Takeaways from Undesign the Redline

September 25, 2017
By Yanique Redwood

Undesign the Redline is an exhibit that connects the intentional and systematic racial housing segregation of the 1930s to political and social issues of today. I spoke on a multi-sectoral panel last week on how this history of redlining connects to the inequitable health outcomes that we see today. Here are some reflections from the discussion.

What is redlining?
Redlining occurs when lenders use discriminatory and unfair lending practices that result in reduced lending accessibility for borrowers in areas that show high populations of people of color, regardless of the credit of each individual borrower. The word redlining comes from the practice of outlining in red those geographical areas that were perceived to pose a higher mortgage risk. Redlining in the U.S. was supported by the government. Old redlining maps reveal language such as “It is 100% poor class Negroes practically all on relief. A high wall, however, prevents their spread.” Redlining, therefore, prevented Blacks and other people of color from purchasing homes because they could not get access to mortgages to live in the neighborhoods to which they were relegated.

What does redlining have to do with health?
At the Consumer Health Foundation, we think very broadly about health and the social factors that drive health. Redlining and its impact on housing and education segregation and unequal wealth distribution are all social factors that have had profound impacts on the health of people of color.

First, we cannot underestimate the value of home equity, which is the number one way in which White Americans were able to build wealth when Black Americans were being denied mortgages. With wealth, you can:

  • send children to college
  • invest in a business
  • borrow to weather a financial crisis
  • provide children with down payments on homes
  • support good schools through the taxes you pay on your home
  • live in neighborhoods that have amenities like parks and healthy foods nearby

Second, there are direct implications for health:

  • Without the buffer of wealth, there is the ongoing experience of unmitigated stress
  • Segregated neighborhoods where people of color live often have fewer city services and large numbers of vacant properties which impact one’s sense of well-being
  • Police can target neighborhoods because that are segregated and identifiable, fueling regular harassment by police

The stress of coping constantly with these insults elevates the level of stress hormones in the body. One study found that for black men in economically distressed neighborhoods, these levels remain high throughout the day, when in fact these levels should be low. This constant activation of the body contributes to diabetes and other circulatory system problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

What should we do about this?

  • Our solutions are often predicated on asking people of color “What is wrong with you?” And instead, we should be asking, “What has happened to you?” So, it is paramount that we continue to ask, “What has happened?”
  • We must begin asking the question, “What have we been saying yes to that we should be saying no to?” A recent study found that it would take 228 years for the median wealth of Black households to approach the median wealth of White households. Instead of incremental, piecemeal approaches, we should be asking, “What will undo the hundreds of years of stolen labor, decades of Jim Crow, redlining and restrictive deeds and covenants, and mass incarceration?” We should be saying yes to transformative approaches that tell the truth, repair the damage and build power in communities.
  • We need more intentional ways of understanding the way in which history has shaped our current circumstances and develop solutions to match the scale of the challenge. A Racial Equity Impact Assessment Tool can help.
  • Institutions with endowments—foundations, hospitals, universities—should use their wealth to invest in communities of color. CHF recently approved a carve out of our endowment for local impact investments that have been deployed for the production of affordable housing and capital for women- and people of color-led businesses, including a loan loss guaranty for entrepreneurs in wards 5, 7 and 8. Distributing accumulated wealth is reparative.
  • We need to raise our collective voices about this history and how the impacts continue to play out today. We need to create safe spaces for these stories to be told. Ten Black residents of the region just taped a podcast called The Million Dollar City as one way to raise our voices about gentrification in DC. Listen and continue the conversation.

Visit the Undesign the Redline Exhibit:
Tuesday, September 26th – Thursday, September 28th from noon – 4 pm
Pepco Edison Place Gallery
702 8th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20068

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