Roots, Race, & Place


While the San Francisco Bay Area is often heralded today as a leader in progressive values and policies, historical facts also show that the region led the country in inventing and implementing new tactics for racial exclusion in housing. San Francisco’s anti-Chinese land use ordinances in the late-1800s were among the earliest in the country and were copied by other cities. Berkeley’s 1916 comprehensive zoning ordinance that established exclusive single-family residential zones, celebrated by California Real Estate magazine for its “protection against invasion of Negroes and Asiatics,”299 pushed the limits of local zoning authority and became a standard in cities throughout the United States.300 In Oakland, after local developers, real estate agents, and landlords defeated a major public housing plan, their organization spearheaded the statewide ballot proposition that would establish Article 34 in California’s state constitution, creating a major barrier to public and affordable housing across the state for decades.

The spatial boundaries, scale, mechanisms, and targets of racial exclusion and dispossession have changed over time, but the systems of racial capitalism and outcomes of hoarding resources and power that were firmly entrenched by the late-1960s still remain. The Bay Area’s early history shows how this foundation was laid using a multitude of local exclusionary tactics that evolved in response to court rulings and antidiscrimination legislation, and in many cases, persisted in spite of them. Historian George Lipsitz describes this process as a reiterative pattern of “white resistance and refusal [that] has always led to a renegotiation of the terms of open housing.”301

History also reveals how the real estate industry, comprised of agents, developers, builders, landlords, and investors, served as a major organizing force for, and beneficiary of, many of the tactics of racial exclusion and dispossession throughout the twentieth century. Beyond asserting direct control over discrimination in the private market through racial covenants, racial steering, and blockbusting, industry leaders exerted political control over state and local government in order to deliberately advance a policy agenda to “protect and serve the commodity in which Realtors deal.”302

In addition to creating the legal structures to support the industry’s goals, government programs such as the demolition of public housing and urban renewal facilitated profits even as they perpetuated racial inequities. The real estate industry also played a major role in mobilizing and compelling white homeowners to maintain segregation, as evidenced by stories like the vote to exclude the Shengs from South San Francisco and the movement against public housing after World War II.

Racial discrimination in housing has been illegal for more than 50 years, yet glaring racial inequities persist. Racial disparities in wealth, income, and ownership translate into differences in economic power in markets. This difference in economic power has meant that white people have had signficant advantages in the housing market even after individual acts of racial discrimination were prohibited. Policies that are not explicitly racial, but create disadvantages for low-income people and renters, have perpetuated racial inequities. These include cuts to funding for affordable housing, concentration of affordable housing in low-opportunity areas, and lack of protections for low-income renters.

Efforts toward building an equitable future must start with recognizing the extensive history of racial exclusion and dispossession in the Bay Area, its adaptive and enduring nature, and its manifestations today. The tactics documented here are not restricted to the past. They may go dormant and later be resurfaced, as we have seen with the recent surge in racially motivated violence. While it is convenient to think of racism as a fixed structure of the past that we are progressively moving away from, this view has flaws. What if instead, as scholar Daniel HoSang poses, “we imagine racism as a dynamic and evolving force, progressive rather than anachronistic, generative and fluid rather than conservative or static?”303

How would this change our approaches? History facilitates an understanding of dynamic racial tactics that is instrumental in preventing them from being deployed again. Achieving inclusive communities requires us to directly confront the roots of exclusion, provide restitution for historical racial injustices, and transform the power structures that continue to perpetuate them.

A true reckoning with our region’s history prompts some critical questions such as the following:

  • What roles and responsibilities should local jurisdictions and Bay Area residents have in righting past wrongs?
  • How can we transform our institutions of local governance, zoning ordinances, housing markets, systems of property rights, connection to land, and relationships to our neighbors in order to fully realize racial equity and belonging?
  • What systems must be established to prevent the tactics of racial exclusion and dispossession from the past from being implemented again?
  • How can we act locally and regionally to bring about this change? Recognizing that some tactics of exclusion originated in the Bay Area and spread throughout the country, how might we seed transformative change locally to allow it to take root more broadly?

We invite you to reflect on these questions and take actions informed by the region’s history.

  • 299. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” 18.
  • 300. Hirt, Zoned in the USA, 165
  • 301. Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, 32.
  • 302. Weiss, The Rise of the Community Builders: The American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 49
  • 303. HoSang, Racial Propositions, 2.