In 2018, when the great soul singer Aretha Franklin died, President Donald Trump did not miss the opportunity to tweet out that the singer “worked for me on numerous occasions.” It was more than an awkward line from a notoriously maladroit child-man. That line had roots in something deeper, an ideology that has its tentacles in our very own living rooms.
It’s no secret that many Chicago area communities like Austin and even my suburban hometown of Maywood, about six miles west of here, enforced racial segregation through pieces of paper called restrictive covenants.
According to a 2019 article published by the Seattle Times: “Restrictive covenants on race were commonly written into deeds across the nation after 1926, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court initially found them to be lawful, said UW history professor James Gregory. A property owner who violated them risked a lawsuit from neighbors, or could have a property sale voided.”
It turns out that Washington state — the home of Amazon and Microsoft and Starbucks — was also shaped by these racist property covenants. And that article reminded me that in many instances, despite being ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, those covenants are still in the deeds of homes in places across the country.
So to celebrate Black History Month, check your mortgage deed to see if it contains language restricting the property from being sold to blacks and look into whether or not you can request the county to strike that discriminatory language from your deed, as a new law enacted last year allowed homeowners in the Seattle area to do.
But there’s a more important lesson about these racist covenants and it has to do with language. Whites who utilized these documents had sophisticated explanations for them.
According to historian Wendy Plotkin, the Federation of Neighborhood Associations, an organization dedicated to creating and maintaining these covenants, punched back against claims that these racist covenants were the result of a conspiracy by whites to keep blacks hemmed in, quarantined in inner-city ghettos and “colored neighborhoods” in suburbs like Maywood.
“It is a bald insult to depict as ‘conspirators’ the thousands of Chicagoans who have entered into purely personal legal contracts in order to preserve their homes or to protect their investments,” the Federation members said in the 1940s.
“Race restrictive covenants do not segregate negroes. They segregate whites. These covenants do not connote prejudice,” they argued. “They have been signed by persons in industrial and professional life whose activities provide employment to thousands of negroes.”
I sometimes wonder whether this euphemistic explanation for the existence of racist covenants has something to do with why, for so long, I simply nodded when old timers would reflect on the halcyon days of my hometown. During those recollections, the old timers didn’t often hone in on the fact of Maywood’s racial segregation. Yes, segregation by racial covenants existed, but that did not stop blacks from flourishing, the thinking goes.
That’s true enough, but that line of thought also works to blunt the insidious nature of the racial segregation that proliferated across the country during that time and that is partially responsible for so much suffering today. And it obscures the property covenant’s blatant white supremacist foundation.
Consider the language in these documents. The following passage was pulled directly from a standard form restrictive covenant drafted for the Chicago Real Estate Board in 1927 — language that was likely found in covenants contained within the deeds of homes in Maywood at the time (and perhaps even today).
“The restriction that no part of said premises shall in any manner be used or occupied directly or indirectly by any negro or negroes, provided that this restriction shall not prevent the occupation, during the period of their employment, of janitors’ or chauffeurs’ quarters in the basement or in a barn or garage in the rear, or of servants’ quarters by negro janitors, chauffeurs or house servants, respectively, actually employed as such for service in and about the premises by the rightful owner or occupant of said premises.
“The restriction that no part of said premises shall be sold, given, conveyed or leased to any negro or negroes, and no permission or license to use or occupy any part thereof shall be given to any negro except house servants or janitors or chauffeurs employed thereon as aforesaid.”
The very language of these racist covenants tells us what they were really about. If the covenants were merely designed to “segregate whites,” they wouldn’t exempt blacks from living with whites as janitors or chauffeurs or servants. In other words, blacks and whites could live together, so long as blacks were kept servile and inferior to whites.
That’s what racial segregation was really about. White supremacy informed the creation of Maywood’s “colored neighborhood” — where my grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived. White supremacy explains why this country can be so comfortable with routinizing black misery (from the War on Drugs to mass incarceration to community disinvestment).
And now, two decades into the 21st century, white supremacy can even explain presidential tweets.