One Small Step

Today, Wyoming has become one of the only states to pass a bill removing racially restrictive covenants from historic properties.  This is a tiny thing, and some argue that it doesn’t really matter, but also a really big deal.  No step we take can make up for the centuries of racism in our country, but the first step is acknowledging that systemic racism still exists.  The second step is looking for ways, however small, to correct that.  Sometimes it’s to simply acknowledge the past, do what we can to correct it and stop it from moving forward. 

It’s easy to overlook these small steps as not worth the time and energy compared to the big picture.  But a lot of small steps put together can start to add up. 

Let’s talk for a moment about Racially Restrictive Covenants (RRC).  Rewind 5 years ago to when my wife and I were in transition from Laramie to Cheyenne.  We’ve always been drawn to historic homes and we knew the second we stepped foot in this home we were going to buy it.  It’s not the first old home I’ve bought.  But, turns out, it was the first to have a racially restrictive covenant. 

Those of you who have purchased a home know how stressful the whole ordeal is.  At any moment your dream home can become a nightmare purchase, or, not be able to be purchased at all.  It was a summer where there was a lot going on.  So when we sat down to buy this we were just happy to have had nothing else go wrong.  Then, we saw it.  In the middle of the original deed page, a clause, “No one that is not of the Caucasian race may ever own this home.”  Um….what???  We were asked to initial this page as acknowledgment that we had seen it.  I don’t know about you but when you are asked to sign a million legal documents, it kind of means you are agreeing to whatever you are signing, correct?  We asked about this.  We were reassured that this was an old, unenforceable covenant and due to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 it was null.  Still, we had to sign it.

I’d be remiss if I led you to believe I immediately threw a fit or contacted my local state authority the next day or that I refused to sign.  I signed it.  I sat on it for 4 years.  It bugged me, but hey, what could I do? 

Last year I finally decided to do something about it.  I sent my 5th kiddo out the door to kindergarten and dug out our huge folder of documents.  I couldn’t find it anywhere.  Had I been making it up?  Why didn’t I have a copy of it?  I started making calls.  I got nowhere.  Most realtors knew they were in there.  So did title agents.  Calling the County Clerk didn’t get me very far either.  Finally I went down there and they showed me where to look.  I found it!  I wasn’t going crazy!  The clerk gave me an old copy of the entire mapped city of Cheyenne, how to cross-search each neighborhood, and then our realtor gave me a link to a title agency’s search engine where I could look up each of the hundreds of subdivisions just in the city.  Sure enough, after an hour or so looking I had found about 20 neighborhoods that had them.

Next I spent a month figuring out who could help me do something about them.  The county clerk made it clear that they were just a library for these documents.  I called several lawyers.  Finally, I found one who was interested in digging deeper with me!

Another couple months of the both of us searching for laws, precedence, or lawsuits that may be out there had us going in circles.  We would come across articles with homeowners with similar predicaments as me.  They wanted to remove them.  Unfortunately, we would never find out the answer.  No one seemed to get anywhere.  We discussed suing.  But the answer was murky.  There was no one to sue.  Property law is a very interesting beast.  It’s a strange tangle of private rights, agreements, and local ordinances.  Pretty much anything goes as long as people write them in or agree to them. 

My lawyer’s first go to was figuring out if I could remove ours just from our property.  There was a way to do that that would cost $10,000-20,000, court, and agreement of basically my entire neighborhood if we really wanted to do it to be legally binding.  I wasn’t happy with that.  It wasn’t about my deed.  It wasn’t keeping me awake at night.  It was embarrassing but not what I was after.  We decided to come up with a bill. 

Fast forward a few more months we were able to talk to a representative in Maryland about their recent statute that they had passed.  It was good but it was still a bit “Hey, if you want to remove yours you are free to do so.”  I wanted something even more effective.  We finally talked to women from Virginia who also had passed a very simple, very effective bill.  They simply started removing these clauses every time a title turned over. 

So, back to today.  Wyoming became one of the only states to have such a statute!  While it’s not perfect, by this point we have the majority of the Realtor Association as well as title companies fully on board with these changes, law or not!  It’s a small thing, but it’s time. 

As I was working on this, I also wanted to learn more.  When I first started, while this type of language had shocked me, I didn’t know much about the idea of systemic racism.  I had probably a typical white privilege idea of it:  I thought of racism in terms of individual racism (I treat people nicely no matter what!).  Systemic racism?  Didn’t that go away in the 60s?  Looking back at my ignorance just a short time ago, it’s cringy.

I just wanted to share what I have learned in terms of housing and systemic racism.  For most of us, we look at these RRC and while shocked and dismayed that this language used to be used and enforced not that long ago, we justify it as something that happened in the past, and now the playing field is level, right?  We can almost feel superior in our horror.  “not cool.  So archaic!”  I mean RRC or no (most homeowners never even know they have signed these!) any one can indeed own a home in the historic district of Cheyenne Wyoming, and they have been “able to” for 60 years.  Case closed, right?  Turns out it’s not so simple. 

Have you ever noticed that railroad tracks or interstates divide most towns and cities?  You know the term “on the other side of the tracks”?  Have you ever tried to cross an interstate without a car?  Do you think that is a coincidence?  Surprise!  It’s not….

Our federal government, while it finally did the right thing in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, was a tad bit nefarious before that.  Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, the Federal Government wanted to promote economic development, encourage people to own homes, and add jobs, especially to the suburbs, which became popular during this time.  This was a time in our country that while black people had “rights”, we had a crazy amount of Jim Crow laws basically undermining people of color at every turn.  College for one.  Soldiers, both white and black, began returning home from war.  They were all given the GI bill which allowed them to go to college and get mortgages.  On the surface, this looks very equal rights.  The federal government appears to be giving everyone a fair shake!  Impressive, yes?  This is where the federal government turns around and equally undermines black people:  So a black soldier returns from war with the promise of the GI bill.  However, he not only had previously lived in a segregated area that either didn’t have proper primary education to get into college, or he did but he wasn’t allowed in any white colleges when he returned.   Black colleges were very few and far between.  So instantly we had a gap as the millions of white men were able to take advantage of the GI bill and get a college education.  Even most trade schools prohibited black soldiers from enrolling. 

Then we have housing.  The GI Bill also allowed for vets to take advantage of loans to purchase property in the suburbs (where the jobs were moving to as well).  However, while black soldiers were “given the same benefits”, they couldn’t find suburban homes to buy because the federal government was basically forcing developers into adding RRC and prohibiting people of color from buying.  The government had written what was called “The Underwriters Manual”.  It was a covert way of telling developers that if they didn’t put in RRC they wouldn’t get subsidies to develop land.  This gave white families a gigantic leap in prosperity while leaving black families in the cities with no college education, no homes to own, and, as jobs left cities for the suburbs, no way to get to the job. 

To top everything off with a cherry, as the Interstate system began to build, many cities purposely mapped out where the interstate would divide their city….can you guess how?  That’s right.  Down racially divided areas.  This entire process is officially known as redlining.

If you are a white person who thinks that since this happened in the past and we are all on equal footing now, hopefully you can see where this practice of relining shaped our neighborhoods and continues to shape them today.  While any one may indeed purchase a home in the beautiful avenues, they still have to sign a RRC.  They still may wonder if the older neighbors who moved there in the 50s still believe these should be upheld.  They may feel more comfortable in an established area with people who are the same color they are.  Add that to the fact that systemic racism has lent to the family wealth gap between black and white families by a factor of 10!

There were many classic arguments against our bill.  First and foremost is the idea that we are “erasing history”.  There are many good points on either side about that but there is a difference between erasing history in an effort to bury it, and, moving forward while shaking the shackles of history from the future.  The better argument for not erasing history is to ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT THIS PRACTICE OF RACISM IN HISTORY!  We don’t need to keep it on deeds so “we can all remember.”  We can write it down and tell our children and then tell them what we did to make it better.  I think it’s ironic that the people who use the argument of erasing history are often the one who gloss over this chapter of our history. 

There is an argument that these RRC are unenforceable.  Which is true, but, it doesn’t mean we need to keep them for posterity.  The problem is, law gets murky if we don’t remove things like this.  For example, in 1948 Shelley vs Kramer ruled that these RRC were unenforceable.  However, they continued to be written in and practiced anyway until 1968.  Using this logic, the 1948 ruling should have made this all a moot point.  If something is there, it’s much more likely to continue underground than if it’s been removed. 

I have a lot more to learn and I am happy to share my thoughts if anything I’ve written seems challenging to you.  Again, the first step toward changing race relations in our country is to admit it exists.  I can no longer subscribe to the opinion that it doesn’t.  I can’t remember who first said this but I love this quote: “Please don’t compare your opinion to my real experience.  They are not the same.”

I’m proud of Wyoming today, making another small step toward truly being the equality state.  I do want to be clear though.  While I am excited this passed, I absolutely understand that it is simply a starting step and not an ending step.  I cannot sit back and feel like I did my part and it’s all behind us now.  I have learned too much.  I’m excited to learn what the next step should be. 

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