October 9, 2021 Essay | Systemic Racism?

Oct 4, 2021

Many Americans bristle at the idea that there is systemic racism in the United States; the understanding that public policies and socio-economic realities work together to perpetuate inequities between racial groups. Sadly, ample evidence is available to confirm its existence.

One of the most significant contributing factors to the enormous wealth gap between Black and White families is the rate of homeownership and the values of those homes. Black Americans who achieve the dream of homeownership often face the pernicious impact of lower appraisals for their homes in comparison to comparable homes owned by Whites. A 2018 study from the Brookings Institution found that homes in majority-Black neighborhoods were appraised for 23% less than properties in mostly White neighborhoods – even when the homes were of similar quality and with similar amenities. The study estimated that homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average, leading to a $156 billion cumulative loss in value nationwide. In Jacksonville, Florida, a White husband and a Black wife had their home in a predominantly White neighborhood appraised twice. The second appraisal was 40% higher than the first. The second occurred when only the White husband was at home and all evidence of a mixed-race family was removed from their house. Another mixed-race family in Hartford, Connecticut, had a similar experience and employed the same strategy. Their second appraisal came in $160,000 higher, which better reflected the actual selling price of their home.

Why is a New York City summer a greater health hazard to persons of color? Timon McPhearson, a researcher at the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, has spent a decade studying the disproportionate impact that heat has on Black and Brown neighborhoods where a lack of tree cover and green space creates “urban heat islands” whose air temperature can be two to four degrees warmer than neighboring areas, with the difference in surface temperatures considerably greater than that. The areas most likely to be urban heat islands are in Harlem, the South Bronx, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side – all areas that historically were marked by government disinvestment and neglect. In these neighborhoods, persons suffer from high rates of obesity, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, all of which have roots in socio-economic factors to which public policies contributed, and all of which exacerbate the risks of high heat. African Americans in the city are twice as likely to die from heat exposure as White New Yorkers, according to the city’s health department. On a summer day this past August, the sidewalk temperature on well-shaded 94th Street on the West Side was 84 degrees, while directly across town in East Harlem, the sidewalk temperature was a blistering 115.

For years, FEMA has required applicants for disaster aid to provide a deed or other formal proof of homeownership to receive assistance. This policy denied assistance to thousands of Southern families seeking grants for repairs after disasters destroyed their homes. More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally. Land handed down in such a manner becomes heirs’ property, a type of ownership in which families hold property collectively. This became a necessity after the Civil War when Blacks, attempting to acquire property, were met by violence, swindles, and an inability to register titles. Only after investigative reporters highlighted this disparity did FEMA finally act to modify the rule so that families could access aid through a process of self-certification of ownership.

Only if we admit the reality of systemic racism can we hope to uproot it and so create a society of equity and justice for all.

– Fr. Mark Hallinan, S.J., Associate Pastor