We know racial segregation exists in our communities. We know this segregation is rooted in history. And yet, sometimes we allow ourselves to believe that segregation is somehow a natural thing, that it happened all on its own. But segregation in the United States did not happen happen that way. The racial divisions we see in our neighborhoods today are the result of deliberate actions taken in the past.
Those actions, rooted in racism, were carried out by both individuals and institutions. We don't have to guess at their origins. We have the documentation.
One of the clearest visual representations of how racist policies shaped our neighborhoods comes from a mapping project launched in the 1930s by the federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation. The HOLC was created in 1933 in response to the Great Depression as a way to help stabilize the housing market in the U.S. It did so by refinancing home mortgages and reshaping the entire residential lending industry. Along the way, HOLC commissioned so-called "Residential Security Maps" for more than 200 U.S. cities. These maps served as a guide for home lenders, including banks and the Federal Housing Administration.
The HOLC maps also give us the origin of the term "redlining." If you're unfamiliar with the term, here's a definition from the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston:
Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents' qualifications or credit worthiness. The term "redlining" refers to the practice of using a red line on a map to delineate the area where financial institutions would not invest.
The practice of redlining and its lingering consequences play a compelling role in Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent blockbuster essay in The Atlantic, titled "The Case for Reparations."
Much of Coates' argument focuses on events that happened in Chicago. But the practice of redlining happened all over. We can see its origins in the HOLC Residential Security Maps for a number of Michigan cities.
These maps, which date back more than seven decades, are available to us online thanks to urbanoasis.org. Here are links to the available HOLC maps for Michigan cities:
If you need some help deciphering the maps, the Grand Rapids Historic Commission has a useful guide, which includes a legend describing what each color on the map was meant to signify to home lenders at the time. The GRHC also has a helpful article titled "Jumping to Conclusions About the HOLC and Redlining." The article points out the HOLC maps did not necessarily create residential housing discrimination, but rather reflected the discriminatory practices that were already in place in each local area. Another point: areas marked in red were not always barred from receiving home loans backed by the federal government. But that was often the case.
What's remarkable (though unfortunately not at all surprising) to me about the maps is how they illustrate the amazing persistence of racial segregation and disinvestment in our neighborhoods. Most of the areas that were marked in red in the 1930s are still, to this day, struggling neighborhoods.
If you know of any other online projects featuring HOLC maps of Michigan cities, please let us know about them in the comments.