As you’ve probably heard, Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, received a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine. Sterling’s punishment was a result of recordings of him telling his girlfriend not to be promoting Black folks on the internet or at Clippers games. Largely lost in the scandal was Sterling’s history of discriminating against Black and Latino renters and potential tenants on his properties.
In 2006, ESPN writer and commentator Bomani Jones wrote about Sterling’s record of housing discrimination. This past Monday, in a powerful segment on the Dan La Batard Show, he drew upon his past work to explain the structural racial inequities ignored in the Donald Sterling scandal.
Listen to the segment yourself:
In the segment, Jones shares a story about his recently deceased friend, Chicago-based anti-violence activist Leonore Draper, to talk about why race matters beyond Donald Sterling:
[5:27 mark] “All that stuff that’s happening in Chicago is a byproduct of housing discrimination…They [also] built a freeway system through Black neighborhoods and the whole purpose of that freeway system was to get White people from the suburbs to their jobs without making any stops in-between… Housing discrimination is the biggest reason that we can point to historically for why we’ve got all these dead kids in Chicago fighting for turf, fighting for real estate with poor accommodations and facilities and everything that you’re supposed to have in a city, poor education, all of this because the tax dollars and everything else decided to move away.”
How Race Matters – A Framework
Nowadays, the system that Jones describes doesn’t rely solely on “traditional” racists to maintain itself. After all, we make decisions about where we live, for example, for a variety of reasons – how good the schools are, how close the home is to transportation, good jobs, good food, etc. This is structure, and we live in it.
Structure is what creates pathways and barriers to opportunity for all of us.
For example, a single mother’s ability to secure a good job depends on where she lives, if there is affordable childcare nearby, and if there is reliable public transit available to get to her job. Her economic livelihood is impacted by multiple institutions. If she is blocked from one or more institutions, chances are she may not be able to maintain or even get a job. All of these institutions that make up structure – whether it is transportation, education, health and environment – interact and reinforce one another and the effects often carry across generations.
More often than not, people of color are situated poorly in this structure. Why? Policies, both past and present, create barriers to opportunity for communities of color across multiple institutions, whether they intend to or not.
Let’s take transportation policy, for example. Across the nation, people of color are more likely to rely on public transit to get where they need to go. Yet, transportation historically has funded highways and roads much more than public transit. Fixing our nation’s highways and roads is important, but the policy decision to prioritize funding highways and roads over public transit limits opportunity for communities of color who rely on public transit to get to job centers, to see a doctor when they’re sick or to get to healthy food.
This is what we call structural racial inequity, and it doesn’t depend solely on the “traditional” racism of individuals like Donald Sterling to exist in the present day.
Using Jones’s examples, let’s dig deeper into how policy decisions in housing and highways created structural racial inequity in cities like Chicago:
Where we live matters. And where we live is a result of policy.
After the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to promote homeownership. This policy helped create the middle class by allowing working class Americans to build wealth through their homes. Yet, people of color largely were left out of these gains for a variety of reasons – mortgage insurance redlining, decisions by banking institutions, and a lack of credit history plagued many communities of color.
Between 1930 and 1950, three out of five homes purchased in the U.S. were financed by the FHA but only 2% of FHA loans were made to non-White buyers. Favoring suburbs over cities and White neighborhoods over diverse ones, the FHA’s own credit ratings of neighborhoods and homes explicitly downgraded the value of racially integrated communities and Black communities compared to all White communities.
In 1996, Congress gutted the Community Reinvestment Act, one of the few policy vehicles aimed at creating incentives for banks to do business in communities of color. We also failed to regulate the secondary mortgage market. So, Blacks and Latinos were over-represented in the subprime mortgage market, even when they were prime rate eligible. In fact 50% of those with predatory loans could have qualified for prime loans.
Cutting through neighborhoods of color
The Federal Aid to Highways Act (1956) represented a far-reaching federal investment in public infrastructure. This Act would create America’s first ever national network of highways and would facilitate both travel by citizens and the transportation of goods to markets across the country. Although “race-neutral” on its face, the Act created highways that cut through vibrant Black neighborhoods, displaced hundreds of thousands of mostly Black families and helped subsidize suburban sprawl.
Furthermore, investments in highways connecting urban areas to outlying suburbs disproportionately benefited White, middle-class families who were moving to the suburbs in large numbers with support from FHA-backed loans and the GI Bill. People of color were systematically excluded from these programs and thus remained trapped in central cities with a lack of access to quality jobs, a decreasing property tax base which leads to a gutting of our public schools, and a lack of access to healthy and good food.
In many cities that had public transit systems, streetcar lines and other forms of public transit were dismantled to accommodate private vehicles, which boomed in numbers as the federal government subsidized highways.
Because of policy, racial inequity is a feature of the society we live in. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Calling out Donald Sterling on his beliefs and actions is the right thing to do. But we must evolve our understanding of why and how race matters, beyond just individual intent and actions. Just in the past year, we’ve seen the stripping of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the failure to expand Medicaid and the cutting of food stamps. These policies will have a disproportionate impact on people of color, but they will also hurt White people as well.
The moment requires us to understand structural racial inequity and Bomani Jones is absolutely right in drawing attention to it.