Mapping Prejudice 2

Kevin Ehrman-Solberg with the University of Minnesota Mapping Prejudice Project explains how racist housing covenants shaped Minneapolis, from its freeway system to the wealth of its residents.

MANKATO — Thousands of families in Minneapolis have been affected, for good or ill, by clauses in residential property contracts prohibiting people of color from buying a house. A growing number of people want to see how those same clauses helped shape the Mankato area.

A coalition of area organizations including Blue Earth County, the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the Minnesota State University College College Democrats among others, want to examine the so-called racial covenants in local deeds over the past 100 years. And it's looking for volunteers to do it.

That was the message Wednesday night at Ostrander Auditorium inside MSU, where the University of Minnesota academics behind a similar project based in Minneapolis shared their work.

Called the Mapping Prejudice Project, University cartographers and geographers have put together an outline of how racial housing codes starting in the 1910s affected how Minneapolis grew, where local officials concentrated the city's populations of color, Muslims and Jews, and how those actions still echo throughout the city today.

Those deed covenants included explicitly racist language designed to allow houses to only be sold to white families. If those covenants were violated by a family of color who bought the home, the initial white property owner could swoop in and retake the house in accordance with the law.

Those covenants were specifically written as a marketing tool by housing developers and real estate companies, according to U of M professor Kevin Erhman-Solberg, one of the geographers on the project. 

"They were using this as a way to plant white fear to facilitate the sale of property," he said.

Even though such contracts were outlawed in the 1960s, it took numerous efforts at the state and federal level to ensure covenants could no longer be enforced. Still, the covenants had long-lasting effects.

The federal government designated areas where communities of color lived as problematic, which drove down housing prices and prevented residents from securing loans or credit for major purchases or services — a process commonly known as redlining.

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates thrust the concept of redlining into the national consciousness in 2014 with an award-winning feature in The Atlantic Monthly called "The Case for Reparations," where he outlined how institutional racism in housing had hurt black families for generations since they couldn't draw upon the same sort of wealth that white families with better-priced properties could.

U of M researchers found that argument held true in Minneapolis. The average price of a home in covenant-restricted neighborhoods today is about $36,000 higher than the median price of a house in Minneapolis. The average price of a home in historically redlined neighborhoods, where families of color lived, is about $66,000 lower than the median price.

Area advocates became interested in the project after a public showing of "Jim Crow of the North", a documentary about the Mapping Prejudice project in May. County officials have thus far sent about 3,000 deeds from 1910 to 1960 to researchers to pour over, though advocates say they'll need volunteers to help.

The way the project works is researchers analyze the deeds through algorithms and computer searches. Then, they post the deeds online so volunteers can read through them for racist language. At least five volunteers read through a deed before researchers organize it in its database and map out when the property became covenant-restricted.

Ehrman-Solberg and Kirsten Delegard, director of the Mapping Prejudice project, said the work done on Minneapolis is the first of its kind on that type of scale. The project has mapped out at least 30,000 examples of racial covenants, though there are at least 3 million deeds to sort through in Hennepin County. U of M researchers have heard similar interest in starting other projects in Mankato, St. Cloud, and even Milwaukee.

"There hasn't been a community we've found yet who hasn't had some of these same types of covenants," Ehrman-Solberg said.

More than 100 people attended the presentation, as well as a panel discussion with local advocates who stressed why a Mankato project would be very important. While no one is yet sure what volunteers will find, several people pointed out the data could back up anecdotal evidence of real estate agents steering white families toward the western side of Mankato over the past few decades while families of color bought homes on the east side of town.

Other people said they had already seen racial covenants in deeds to their homes, such as language that would prevent their house from being sold to anyone "not Caucasian."

"It's an opportunity for conversation that I think is going to do nothing but spread," Blue Earth County Commissioner Colleen Landkamer said.

The coalition will reach out to participants in the coming weeks to see whether they would volunteer to read deeds for covenants once researchers have gone through them. In addition, the coalition plans to publicize more information about homeownership for families of color in the community.

Organizers plan to reach out to college students specifically for help as it's a way to enhance their understanding of the area outside of the classroom.

"This project could be a bridge between MSU and the community of Mankato," Emma Fuhrman, president of the MSU College Democrats, said.

People who are interested in the Mapping Prejudice project can visit the project's website at mappingprejudice.org. Those interested in volunteering can contact Bukata Hayes with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council at bhayes@mankatodiversity.org or at 507-385-6653.

"Clearly, there was energy in the room tonight about doing something," Hayes said. "That's the part that we are excited to explore going forward, is 'What's next?'"

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