Redlining: The Suffocating Wall of Exclusion
Photo by Benjamin Moran on Unsplash, Milwaukee, WI
Situation: As someone who was raised in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, I have gotten firsthand experience of the great disparity that is experienced between minority and white communities. I am writing this speech to my Writing and Rhetoric classmates, members of the Notre Dame class of 2024. I hope not only to educate fellow ND students on the concurrent educational, health, and social impacts of redlining, but to also spur them into action and advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Speech: 2020 is a year that has served as the bridge between our teenage-hood and adulthood. This is a year marked not only by Zoom calls, but also by self-discovery, new friendships, and untrodden experiences. During our short time here at Notre Dame, we have grown a kinship with one another and have been more than happy to call this place our second home. As we all know, this semester has held countless roadblocks, wistful memories, and painful good-byes. We have plummeted through the year without break. We have dealt with the emotional burnout that has resulted from the apprehension and fear that the pandemic has instilled within us. We were born amid a crisis, and now we have just begun to embark on our college journey amidst the wake of the clamorous call for justice in America.
This is a year that has mirrored one of the most monumental marks of history: The Civil Rights Movement. One of the most memorable phrases that have constituted this year has been the phrase “I can’t breathe.” It was these very three words that George Floyd sputtered as he struggled to break free from the suffocating grasp of the police officer. It is the phrase that over a thousand public demonstrators called out as they lay flat on the cold, concrete floors of Denver and Wisconsin, their heads slammed against the pavement and hands tied behind their back. They called out in unison, yelling the words “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” time and time again. This phrase rings the pain that was felt by the family members of those who were killed by the hands of policemen. We will never forget the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, amongst the hundreds of others who were victims of the systemic racism in this country. I can’t breathe is the phrase that will continue to echo throughout history’s textbooks. It resonates through the insatiable call for justice that Martin Luther King Jr. and many others employed during the Civil Rights Movement.
Desegregation laws have been struck down and it’s been decades since then, so it might be safe to assume that systemic racism isn’t really a thing. Of course, there have been countless initiatives that have been taken to lighten the effects of past discrimination, such as the War on Poverty and the establishment of government welfare programs. But what can explain the large disparity that continues to segregate us based on race alone? Why is it that when I walk into the southernmost point of Milwaukee, my hometown, I see Hispanic neighborhoods that are marked by graffiti, beaten-down homes, and high pockets of poverty? Yet, it only takes a little less than ten minutes to reach the westernmost point of this city, where I see White neighborhoods that are distinguished by cleaner streets, ampler homes, and high pockets of wealth. It is evident that our country continues to be afflicted by the remnants of the systemic racism that was adopted during the early 19th century. This is one of the most complex, multifaceted issues in this country, and, unfortunately, cannot be explained at its fullness during my short speech. Today, however, I will focus on the idea of redlining, a systematic and discriminatory practice that can be traced back to the early 1940s.
Redlining: A History of Racialized Mortgage Lending and Broken Promises
Before I delve into specifics, I must first explain what redlining is and the history behind the practice. The term “redlining,” coined by sociologist John Mcknight, is a term used to describe the process in which the federal government and mortgage lenders would “literally draw red lines in maps around the neighborhoods that they would not invest on demographics alone” (Kenton). Neighborhoods in which minority communities resided were outlined in red ink, marking them as “hazardous” and the least worthy of loans. In contrast, the wealthier, white neighborhoods were outlined in either blue or green, marking them as “desirable” and the most worthy of loans. This practice would place minorities at a great disadvantage. They were denied insurances, mortgages, loans, amongst many other financial services based solely on the color of their skin (Jan).
Though redlining was banned five decades ago, it is still hurting minorities today. It begins to explain why the cities that many of us have been raised in have areas designated as slums, ghettos, and run-down neighborhoods. I am certain that I am not the only one in this room who has been raised in a city that was laden with poverty, underfunded schools, and high rates of crime. These factors are seen throughout the entire country—whether it be in the streets of Chicago, Montgomery, New Orleans, amongst many others—and is an issue that affects all aspects and facets of the country. It also begins to explain the large economic, educational, and health-related disparities that are often experienced between minority and white communities.
One of the major impacts that redlining imposes on minority communities today is the lack of educational opportunities. This is an issue that has affected me directly, as well as many of my closest friends and family members. For a brief background and context, I grew up in Milwaukee, perhaps one of the most segregated cities in the US. From Pre-K up to 12th grade, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me, and lived around the same area as me. The schools around my neighborhood were entirely homogeneous and were largely populated by Hispanic and Latinx students. Rarely did I ever see a Black, Asian, or White student roam the hallways of these schools. Many of these same schools were also situated amidst the “pockets of poverty” of Milwaukee, areas that are largely inhabited by Hispanic immigrants and low-income families. Public schools were largely underfunded, housed low-experienced staff and personnel, and were a source of disproportionately high dropout rates.
These disadvantages do not only exist in Milwaukee, but also in schools all across the country. They are an inescapable reality for many of us. They continue to deprive, perpetuate, and plague the schools of New York, Illinois, Texas, Florida, amongst many others. Take this in contrast with the plenitude of opportunities that are granted in the very few integrated schools that the U.S. houses. Studies have revealed that children who enroll in integrated schools are more likely to stay in school, take college-track courses, and attend four-year colleges (Rosenbaum). These statistics, along with my personal experiences, illustrate the plethora of educational disadvantages that are experienced amongst highly segregated minority communities. As a Notre Dame community, we prize education. It is the very reason why we are here: to obtain an education, educate others, and work towards the Common Good. This not only means understanding why social justice and equity matters, but also what it means to advocate for these issues and ensuring that no one lacks access to educational opportunities.
Historically redlined neighborhoods are not only suffering from educational inequalities, but also a number of health-related issues. These health-related impacts are rampant throughout many of the poverty-ridden “slums” and minority-populated parts of my hometown. My upbringing was defined by taking routine trips to the dollar store and fast-food places. Living in a food desert, my family had no other choice but to get food from these places; these were the stores that were not only the closest to home, but also the most economically convenient to shop at. The White and wealthier neighborhoods, however, housed healthier alternatives. These were areas that housed farmer markets and grocery stores stocked with fresh vegetables and fruits, freshly-cut meat, and a wide array of shelves stocked with tons of condiments, cereals, and snacks.
When I encountered one of these grocery stores for the very first time, I was filled with joy. There were a plethora of foods that I had never seen before, coming from all sorts of cultures and countries. I began to question exactly why these grocery stores weren’t prevalent in my hometown. Why is it that when I venture out to the streets of the south-side of Milwaukee, I don’t see a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s but instead see a McDonalds and Burger King on every corner of the streets? The answer lies in the long history of redlining. Redlining not only segregated communities based solely on race, but also affected the current composition of fast food places, grocery stores, and recreational services offered to many of these redlined communities. Fast-food industries generally tend to perceive minorities as a valuable market (Bunn) and specifically market their products towards these populations (Harrison). According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), a non-profit program that works with community leaders to end home lending discrimination practices, historically redlined communities now face “lower life expectancies and a higher incidence of chronic diseases and morbidity.”
These demographics have shown that historically redlined communities are highly susceptible to a number of health-related issues, largely because of the lack of accessibility to healthy and affordable food. If we, as a Notre Dame community, want to employ goodwill for others, we must address this issue that continues to hurt and keep minorities from gaining the basic accessibility to healthy food and leading healthy lifestyles without having to worry about life-threatening diseases.
Defining the Racial Economic Divide
Not only has redlining resulted in health-related impacts on historically redlined communities, but it also brings about an explanation for the widening minority-White wealth gap in the US. In 2009, a Pew Research representative survey revealed that the median wealth of White families was $113,149 compared with $6,325 for Latino families and $5,677 for Black families (Shapiro). Today,White families hold nearly ten times the collective net worth of Black families and more than eight times that of Hispanic families (Rakesh).
Of course, these statistics may not come as a surprise to many of you. This economic disparity is deeply entrenched within our society and has defined our norm. This is the same disparity that was experienced back in the 1970s when redlining was rampant and the country was just beginning to advance towards equality. Yet, it continues to perpetuate these same minority communities today. The rich have only gotten richer. But for many African Americans, as well as Hispanic and Latinx communities, it has become incredibly difficult - and sometimes even impossible - to get ahead in life. Growing up in an area defined by a lack of educational opportunities, employment discrimination, and high mortality rates, sets up the stage for economic struggle. Run-down neighborhoods have been trapped in the past, locked in poverty-ridden and opportunity-deprived cities. It becomes evident that the long legacy of redlining underpins the widening minority-White wealth gap.
Call to action: What You Can Do
Notre Dame’s mission statement is the following: “Notre Dame wants to educate and inspire its students to develop the generous sensibilities needed to relieve injustice, oppression, and poverty in all of their manifestations.” This mission is deeply rooted in the history of this university. It has been cultivated through the actions of Father Hesburgh, as he stood in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr., and is deeply ingrained within our college traditions - such as the famed Notre Dame Day. This mission statement comes from the same university that saw something in all of you the moment the ND admissions office looked upon your application. It was your integrity and goodwill for others that prompted Notre Dame to invest in your potential to do good in the world and stand up when society fails to be just.
Martin Luther King Jr. once argued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” What has become of Martin Luther King’s words? Have they not been enough? Why have these words been engrained and hammered onto us throughout our educational pathways, if we fail to take action when injustice is presented to us this very day? If we do not take action now, when will society ever abolish the racism that continues to plague this very country?
This is why we can’t just observe and continue to have goodwill for justice without taking action. We can’t just stand around and do nothing, like the cops who witnessed a literal murder scene as Derek Chauvin forced his knee onto George Floyd’s neck. We can’t linger around like the passers-by who failed to take initiative at that very scene. We must take action. Doing nothing is the same as being a part of the problem. We have the power to hold public demonstrations, vote, donate, participate in peaceful protesting, or do something as simple as sharing links on social media to educate others about the issue. We are currently living through history. Our actions will live through the words of our successors; they will be bound within the pages of the history textbooks of our children and grandchildren. Therefore, I hope you all will take action, stand in solidarity with this issue, and continue to educate yourself and others about the societal matters around you.