Monday, September 1, 2008

Keeping People in their Places

Bill Vogrin, who writes the "Side Streets" column for The Colorado Springs Gazette, last week unceremoniously exhumed the unsavory racist origins of neighborhood covenants in Colorado Springs -- covenants that continue to vex property owners of all colors and creeds today. Here's some language -- described as "boilerplate" for the era -- from a 1940 covenant placed on homeowners in one part of town:

"No lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race, and for the purpose of this paragraph, no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu or any other person of the Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be Caucasian . . . If persons not of the Caucasian race be kept thereon by such a Caucasian occupant, strictly in the capacity of servants or employees of such occupant, such circumstance shall not constitute a violation."

We've come a long way since then, thankfully. Overt racism, at least of this sort, is today mostly hidden from view. But it's useful to at least recall the racist and exclusionist origins of these and other localized restrictions on property rights if we want to appreciate the continuing injustice at their core. Zoning laws have similar roots: they were first used in California to keep the Chinese on the other side of the tracks.

The overt racial overtones fell away as time passed. The Progressive era saw these sorts of laws put to use by organizing "experts" and uplifters. Along the way, their constitutionality was weighed and affirmed (wrongly) by courts. And they gradually became an entrenched part of the American landscape; unquestioned, unchallenged, but clearly unjust and un-American.

These laws began as a means of segregating people, along racial or socioeconomic lines, and they continue to function as such, albeit in much more subtle ways. Does that mean that people who support zoning, codes and neighborhood covenants, in their contemporary context, harbor racist leanings? Of course not. But they do tend to be the sorts of people who want to keep people in their places, figuratively and sometimes literally, forcing conformity to the collective by setting conditions on property rights. They value order more than they value freedom, regimentation more than property rights.

The fundamental unfairness that lies at the root of such rules persists, even if time and familiarity have made them, to most people, a respectable part of the modern American landscape.

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