by Richard R.W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2013. 304 pp. Hardcover $49.95 ISBN: 978-0-674-07254-1.
Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Department of Political Science, California State University San Marcos. Email: sbeavers [at] csusm.edu.
Saving the Neighborhood serves as a reminder that context always matters. Certainly useful is the context that authors Richard R.W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose provide for better understanding the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which famously declared that allowing courts to enforce "racially restrictive covenants" excluding minorities from housing would violate the 14th Amendment. But the immediate backdrop against which this book emerges brings home its continuing relevance all the more dramatically. The Supreme Court's recent invalidation of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act preceded by just a few weeks public demonstrations organized in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal in Trayvon Martin's death. Surely those protesting the Zimmerman verdict and "stand your ground" laws more generally would take issue with Shelby County v. Holder's suggestions that we have achieved some kind of "post-racial" or "colorblind" society. Further, this review is being drafted as Detroit's bankruptcy just begins to wend its way through federal court. Arguably one of the cities most devastated by efforts to segregate housing, Detroit's ongoing struggles should make clear the importance of better understanding the phenomena that helped bring this nation to where it is today. As the authors state, "the past is still inscribed on our racially divided cities and neighborhoods" (p.230). This book sheds light on such inscriptions across the nation as a whole.
Brooks and Rose explore the "historical arc of racially restrictive covenants" (p.3), supplementing legal and social analysis with a sprinkling of game theory-based illustrations. Housing segregation is placed within the 20th century's broader social and demographic landscape, powerfully demonstrating the reach of Jim Crow well beyond the confines of the Old South. As the "Great Migration" of African Americans to northern cities swelled the ranks of minorities in need of housing across the country, covenants written into property deeds or signed as agreements among neighboring homeowners emerged as favored tools to further racial exclusion. The authors describe covenants as part of a larger "cat and mouse game" (p.23) of legal experimentation to protect neighborhoods from minority incursion. Other exclusionary mechanisms that were generally rejected by courts are illustrated, including attempts to keep racial minorities from housing under "nuisance law" (pp.31-34) and even attempts in some cities to utilize municipal zoning laws to explicitly segregate housing by race. The Supreme [*412] Court rejected the latter tactic in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) as a violation of property rights under the 14th Amendment's Due Process clause (pp.40-46), though Chapter 2's discussion encompasses lower court rulings more broadly to explore the development of the law. What becomes clear is that, despite various potential legal hurdles laid out in Chapters 3 and 4, restrictive covenants gained traction as a mechanism that allowed private buyers and sellers to specify exclusions regarding who could own or reside in housing units.
Just how widespread were these covenants, even at their peak? Upon finishing the book, this point remains unclear. An inability to document precisely the actual extent of covenant usage plagued the NAACP's attorneys during the Shelley v. Kraemer litigation (pp.157-158). But for the 21st century reader, the question stems from an attempt to understand the broader context. For example, how widespread was home ownership itself in the early decades of the 20th century? And in particular, how many minority families could have marshaled the hefty resources necessary to pursue home ownership in light of the tight lending policies of the day described here (p.108)? While these points are not addressed, the authors' discussions of covenants' common restrictions against "use and occupancy" (p.61) as well as ownership may help give the contemporary reader a better sense of how widely the impact of such mechanisms were felt.
Seemingly more definitive is Brooks and Rose’s examination of how covenants were standardized and professionalized through the supportive involvement of real estate professionals and even federal bureaucrats of the era. Real estate developers of the early 20th century literally created new neighborhoods large and small as they sold lots and houses in new subdivisions. Developers' efforts to exclude racial minorities by way of standard property documents are demonstrated from numerous, mostly northern, cities. Covenants later expanded into already-existing neighborhoods as real estate professionals urged neighboring homeowners to sign agreements amongst themselves not to sell or rent to targeted minorities. Chicago and St. Louis are noted as cities where real estate brokers played a particularly critical role in expanding covenants into existing neighborhoods. The Real Estate Exchange in St. Louis even "made itself a trustee to the neighborhood covenants, so that the Exchange itself could enforce them" (p.158). The federal government got into the game when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) explicitly endorsed such tools "in its underwriting manual, the document that acted as a guide to selecting the mortgages that could receive FHA insurance, on the ground that 'inharmonious' racial groups diminished housing value" (p.91). While covenants first emerged in higher-end home sales, the FHA's policies in particular encouraged their expansion to more modest properties so that new prospective homeowners could "qualify for FHA-insured mortgages" (p.110). Promoting segregated housing was even a matter of professional ethics for the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), as documented in their Realtors' Code of Ethics (pp.105-106). In short, by demonstrating the [*413] systematization and even the perceived respectability of such efforts, this discussion brings home for the contemporary reader the scale of covenants' usage.
One point on which my curiosity was piqued but remained unsatisfied was in trying to comprehend the scope of the discrimination in play here. Given the evidence available from northern cities heavily impacted by the "Great Migration" of African Americans during the 20th century, primarily in the form of lower-level court cases (p.2), Brooks and Rose’s focus on restrictions against African American ownership and occupancy makes sense. But questions remain. For example, they note, "By the early 1920s, racial covenants had become sufficiently common that the developers of Los Angeles's Palos Verdes Estates would refer to them as 'the usual restrictions'" (p.104). But what indeed would have been "'the usual restrictions'" for early 20th-century Los Angeles? For while references to additional exclusions (primarily targeting persons of Asian or Jewish descent) pop up occasionally throughout the book, exclusions against Latinos are discussed primarily in the footnotes.
Where the authors do flesh out covenants' potential scope, the result is intriguing. For example, exclusions created by the developers of Washington, D.C.'s Spring Valley neighborhood seem ironically inclusive in their breadth. Here exclusions extended beyond African Americans to encompass "Armenians, Persians, Syrians, or 'Semitic' persons generally" (p.181). Brooks and Rose note instances of political and diplomatic fallout from the exclusions in this single neighborhood, perhaps suggesting some of the implications of their breadth. Intriguing social dynamics would certainly have helped shape the content of various restrictions, and understanding such dynamics would surely shed further light on the idea of covenants more generally.
Perhaps what I intend here as a gentle criticism could be more constructively construed instead as an opportunity for future research. Or perhaps in fact I have something more selfish in mind in considering what materials could best resonate with my own students at a diverse public institution. For example, Perea's (1997) urging of a move beyond what he calls the "black/white binary" in exploring discrimination has proven highly provocative in my own classroom. Perhaps a more wide-ranging exploration of the scope of housing discrimination could prove helpful in bringing home the concepts for a broader swath of readers.
For those looking particularly for materials for their students, this work could prove useful on a number of fronts, at least in my own field of political science. For example, the book provides a powerful case study of the law's evolution over time, weaving together gradual changes in civil rights and property law, with a heavy emphasis on the work of state and lower federal courts as well as the interplay of law and social expectations and practices. Chapter 7's extensive discussion of Shelley v. Kraemer and its companion cases would provide a great case study on Supreme Court litigation and opinion-writing strategies. Instructors wanting their students to explore game theory could most easily look to Chapter [*414] 9's various examples in the context of prejudice, discrimination, and housing. In short, there are many pedagogical possibilities worth exploring.
For those pressed for time, the book's opening chapter provides a thoughtful overview that helpfully encapsulates Brooks and Rose's arguments, with the later chapters providing the more extended discussions and supporting evidence for these arguments. For those needing an overview or a refresher on basic game theory, this opening chapter will prove critical in making later chapters' discussions accessible.
One theme introduced early and developed throughout the work is the range of rationales employed to justify fundamentally discriminatory strategies. For example, even as some cities experimented with public zoning laws to codify racialized housing patterns, "few public officials were willing to say openly that African American families constituted a nuisance per se" (p.39). Rather, protection of property values and prevention of violence were the mantras often raised to justify such restrictions. Given the particular disadvantage that these efforts inflicted on minorities seeking quality housing (or indeed any housing), the authors describe such "ostensible race neutrality" as "particularly disingenuous" (p.40). Seeing such efforts at rhetorical delicacy (or simply obfuscation) in the era of Jim Crow may give one pause in considering today's presumably race-neutral or colorblind arguments for Voter ID laws, "stop and frisk" and other profiling tactics, or even "stand your ground" laws. At the very least, the potential racial implications of such policies or practices deserve greater and continuing scrutiny in the debates that rage over them.
To conclude, Brooks and Rose’s own statement that "the past is still inscribed on our racially divided cities and neighborhoods" (p.230) is again helpful. In exploring one area of discrimination from our shared history in greater depth, this work fills in pieces of a broader puzzle that can help us better understand some of the nation's contemporary divides and challenges.
Perea, Juan F. 1997. "The Black/White Binary of Race: The 'Normal Science' of American Racial Thought." California Law Review 85(5): 127-173.
Buchanan v. Warley 245 U.S. 60 (1917).
Shelley v. Kraemer 334 U.S. 1 (1948).
Copyright 2013 by the author, Staci L. Beavers.