The history of redlining matters. For decades, the government sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created maps that defined African American neighbourhoods as high risk, which resulted in people not having access to a Federal Housing Administration insured mortgage in these districts. Ta-Nehisi Coates used the research in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Robert Conot’s American Odyssey, Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto to develop the case for reparations in his 2014 cover story in the Atlantic. He convincingly argued that long after the end of Slavery, government policy actively limited economic opportunities for African Americans, created segregated cities and the significant gap in wealth between white and black Americans: “From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market“.
A year earlier, Dustin A. Cable, at the University of Virginia, created the interactive Racial Dot Map based on data from the 2010 census. The map shows the stark racial divides in many major cities. The impressive level of detail, with a single dot for every person in the United States census, creates visually and analytically powerful maps. The divided racial geography of a cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee is startling and prompts a historical question: how did this happen? Coates brought together decades of urban social history and historical demography, along with his own journalism, to help answer this question for Chicago.
THE RACIAL DOT MAP: One Dot Per Person for the Entire United States (Created by Dustin Cable, July 2013)
The New York Times created their own series of maps in 2015, with a more direct title, Mapping Segregation, based on the same data, expanding the audience and conversation about redlining further. More recently, Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, at the University of Richmond, created “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America,” another interactive map with digitized versions of the Home Owners Loan Corporation maps that limited African American’s access to mortgages and helped create the segregation in the first place. These digital history projects complement Coates’s article by allowing people in cities across the United States to see both the depression era primary source maps and the resulting segregation in the 2010 census.
Recent proposed legislation confirms the combined power of an explosive cover story in the Atlantic and these interactive maps. A number of senators and congressmen have introduced a bill to prevent federal funding from supporting the creation of data used by the Racial Dot Map or Mapping Segregation maps in the future. The National Council on Public History (NCPH) warned on February 27 that “S.103 threatens digital history initiatives around race“. They quote the bill, which is very blunt in its intent: “no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.” This is a part of an effort to nullify the new “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” regulation that forces municipalities receiving federal housing money “to proactively dismantle historical patterns of housing segregation“. Not surprisingly, the NCPH are joined by American Geographers and numerous other organizations including the NAACP in denouncing these bills (read the American Association of Geographers open letter here). It is disappointing to see elected officials trying to limit the American public’s access to public data, but it does suggest these projects are effective and should encourage more historical research and efforts to share this history with the public.
Jim Clifford is an editor of ActiveHistory.ca, an environmental historian of London, an Assistant Professor and the director of the HGIS Lab at the University of Saskatchewan.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses his research for the cover article in “Home Is Where the Hatred Is The case for reparations: a narrative bibliography“.