My Case for Reparations: Decoding the Matrix

The image on the left is a landscape art installation by a friend and former Cornell classmate, Amanda Williams. Amanda took soon-to-be demolished homes in the Englewood area on the South Side of Chicago and painted them distinct colors that could be found elsewhere in the community. This one is called ”Crown Purple” for the purple Crown Royal liquor bag. Other homes were painted the color of fast-food products or fried chicken shacks. The work is a commentary on the colors that saturate communities of color in Chicago. The structures screamed that something isn’t normal here and forces the question, Why is Crown Royal purple a dominant and recognizable color in this community versus other colors? The home isn’t far from where I grew up.

DEFINITIONS

There has been so much talk about equity and structural racism over the past few years that I think it’s important to establish some definitions. One definition of racial equity that I like is from Oboi Reed of Equiticity, a transportation and equity advocacy organization in Chicago. They define Racial Equity as “the fair, just distribution of resources, explicitly targeting and prioritizing racial groups who have the greatest need due to being systematically disenfranchised and using these resources to address both historical and contemporary injustices and their consequential burdens.” His definition frames racial equity as an active instrument that steers resources and opportunities to people and places that have been denied them.

To define Structural Racism, I looked to Tricia Rose, a professor at Brown University who has done a lot of work in this area. She defines it as follows, “The normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics — historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal — that routinely advances White people while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color.” The key thing to remember about structural racism is that one does not have to be a racist to perpetuate structural racism. You could be a Black person and perpetuate structural racism against other Black people because many of these policies and practices have been baked into the concrete of our culture and won’t change without intentionally identifying them and undoing them on purpose.

In her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson describes this structure as a matrix or — artificial intelligence — a pre-programmed code that’s always at work in the background advantaging White people and steering resources away from Blacks. She describes this invisible mainframe as “a puppet master unseen by those whose subconscious it directs, its instructions an intravenous drip to the mind, caste in the guise of normalcy, injustice looking just, atrocities looking unavoidable to keep the machinery humming, the matrix…a facsimile for life itself. (Caste, Page 35).

2020 decoded some of the inner-workings of America’s structural racism matrix as if we somehow put on special anti-racist goggles for a moment. Like everyone else, I witnessed the murder of George Floyd — a horrific event that galvanized the consciousness of the nation, outraged the world, and disrupted our city streets, but for people who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, near the Crown Purple house, this story wasn’t new. In addition to much needed police overhaul (a topic for a different day), Black families have been abused by systems that created disparate health outcomes with deadly consequences and a seemingly insurmountable racial wealth gorge.

THE HEALTH GAP

Let’s look at July 2020 statistics from City of Chicago Dept. of Public Health showing Covid-19 impacts by race and neighborhood. The first map on the left shows all deaths, the second is the proportion of the Black population, and the third map on the right, the LatinX. Without even trying, this is also a map of Chicago segregation and institutionalized racism. The Matrix at work. Looking South to North and West to East, we see Black and Brown people are 3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and these deaths are all concentrated in racially segregated communities.

In contrast to where the deaths are occurring, vaccinations are occurring in the communities that are affected the least. The above map shows communities that have received the most vaccinations as of February 2021. The highest concentration here is mostly Downtown and North. This mirrors the geography of the previous map of deaths by race in reverse and exposes structural racism again. As I mentioned earlier in the definition, people distributing vaccines don’t have to personally be racist themselves to perpetuate the system and to keep these maps frozen in place, leaving the communities that have been harmed the farthest behind. In fact, when digging deeper, it appears the City of Chicago tried to place vaccination sites in communities of color but they also required residents to register online. It turns out that White residents with more access to technology and high-speed internet signed up for many of the available slots, leaving the surrounding communities to witness hoards of people come from outside their community and get in front of the vaccination line while websites showed nothing was available by the time they logged on. In locating vaccination sites in communities of color while relying on technology to book appointments, The City of Chicago tried to correct the health gap but exposed the tech gap. I’m not sure if the matrix has a sense of irony but it certainly has a sense of preference.

Recent research from DePaul University’s Life Expectancy Study uses Census data that predates COVID-19 and shows life expectancy rates across the city. In the map above, we see the difference in life expectancy in Near North or the Loop compared to Englewood (where the Crown Purple house stood) can be as much as 17 years. 17 years of life based on where you live in the city. This is why many say, zip code is more important that genetic code. Factors for this drastic disparity include social determinants of health like: access to parks, healthy foods, housing conditions, health care and others.

The above map shows transit stops and life expectancy of the surrounding community from that same DePaul study. With each stop from South to North, or from the Westside to Downtown, life expectancy increases. While this doesn’t consider the impacts of COVID-19 on the health gap, some early studies show the life expectancy gap has since widened by an additional 3 years.

THE WEALTH GAP

Owning real estate has been the foundation of the American dream. Utopian suburban enclaves have embodied that dream like no other. First built in 1947, Levittown, New York was the first American suburb, built after the suburban model we know today….winding roads…single-family homes…spacious lawns…Americana at its best. This suburb was on steroids with more than 17,000 homes. It laid the blueprint for suburbs today.

Levittown also had another distinction, it excluded African-Americans. Period. In this one suburb alone, since it was created (it still exists today), homes have seen a 366% increase in appreciation. In present dollars, homes have gone from $75,000 to $350,000. Black families benefitted from none of this wealth creation.

The federal government supported the creation of Levittown by insuring mortgages for homeowners through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Homeowners Loan Corporation. They also encouraged the use of restrictive covenants as a preferred criteria for insuring home loans.

Restrictive covenants prohibited landowners from selling property to Blacks. Levittown had restrictive covenants in its deeds. An example of a restrictive covenant states: “at no time shall said premises…be sold, occupied, let or leased …to anyone of any race other than the Caucasian, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant”. The last part of the language sounds eerily like slavery. As a loophole, Blacks could exist in Levittown and most other suburbs but only if they were servants living with a White family.

In the 1940s restrictive covenants covered half of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The playwright, Loraine Hansberry, in her semi autobiographical “Raisin in the Sun” depicts a Black family who attempts to move into a White neighborhood in Chicago while the fictional “Clybourn Park Improvement Association” tries to stop them. In her personal home life, she tells the story of nearly being hit by a flying brick — she remembered as a missile that was hurled through her family’s window when they moved into the Woodlawn neighborhood in 1937 — not far from where the Obama Presidential Center is being built today. The Hansberry family underwent considerable harassment including coming outside one day and finding their car covered in paint. This continued for some time until Lorraine’s father, Carl Hansberry, joined with the NAACP, to file suit overturning the neighborhood’s restrictive covenant.

Restrictive covenants were so pervasive that they can still be found on the deeds to countless homes today. Though illegal to enforce, CNN did a recent story on how many there are across the country and what a massive undertaking it would be to remove them all. I personally believe that it would be worth the trouble in order to open up the conversation about an uncomfortable legacy in our country.

Massive suburbs could only be constructed and Black ghettos could only be cemented because the federal government stepped in to help bolster middle class White families after the Great Depression at the exclusion of Blacks. As mentioned, the FHA was created in 1934 to ensure home loans allowing lenders to require less of a down payment. Prior to this, lenders required 50 to 80 percent down. With FHA insured mortgages however, this was drastically reduced to 20% or less — since the loan was 100 percent insured by the federal government. This was the foundation for traditional mortgages that we know today. 90 percent of these initial loans went to White families and entire communities of color were off limits for mortgages through a process known as Redlining — that created the inner city and literally colored neighborhoods in red for the mere existence of one Black family.

A number of other New Deal programs were created as well to help the White middle class recover but most also excluded African-Americans. Social security benefits, for example, excluded farmers and domestic servants, two sectors predominated by Blacks (those domestic servants who could slip into Levittown for example, could not get Social Security). Many Black veterans were often denied the benefit of 0 down payment mortgages through the GI Bill because of Redlining.

Another consequence of Redlining was Contract Selling. Blacks were limited in the homes that they could buy because they couldn’t get traditional mortgages. This posed a problem — if you’re Black, where do you find a home? As a result, speculators saw an opportunity to buy up homes and “sell” them to Blacks on so-called “contracts” with exorbitant markups of two to three times the purchase price. Buyers gained no equity and could be evicted after just one missed payment. All of this was covered up to make it appear that Black families were getting legitimate mortgages until they got a rude awakening. Frequent evictions allowed contract sellers to resale the properties and start the cycle all over again with a new family. Many buildings were burned down by the sellers when they were too run down to flip again — leaving communities devastated.

In 1962, 82% of properties sold to Blacks in Chicago were sold on contract. A recent study by Duke University estimated that Blacks lost $3.2 billion through this scheme alone. Ironically this model still exists today in slightly different rent-to-own forms.

Racially biased housing practices still exist today. Black homebuyers often still don’t get the same opportunity to gain wealth in their homes. An Oct. 2020 Chicago Sun Times cover story exposed Chase Bank undervaluing homes in Black communities when Black owners sought to refinance in the Woodlawn community — where the Lorraine Hansberry home still stands. One owner uncovered a $62,000 difference in appraisals between Chase and a separate independent appraisal that she had done. Experiments with “testers” around the country have revealed even greater differences when Black families took down photos of Black people in their homes or had White occupants there for the appraiser.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The cost of inequality is great and doesn’t just impact the people directly harmed. PolicyLink’s National Equity Atlas estimates that Chicago’s Gross Regional Product (GRP) would have been 20 percent larger ($140 billion) in 2014 alone — if there were no racial gaps in income.

We must look to countries like Germany that have confronted their pasts and made strong efforts to redress the harm that has been done to racial groups at their hands in order to heal, repair, and to make sure these atrocities never happen again. In Berlin for example, it’s hard to walk down the street without seeing pieces of the Berlin Wall strategically placed for visitors to reflect upon. Places of Nazi terror have been converted to places for education and learning. Part of their program also included financial reparations to the victims and families that were harmed. Notably, some American cities are taking leadership in this area. The City of Evanston recently created an Equity and Empowerment Commission and adopted a resolution affirming the city’s commitment to end structural racism and achieve racial equity. Part of their program proposes a form of reparations. It’s unclear as to how this ambitious initiative will be funded and develop but it’s good to see the conversation starting. This is obviously a national issue that will ultimately take leadership from the federal government. President Biden recently expressed his support for HR 40 or “The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” introduced by the House in Jan. 2019 to study the process. This bill needs to continue to move forward.

Reparations is not just a settlement plan to cover the cost of the immeasurable free labor system that built the roads, rail, and economic ballast of America as we know it over the centuries of American slavery. As we’ve seen here, the harm is more present than that. We live with it as a society everyday under systems that still exist in our generation. Today Black families have less than a tenth of the wealth of White families. It’s impossible to completely monetize the lives lost and Black futures stolen but we can quantify in present dollars the impacts of economic systems that we know excluded Blacks from participation. An American reparations program can take several forms, like:

  • Cash payments
  • Reduced housing or repayment of lost home equity during the period when Blacks were excluded
  • Access to high quality education
  • Access to public health resources
  • Business and economic development

Cash payments would be particularly important because homes in Black communities usually don’t appreciate at the same rate as other neighborhoods today. When looking at the ecosystems that have damaged Black communities, a program of repair — apart from the government assistance or “welfare” model — must be vigorously pursued. Although some of the individuals who designed the systems may be gone, we must continue to measure and expose the lingering damage that still exist. This is not an exercise in blame but one of truth and restoration so that the people that were harmed and those that benefited from an unequal system that disproportionally favored them can confront the structural racism matrix and fix it before it crashes down on us all.

Kelwin Harris is a city planner in Chicago.