Roots, Race, & Place


In 1952, Sing and Grace Sheng, a Chinese American couple living in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, decided to move out of the crowded apartment they shared with their extended family and find a place of their own. Since Mr. Sheng worked as a mechanic for Pan American Airways at the San Francisco airport, they looked for a home near his work in San Mateo County. They found a house in Southwood, a subdivision of South San Francisco, and signed a purchase agreement for $12,300. When white neighbors learned that a Chinese American family planned to move to Southwood, they protested the purchase. The South San Francisco city manager, Emmons McClung, also a Southwood homeowner, orchestrated a community meeting in which Mr. Sheng was confronted by 75 white homeowners opposed to his family moving into their neighborhood. They conveyed to Mr. Sheng that they had “no personal animosity toward him,” but feared that their property values would decrease if the neighborhood lost its status as “restricted”—or, for whites only.

The Southwood subdivision’s builder, American Homes Development Company, had stoked their fear, sending a letter to homeowners that urged them to protect their private property rights and the original restrictive covenants, despite the 1948 US Supreme Court decision that ruled them legally unenforceable. The company also reportedly attempted to intimidate the prior owner of the residence, J. H. Denson, who made the sale to the Shengs. Denson stated in an interview that the company called him and explained that “the whole neighborhood could bring suit” against him and that his business could be “blackballed.” Mr. Sheng responded by proposing a neighborhood vote on his purchase and promised he would not move in if the community voted against it. The city paid for and printed ballots to vote on the Shengs’ purchase. Southwood voted to exclude the Shengs, 174-28.1

The gentrification and displacement happening in the San Francisco Bay Area today may seem far removed from the blatant racial discrimination that the Shengs faced in the 1950s, but these stories are deeply connected. While the booming tech sector, globalized finance, and other forces shaping housing in the region are new, racial exclusion in housing is not. The region’s past and present are both stories of a system of racial capitalism, in which race and racism are fundamental to the creation of profit and accumulation of wealth.


photo: Sing Sheng (left) addresses the crowd of Southwood residents after City Manager Emmons McClung (right) records the results of the vote. The board displays the final tally; 174 out of 202 residents objected to the Sheng family moving into Southwood. Courtesy of San Mateo County Historical Association Collection (SMCHA 2017.54).

The rampant displacement seen today in the San Francisco Bay Area is built upon a history of exclusion and dispossession, centered on race, and driven by the logic of capitalism. This history established massive inequities in who owned land, who had access to financing, and who held political power, all of which determined—and still remain at the root of deciding—who can call the Bay Area home.  While systems of exclusion have evolved between eras, research indicates that “it was in the early part of the twentieth century that the foundation for continuing inequality in the twenty-first century was laid. By building inequality into the physical landscape, cities added ‘unprecedented durability and rigidity to previously fragile and fluid [social] arrangements’.”2

The lasting impact of these historic processes is clearly evident in the Bay Area, where racial residential segregation levels have persisted and, by some measures, even worsened since the 1970s.3 People of color in the region today still have far less wealth, less access to resources like high-quality schools and job centers, and lower rates of homeownership than white residents.4  Individuals and communities have resisted racial exclusion in housing through organizing, legal challenges, individual acts, and other means.

Organizations with deep roots in Bay Area communities led efforts to shift public opinion, call out injustices, and fight for fair and affordable housing, locally and nationally, while also defending individual families facing racial violence in their own neighborhoods. As part of the national civil rights movement, many Bay Area racial justice advocates contributed to the legal victories that overturned some exclusionary tactics. Yet despite the progress won by these movements, and the formation of many civic action and social justice groups pushing for racial inclusion and equity in the years since, the region has failed to undo racial inequities entrenched in earlier eras and is now perpetuating new ones.

Where do we go from here? To begin to answer this, and to grasp what it will take to undo racial inequality in housing, we must first understand how it was established and perpetuated. While our efforts to build a more equitable future naturally orient us toward the “new”— new policy solutions, technological innovations, new development—we cannot move forward without confronting the past. In tracing the roots of the region’s racial exclusion in housing, we find that racism reinvents itself, proving to be dynamic, generative, and fluid, yet also remarkably durable and entrenched. This report documents the multifaceted tactics for racial exclusion and dispossession in housing that changed over time and were carried out by various public institutions, business interests, and networks. Understanding the history of how these tactics functioned is essential to dismantling their legacies in the future.

Local Expressions of Broader Systems

Housing inequality and race before 1968 are often talked about in terms of racial residential segregation, with segregation understood as simply a separation of people of different racial groups. But this definition falls short of describing the actual effects of segregation or the actors, interests, and systems behind it. Segregation extracts wealth and creates barriers that exclude people of color from various resources. It functions to hoard these resources among the groups that are included and restrict the access of the excluded groups. Segregation meant that African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx people, Native Americans, and other people of color were excluded from access to economic and educational opportunities, public investment, and other resources essential for building wealth, owning land, and attaining equitable economic power. Combined with forces such as overpolicing and fiscal austerity more broadly, it meant that historically segregated neighborhoods that confined people of color were undervalued, and their residents, who tended to be either low-income renters or highly indebted homeowners, were more likely to face unstable housing conditions.

Segregation is simultaneously a cause of racial inequity and an effect of broader racialized systems of dispossession, including predatory investment (such as urban renewal) and disinvestment (such as white flight) that allowed for capital accumulation for some through the extraction of wealth from others. Financial benefits of racial residential segregation accrued not only to white residents with concentrated resources in their neighborhoods, but to the local real estate developers, agents, and investors who employed lucrative strategies such as blockbusting, racially restrictive subdivisions, demolition and redevelopment, and expropriation of land. Historian Destin Jenkins describes segregation as “the domestic expression of the racial capitalism of the 20th century,” with “government as the vehicle and capitalism in the driver’s seat.”5 The exclusion of the Sheng family from South San Francisco is just one example of how this dynamic played out over the course of the region’s history. Along with the other cases detailed in this report, it illustrates how a multitude of actors successfully merged public and private capacities using a racial logic of difference not only to justify, but to actually drive the accumulation of capital through real estate by those in power. Within the system that these tactics upheld, boundaries between “public” and “private” must therefore be reconsidered. The “private” is more than individual choice, belief, and action, as Jenkins points out,6 while the “public,” often acts in the private interest of select property owners.

Local Actors and Tactics

Much has been written about the federal government’s role in the New Deal Era of identifying majority-white areas as sound and profitable real estate investments and heavily subsidizing them through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) while simultaneously depriving majority-Black neighborhoods of similar assistance through a practice known as redlining.7 The mortgage industry writ large has been responsible for perpetuating that discrimination in underwriting loans on a disparate basis favoring white people.8 While racialized housing inequality in the Bay Area is part of this national dialectic, it is not solely a function of factors outside of local control. In fact, many of the tactics of exclusion and dispossession were deeply localized in practice, driven by local actors such as homeowners’ associations and neighborhood groups, real estate agents and developers operating within the regional housing market, and institutions, such as local governments and public agencies, which collectively shape local policies and markets. This report examines the history of how these local tactics of exclusion and dispossession worked to establish and uphold a racial hierarchy in Bay Area housing prior to the establishment of the California Fair Housing Act in 1966 and the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968.9 By prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, these acts changed the legal terrain within which exclusionary tactics operated, thus requiring them to take new forms. But by this point, racially inequitable systems had already rooted exclusion in place.

In this report, we do not aim to expose a definite causal relationship between the tactics we describe and socioeconomic outcomes, nor indict certain jurisdictions over others. Racial residential exclusion operated systemically and regionally, even while local actors have made land use and housing decisions independently. We also recognize that this research does not cover the region’s more recent history or all the significant tactics or events related to the topic. For instance, we did not find local evidence of contract selling,10 an exploitative housing arrangement common in some African American communities in other regions. With these limits, the purpose of this report is to highlight policies and actions that historically perpetuated racial inequality in housing in order to further a conversation about how to achieve more inclusive and equitable communities.  

Roots Race Place timeline

Key Findings

Racial residential segregation in the Bay Area is not natural or simply a matter of individual preferences and actions. Today’s patterns are partially the result of a wide range of coordinated tactics used to perpetuate racial exclusion prior to the enactment of state and federal fair housing legislation. These exclusionary tactics can be distilled into the following types: state violence and dispossession, extrajudicial violence, exclusionary zoning, racially restrictive covenants and homeowner association bylaws, racialized public housing, urban renewal, racial steering and blockbusting, and municipal fragmentation and white flight.

Exclusionary practices have persisted and evolved as the legal terrain has shifted, finding new approaches when court challenges have invalidated previous tactics. The historical trajectory has been that as overtly racial measures became illegal, ones that have an implicit exclusionary effect have become more common. Yet there are early examples of “colorblind” policies that had racialized effects, such as San Francisco’s ordinance to prohibit laundries in white neighborhoods in the 1880s. Over 150 Chinese owners were prosecuted for violating the ordinance, while the city did not enforce the law against non-Chinese owners.11 We find that across eras, multiple tactics overlapped to simultaneously advance racial exclusion. Rather than a chronological succession of one tactic after another, some endured over multiple eras, and the overlap of multiple tactics contributed to their effectiveness. The timeline in this section shows when different tactics were employed and how they operated concurrently within time periods.

Violence and threats of violence are the longest-standing tactic used to enforce racial boundaries and dispossess people of housing and land. The initial colonization of the Bay Area was carried out through Spanish military expeditions and Catholic missions that used violence to coerce thousands of Native Americans to leave their homes and land. Later waves of violence against Native Americans were carried out by militias during the gold rush era and sanctioned by the State of California.12 Mob violence and arson were used to remove Chinese Americans from their Bay Area neighborhoods in the late 1880s.13 Anti-Black violence and threats were carried out by homeowners,14 the police,15 and the Ku Klux Klan16 with impunity as courts and prosecutors looked the other way.
Other exclusionary tactics were more subtle and not expressed in overtly racial terms. A set of social values and expectations, not always consciously tied to race in the minds of most residents, were instrumental in rationalizing practices bent on creating racialized spaces.17 These included low-density development patterns, consumer preferences for suburban neighborhoods and low tax rates, and a belief that neighborhoods without apartments, low-income residents, or people of color would successfully maintain high property values and/or appreciate the most over time.

Local laws that perpetuated racial exclusion were often the result of coordinated mobilization by actors within both the public and private sectors, which blurred the lines between public and private action. Throughout the region’s history, the interests of white property owners, government officials, and developers aligned over the protection of property values and accumulation of wealth based on racial exclusion. In many cases, their interests were one and the same. The South San Francisco city manager who facilitated the public vote against the Shengs was a Southwood homeowner himself. Founding board members of the public housing authorities in Richmond and Oakland previously held leadership positions in state and local apartment owner associations.18 The chair of the Berkeley Civic Art Commission who spearheaded the creation of the city’s original zoning ordinance in 1916 was also the president of northern California’s largest real estate brokerage and development corporation, which built numerous racially restricted subdivisions in Berkeley and San Francisco.19

Many exclusionary housing policies now common across the United States originated in the Bay Area. San Francisco was among the first to use zoning to exclude specific racial groups with policies that were used to both explicitly (the 1890 Bingham Ordinance20) and implicitly (the 1870 Cubic Air Ordinance21 and 1880 Laundry Ordinance22) criminalize the city’s Chinese population. 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,”23 pushed the limits of local zoning authority and became a standard in cities throughout the United States.24 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 the California Constitution, creating a major barrier to public and affordable housing across the state for decades thereafter.25

  • 1. Mitchell Postel, “The Cases of Sing Sheng and Robert U.M. Ting,” La Peninsula xliii, no. 2 (2015): 22-29,https:// Peninsula%2C%20Chinese%2C%20 Summer%202015%2C%20ONLINE.pdf
  • 2. David Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781-1894. New Haven: Yale University Press, 257 quoted in Jessica Trounstine, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 197.
  • 3. Stephen Menendian and Samir Gambhir, “Racial Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, Part 3: Measuring Segregation” (Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, May 2019), https://
  • 4. PolicyLink and USC Program on Regional and Environmental Equity (PERE), An Equity Profile of the Nine-County San Francisco Bay Area Region (PolicyLink and PERE, 2017), accessed June 5, 2019, analyses/an-equity-profile-of-nine-countysan-francisco .
  • 5. Destin Jenkins, “Who Segregated America?,” Public Books, December 21, 2017, top-10-2018-who-segregated-america/.
  • 6. Ibid
  • 7. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), 59-75.
  • 8. john a. powell & Kaloma Cardwell, “Homeownership, Wealth & the Production of Racialized Space,” Joint Center for Housing Studies Harvard University (2013): 13-18, john_powell/67/.
  • 9. The California Fair Housing Act, also known as the Rumford Act was first enacted in 1963, but was nullified in 1964 with the passage of Proposition 14. After the California Supreme Court ruled Proposition 14 unconstitutional 1966, the Rumford Act was reinstated.
  • 10. Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts (Durham, NC: Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University), 2019.
  • 11. Dorceta Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 106.
  • 12. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
  • 13. James Loewen. “Sundown Towns in the United States,” Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen, accessed July 16, 2019,
  • 14. Jovanka Beckles, “The Gary Family of Richmond: Fighting for Equality and Standing for Their Rights,” http://www.
  • 15. Marilynn S. Johnson, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), ark:/13030/ft6x0nb4kn/.
  • 16. Chris Rhomberg, No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  • 17. Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 256-290.
  • 18. Johnson, The Second Gold Rush, 97
  • 19. Marc A. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” Berkeley Planning Journal 3, no. 1 (1986):12, BP33113187.
  • 20. In re Lee Sing, 43 F. 359, 361 (N.D. Cal. 1890).
  • 21. Joshua S. Yang, “The Anti-Chinese Cubic Air Ordinance.” American Journal of Public Health 99, no. 3 (March 1, 2009): 440–440, AJPH.2008.145813.
  • 22. Taylor, Toxic Communities, 106.
  • 23. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” 18.
  • 24. Sonia Hirt, Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 165.
  • 25. Rhomberg, No There There, 241