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Note: This blog is being published on the occasion of California law AB 1466, which is related to this topic, going into effect.

The last few years have brought much greater awareness of the degree to which racism is embedded in our society. Although frequently misunderstood, “redlining” is no longer an obscure notion, but is now a frequently invoked figure of speech that stands in for a wide range of nefarious historical racist real estate practices. In addition to outright violence and blatant discrimination, there were many similar tools and techniques used to deprive Black homeseekers of access to housing markets, rental property, credit, and mortgage insurance.

One of the most effective of these techniques is a class of property restrictions known as “racially restrictive covenants.” Restrictive covenants (conditions and restrictions) are simply limitations or prohibitions on the use of property embedded in property deeds. Modern CCNRs, as they are called, may prohibit homeowners from erecting a fence, painting their homes a certain color, or replacing a yard tree with one of a different variety. Should a resident decide to violate the CCNRs, any other property owner in the community can protest and have them enforced. Restrictive covenants are often put into subdivision developments to promote neighborhood uniformity, stability, and maintain property values. When buying a home, the covenants transfer to the new homeowners as a condition of purchase. To remove them often requires that most or all of the homeowners in the subdivision agree to do so.

Racially restrictive covenants are a special class of such provisions which generally prohibited homeowners from selling, leasing or renting their homes to people of certain races or ethnicities. Case studies and recent research suggests that these restrictions were widespread across the United States. Until they were rendered unenforceable by the US Supreme Court in 1948, as many as half of the subdivisions built in the first half of the twentieth century may have had them.

Precise estimates are difficult to come by, but researchers are now tackling this problem. Large scale “documentation projects” in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington DC have found tens of thousands of instances of restrictive covenants in their respective regions. Using crowdsourcing techniques and teams of researchers, these projects have discovered, for example, more than 25,000 deeds with racially restrictive language in Minneapolis, more than 15,000 in Seattle, more than 7,000 in Washington DC, and many thousands more in Chicago, searchable by neighborhood.

Although these are the largest such documentation projects, other initiatives are well underway in smaller cities and other regions. In addition to providing a more accurate sense of how widespread these property restrictions were, and the variety of language used in them, these precise mapping projects allow quantitative researchers to try to measure their effects. By geocoding datapoints using Geographic Information System technology, researchers can better understand the long-term effects of these restrictions, just as digitized redlining maps have revolutionized race research in health, economics, and housing.

The barriers to conducting this kind of research have been immense. In addition to the enormous volume of records that must be reviewed, it is incredibly challenging to track down the proper files. Researchers must often visit county recorders offices, and then trace property transactions over decades to try to determine the source of the restriction. For a single property sold in the 1920s or 1930s, this could entail a dozen transactions. Multiply that by tens of thousands of properties for a single region and you have a sense of the scale of the research problem.

The difficulty in documenting these records helps explain why few researchers have been able to produce precise maps until recently. Over time, we can hope, we may be able to understand variation across regions and cities, and thereby understand the relationship between restrictive covenants and a range of possible racial outcomes, demographic changes, and development patterns. For example, we might compare the density of restrictive covenants in a neighborhood with racial demographic patterns of that neighborhood relative to the surrounding region.

In addition, we may be better able to observe or understand the relationship between these property restrictions and other forms of racist or discriminatory practices, including redlining itself, race riots, and other phenomena. For example, we compare the long-term effects of redlining to that of restrictive covenants, to see which was the more powerful force. We know that both the HOLC and the FHA used redlining in urban areas, while restrictive covenants were mostly used in communities that had not been built out yet. It would be fascinating to know, with far better precision than we currently enjoy, how these practices co-evolved, reinforced each other, interacted or not.

Contemporary homeowners may be justifiably shocked to discover that such language, although rendered unenforceable in 1948, and void in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, may nonetheless exist in their property deeds. Further, we can understand why they may wish to expunge such language from their records. To that end, several states, including California, have either passed or are considering legislation that would make this easier to do. On July 1, the California law passed last year to remove such language from home deeds will go into effect.

Unfortunately, I am concerned that doing so may make it much harder to complete, let alone undertake, the documentation projects mentioned above. It may be decades before we have a complete understanding of the degree to which restrictive covenants existed across the United States. Well-meaning expungement efforts could considerably slow, if not impede, this research.

Some may wonder if this isn’t a case like statutes erected to memorialize confederate soldiers. Statues and memorials have very different symbolic public function, conferring esteem and regard. Only their removal from the public square can suffice to repudiate that esteem and regard. In contrast, racist language in property deeds are obscure, difficult to find, void, and unenforceable.

In addition, the effort required to remove such language (often a tremendous community organizing event) would be better spent toward remedying some contemporary racial injustice: petitioning for zoning reforms, investments in affordable housing, or other assistance for Black homebuyers.

What we need are tangible actions that actually reduce racial inequality; not symbolic gestures that impede our understanding of the causes of racial inequality.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.