As tensions regarding race grow throughout our nation, there is one question that seems to divide people more than any other. Does systemic racism exist? Most people are willing to admit that racism exists, but many struggle to believe that it still exists within the framework of the systems that govern our communities.
I would like to build a case proving that although explicitly racist language has been taken out of the legislation that governs these systems, it’s use throughout much of the 20th century has left a deep and lasting effect that still has not been properly resolved.
The banner image for this post is the HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation) map for my hometown (Terre Haute, IN), commonly referred to as a “red lining” map. These maps were used by financial institutions as a guide for deciding whether to grant loans in certain areas of a city.
You may be able to find a similar map for your city by visiting the Mapping Inequality website. A detailed description of how these maps were developed and used can be found in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
As you can see in the image above areas were classified with an A, B, C, or D rating. An area with a D rating was described as “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.” Lenders were strongly discouraged from granting loans to these areas.
Rothstein also shows how these maps influenced zoning ordinances so that bars, liquor stores, and night clubs could be built in racially integrated communities but not in white communities.
Today, racial demographics in these areas still reflect a disproportionate number of minorities. For a moment I want to focus on the section labeled D8 in the above image.
In Terre Haute, this section is commonly referred to as the “Avenues” and the two elementary schools located in this zone, Benjamin Franklin and Deming, are 39.3% and 21.6% minority respectively, as opposed to two of our county schools Rio Grande and Lost Creek which are 6.5% and 7.6% minority respectively.
Pictured above are the school boundaries from Deming, Ben Franklin, and Lost Creek. Rio Grande is north and to the west of Deming but is too far to be included in the image. Over the past several years Rio Grande and Lost Creek have averaged a pass rate on standardized tests that is 30-40 points higher than Ben Franklin and Deming’s average.
The following numbers are the 2017 combined pass rates for the reading and math portions of the third grade ISTEP test, Rio Grande: 72.4%, Lost Creek: 50.8%, Ben Franklin: 31.4%, and Deming: 26.7%
Schools were often located in the middle of low income and racially integrated neighborhoods to ensure that students from those neighborhoods would not be attending schools with their peers from wealthier all white communities. This reality gained national attention as the topic of “busing” was brought up in the Democratic presidential debates between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.
Harris sharply criticized Biden for working with segregationist senators in the 1970’s to oppose integration through the busing of students to ensure equal distributions of minorities in public schools.
When I reached out to the Vigo County School Corporation’s Director of Elementary Education and asked what the school corporation’s plan was to help improve our own inequality and what they thought contributed to such a stark difference in test rates, I was told and I quote, “the DOE website is outdated” and “we continue to come in #1 in test scores when comparing school districts with similar demographics.” When I replied that the DOE statistics were from the previous year, I was told that VCSC “graduation rates consistently surpassed the state average.”
It is precisely this type of ongoing apathy towards radical racial inequality that still allows racism to shape our societal structures. As I mentioned before, the explicitly racist language has been removed, but in many places the attitudes still remain or people don’t care enough to put forth the effort that is required to fix the systems.
In my city, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into developing industrial, commercial, and residential areas on the south end of town, while many of these poor communities struggle to survive. This process has greatly enriched city leaders, local developers, contractors, and bankers, but very little has gone to those who need it the most.
Now, even though the population of our city continues to decline, the exact same groups have set their sights on developing the east end of town and building a new 60 million dollar jail. The design for the jail is pictured above and city leaders decided to build it despite an enormous outcry of opposition from the public.
Part of the opposition stemmed from the fact that minorities regularly make up 40% of our jail population while only representing approximately 8% of the cities total population. Many people asked that the money for the jail be spent on preventative programs, rehabilitation centers, and low income neighborhoods, but again apathy towards radical racial inequality and the potential for large amounts of money to be made by the same groups of people won out over public opinion.
At this point I hope you have seen how federally mandated public policy led directly to drastic inequalities in housing and subsequently hampered wealth accumulation for minorities. And how the placement of schools in the middle of low income neighborhoods made it tremendously difficult for people of color to break out of this cycle of poverty. Add to that the inescapable reality that drug use and violent crime is always higher in low income neighborhoods and I think you will see how systemic racism is alive and well in Terre Haute, IN, and in cities all across the United States of America.