas and into the suburbs of American cities.
Another resource for learning more about the historical context shaping racial segregation in the U.S. is an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of the book “The Color Of Law: A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America.” which can be found here.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with living in a neighborhood with people of the same race, continued government disinvestment in Black, Latinx, and Asian neighborhoods over time has contributed to living conditions in areas targeted by segregation tactics that increase risk for exposure to coronavirus and worse outcomes among those with COVID-19.
For a much deeper dive into the role of racial segregation in shaping racial inequities in COVID-19, we highly recommend an upcoming talk by Dr. Sharelle Barber, ScD, MPH, Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Urban Health Collaborative in the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.
In her talk titled, “COVID-19 in Context: Racism, Segregation, and Racial Inequities in Philadelphia”, Dr. Barber “…will use descriptive spatial analysis to place data on COVID-19 in Philadelphia in context, illustrating how structural racism and historical and contemporary patterns of residential segregation have converged to create racial inequities during this pandemic.”