Campus spotlight: St. Kate’s students and faculty unearth racist roots in housing inequity
Excerpted with permission from St. Catherine University. View original article.
George Floyd’s death and the worldwide protests that followed have magnified social justice and racial inequity conversations, driving more attention to the ongoing and systemic disparities in healthcare, housing, employment, education, incarceration, net wealth, and police brutality for Black people and communities in the United States.
These disparities are complex and layered, says Taiyon J. Coleman, PhD, associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at St. Kate’s.
“It’s not just color. It’s also what class you are, where you live, what you look like, where you work. I have a colleague who lives in St. Paul, who told me that the police were outside her house in riot gear with bullhorns telling them to stay inside and not come out of the house. Where I live, in the Nokomis neighborhood, that wasn’t happening at all,” Coleman said in a recent CityLab article on the Twin Cities and its role in the turmoil of the past two weeks. “I would argue that this is how segregation works in Minneapolis or Minnesota: It reinscribes the racial stereotypes, because it keeps peaceful people isolated, so that not only are they the other, but then I’m convinced they’re the other, because I never see them where I live.”
The current reality Coleman describes is rooted in centuries of housing inequity and discrimination. It is also the focus of “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?: A History of Housing Inequality in Ramsey County,” a project launched by an interdisciplinary team of St. Kate’s faculty and staff, in collaboration with Mapping Prejudice and facilitated by the St. Kate’s Center for Community Work and Learning (CWL). Mapping Prejudice has spent the last four years mapping racial covenants in Hennepin County and has now turned its attention to Ramsey County. In their collaboration with Mapping Prejudice, the St. Kate’s “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” project focuses on facilitating better understanding of housing segregation and subsequent racial inequalities in Ramsey County through detailed research from a number of disciplinary perspectives, including history, sociology, critical race studies, political science, economics, public health, and data science. The project seeks to learn more about the stories of legal housing segregation in the past in order to better understand our present context and influence better policies in the future.
Racial covenants were legal clauses embedded in property deeds that barred people who were not white from buying or occupying land and homes in specific areas. Although these covenants are now illegal, much of the residential segregation patterns and the structural inequalities that result persist today. Communities of color have known that racial covenants were widespread and continue to contribute to racial disparities, but these issues are frequently overlooked by white members of the community. “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” aims to change that by zeroing in on historic property deeds in the areas around St. Kate’s.
"Humanizing the maps"
“The title comes from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the founders of St. Kate’s, who claim the love of neighbor without distinction as part of their mission,” said St. Kate’s history faculty Rachel Neiwert, PhD, in a March article by the Highland Villager. “The question is, has Ramsey County historically been a place that welcomed the dear neighbor regardless of race, and what are the legacies of that history today?”
The answer, as this collaborative project has helped demonstrate, is abundantly clear: no. These legacies are frequently unacknowledged, following a pattern of de facto rather than de jure discrimination — that is to say, discrimination that is outlawed legally, but still takes place in practice.
“Minneapolis wasn’t particularly segregated when racial covenants were first introduced in 1910; they were preemptively put into place before black people lived in Minneapolis in large numbers,” said Kirsten Delegard, a historian and director of Mapping Prejudice, in a recent piece by Time magazine on George Floyd’s death and the history of racism in the Twin Cities. “You have 2,700 African Americans living in the city in 1910 and [then] 30,000 racial covenants blanketing the city to make sure all this land could never be occupied by people who aren’t white. After they had been in place for 30 years, the city became highly segregated and people who weren’t white were sorted into just a handful of very, very small neighborhoods.”
Mapping Prejudice and St. Catherine University have launched a series of virtual deeds transcription workshops, training community members to help build the Ramsey County digital map and database. Assistantship Mentoring Program student Liz Axberg ’20 investigated housing deeds in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Kate’s, including Highland Park, before the Ramsey County deeds were digitized. In addition to the 38 racial covenants Axberg documented in housing deeds and legislation, St. Kate’s students Franceska Moua ’20, Anastasia Rousseau ’22, and Vee Signorelli ’21 unearthed newspaper articles on housing discrimination in their work with Neiwert, whose research is supported by a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society. Their research demonstrates the foundations of institutionalized racism in housing and the continued need for the CSJs’ mission of social justice and welcoming the dear neighbor without distinction.
As the “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” and Mapping Prejudice teams work to “humanize the maps,” as described by Coleman, their findings demonstrate the lived damage these policies have imposed on communities of color. Their mission to clarify how inequities were built in the past, in order to effectively dismantle them, provides vital support for the growing reckoning with structural racism.