One thing we know for certain about the COVID-19 crisis is that the pain will not be shared equally. Wealth can determine everything from the quality of healthcare people can access to how well they can ride out a job loss. And inequality is baked into the system.
The average white household today has nearly ten times the wealth of a black household. And one reason for that goes back almost a century to the practice of redlining, restricting lending in certain neighborhoods based on race.
Redlining has been illegal for decades, but an exhibit traveling around the country aims to show how that policy continues to shape our economy today. It’s called Undesign the Redline.
On a recent morning before social distancing measures took effect, Nathan Connolly visited the exhibit at Impact Hub Baltimore, a social justice-oriented co-working space and incubator. Connolly is a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on race and capitalism. As young people chatted over coffee and worked on their laptops, Connolly stood examining an old street map of Baltimore.
The map was created in 1937 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a federal agency set up as part of the New Deal to refinance mortgages at risk of default and foreclosure because of the Great Depression.
“It illustrates what real estate assessors in the Baltimore area, with the backing of federal officials, considered to be the riskiest and safest investments in real estate in the city of Baltimore in that time period,” Connolly explained.
Areas colored green were considered the safest places to invest, followed by blue, then yellow. Areas in red were considered the riskiest, based on things like the age and quality of the housing stock, people’s occupations and the racial makeup of the neighborhood. The exhibit includes a copy of the form assessors used.
“There’s a separate entry, kind of an up or down, yes or no, on every single area description form, 5-D, that just says ‘Negro, yes or no,’” Connolly said. “The answer to that question would determine, oftentimes, what a neighborhood’s value would be.”