I was a small child when my mom divorced my dad and we moved into a mobile home in northern Minnesota. My mom later married a lawyer, which drastically changed our financial situation as well as the way our family was perceived in New Ulm, where I grew up.
I sometimes wonder how my life would be different without this change in my family circumstances. What I do know is that my path was eased by my stepfather’s White skin.
My stepfather dropped out of high school and enlisted in the army during WWII. He was awarded the Bronze Star after fighting in five campaigns. After the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill, which provided educational benefits, low-interest loans, and mortgages, and other financial resources for veterans. He finished high school, went to college, obtained a master’s degree, and ultimately went to law school.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, was a law passed by Congress to help veterans readjust to civilian life. Legally sanctioned racial discrimination by state and local governments, as well as banks and mortgage agencies, severely limited opportunities for Black veterans. Many universities and colleges, especially in the South, refused to accept Black applicants, and banks refused to loan Black veterans money.
This means that while my White stepfather furthered his education with resources from the G.I. Bill, a similarly situated Black veteran was unlikely to receive the same benefits. Because education opens doors to higher-paying jobs, government-sanctioned systemic racism denied many Black veterans the opportunity to qualify for those positions.
When we moved to New Ulm, my parents bought a home by obtaining a mortgage. That house was in a neighborhood considered by people in town to be “desirable.” My White parents did not face discrimination in either obtaining a loan or deciding where to live. This was not the case for Black families because the federal government purposely adopted policies designed to deny them loans or force them to live in segregated areas with lower property values.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) pursued a two-pronged approach to keep Black families confined to certain neighborhoods, according to Richard Rothstein in his outstanding book, “The Color of Law.” First, the government financed the movement of White families away from urban centers and into the suburbs.
Second, the government refused to provide that same financial help for Black families, a systemic form of racism called redlining. In this way, the government forced many Black families to remain in segregated areas with lower property values, even if they could afford to buy a house.
Even before the federal government intentionally adopted racially discriminatory housing policies, the private sector worked to keep neighborhoods segregated by including racial covenants in deeds. These restrictions prevented the purchaser of a property from selling or renting to a Black person.
So, even if a Black family could afford a house without the financial assistance of the federal government, that house could have a deed with a racial covenant allowing the homeowner to discriminate or preventing the homeowner from making the sale. To learn more about racial covenants and to see which Minneapolis homes have one, go to the “Mapping Prejudice” website.
This history matters because our government has systemically discriminated against Black citizens for decades, depriving them of educational and financial opportunities as well as homeownership. This means that the government and private sectors have intentionally prevented Black families from wealth building.
According to the Mapping Prejudice website, 78% of White families own homes in Minneapolis, compared to 25% of Black families. This disparity isn’t something that happened by chance; it is the result of decades of discrimination.
I went to a small private college, Macalester, where I graduated with majors in history and political science. After college, I went to the University of Minnesota Law School. I worked hard in school, but I had the advantage of having my parents help me financially. They had the ability to help me because of their opportunity to build wealth through education, well-paying jobs, and homeownership. And those opportunities were, in part, created by the government.
I do not diminish my hard work, or that of my parents, by recognizing the advantages we received from the government. Nor do I diminish us by acknowledging that our government purposefully discriminated against Black citizens by creating obstacles to those same advantages.
Only when we understand our history and choose to own it can we begin to create the same opportunities for all members of our community.