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Zoning’s Racist Roots Still Bear Fruit

The long, shameful legacy of state-sanctioned discrimination.

“Blacks,” said Mayor Barry Mahool, “should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

Mahool was the mayor of Baltimore who, in 1910, signed into law a racial zoning ordinance. According to Christopher Silver’s The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities, he was also “a nationally recognized member of the ‘social justice’ wing of the Progressive movement.”

The cities employing racial zoning included many Southern ones: Norfolk, Atlanta, Louisville, Birmingham, and more. But they were not limited to the South: Chicago practiced a form of racial zoning, too. San Francisco and other California cities used it to keep Chinese laundries in their place.

Yet the ball really got rolling in Richmond, where a 1911 zoning ordinance made it illegal to sell a house on a majority-white block to a black person, or a house on a majority-black block to a white person.

Even back then, the only color that some people cared about was green. The ordinance was challenged by whites and blacks who wanted to do business with one another. In 1915 it was upheld. “There is no discrimination between the races,” a Richmond court ruled in Hopkins v. City of Richmond, because the law applied to blacks and whites alike. What’s more, the ordinances were written “to do a public good” by keeping “one race from encroaching upon the other. The ordinances are intended to protect each race from harm from the other.”

That justification held for two years, until the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning in Buchanan v. Warley — a case George Mason University law professor David Bernstein has called “one of the most significant civil rights cases decided before the modern civil rights era.” As he wrote at SCOTUSblog back in 2004, the “right at issue” was the “civil right” of property — a right enjoyed equally by both whites and blacks: “ ‘Colored persons,’ Justice [William R.] Day wrote for the court, ‘are citizens of the United States and have the right to purchase property and enjoy and use the same without laws discriminating against them solely on account of color.’ ”

Regrettably, the highest court did not get the last word. No longer able to enforce explicitly racial zoning regulations, many cities used “expulsive” zoning to the same effect, by putting factories in certain neighborhoods to drive blacks out.

They also used other, indirect methods — such as housing betterment. According to Silver, “Richmond’s reform movement produced its own catalog of housing horrors when the Society for the Betterment of Housing Conditions published [a] graphic depiction of the city’s dilapidated black neighborhoods. [The] report made no direct reference to racial zoning as a remedial action but, instead, concentrated on housing codes [and] building regulations.”

Ancient history? Hardly. Progressivism likes to think of government as defending minorities from discrimination by private enterprise. But time and again, history has shown progressive ideas marching in lockstep with racist motives.

In 1954, the Supreme Court allowed the District of Columbia to use eminent domain to eradicate blight. The court’s language was high-toned: “The concept of the public welfare is broad and inclusive,” it ruled. “The values it represents are spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as monetary.” The victims, however, shared mostly skin tone: The “urban renewal” district to be bulldozed was 97.5 percent black.

In the 2005 eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court allowed government to seize private property for someone else’s ostensibly higher use — condemnation in the name of social progress. Dissenting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that “the fallout from this decision will not be random.” She was right. An Institute for Justice study of 184 eminent domain cases occurring since the 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London found condemnation was used disproportionately against minority property holders.

Another study, in 2009, found “a strong and significant … relationship” between low-density zoning policies and racial segregation. Yet another paper, published last year, found that “over half the difference between levels of segregation in the stringently zoned Boston and lightly zoned Houston metro areas can be explained by zoning regulation alone.”

That would not be news to the Bukharian Jews of New York — immigrants from Central Asia whose voluble architectural tastes offend the more subdued sensibilities of their neighbors in Queens. As Melinda Katz, head of the New York City Council’s land-use committee, complained in 2008, the houses in the area “have a specific aesthetic character” and “a lot of the houses that are [now] going up there are just simply too big. … They are out of character.” Oh, gracious.

To Boris Kandov, head of a Bukharian association, the issue looked rather different: “Why are we in America? Because we’re dreaming of this freedom! We were dreaming to build big house!” (New York to immigrants: Dream on.)

Related concerns are now raising hackles in Fairfax County. On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that longtime residents of some neighborhoods have taken to calling or emailing the county’s code-enforcement division with complaints about too many cars in certain driveways and too many people in certain houses. By an amazing coincidence, the objects of the complaints are always immigrants — usually large Asian or Hispanic families. As Tim Cavanaugh observed in Reason three years ago, the attraction of urban planning is that it “allows discrimination but dresses it up as discriminating taste.”

But to the complainers, the issue isn’t race or ethnicity — it’s “quality of life.” You can’t have a bunch of people sharing a house, fixing cars in the yard and so on. It’s out of character with the neighborhood. It causes tensions and creates civil disturbance. And it’s bad for property values. There’s no discrimination in simply wanting the rules enforced, right?

Baltimore’s Barry Mahool would certainly agree.

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  • Doctor Whom||

    When residents of rich white neighborhoods demand that the zoning board keep businesses away from them and in more "suitable" locations, there's typically an undercurrent of "We all know what sort of people those businesses will employ, and we need to keep them out."

  • OldMexican||

    San Francisco and other California cities used it to keep Chinese laundries in their place.


    And now San Francisco uses zoning laws to keep the "undesirables" ghettoed inside Oakland.

  • PapayaSF||

    Um, what? How? Mainly SF uses laws to protect old renters at the expense of new ones, and to make the lives of car owners miserable.

  • Tamfang||

    New tenants could so easily be of the wrong sort. Best not to risk it.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Exactly. Protecting old renters at the expense of new ones prevents those Oakland undesirables (who would be new renters) from moving in.

  • SaintSebastian||

    The "Oakland undesirables" would be tech workers making less than $150k. The minorities are being slowly pushed out by higher paid workers who commute to SF.

  • PapayaSF||

    A lot of people in SF are being pushed out by tech workers who work in Silicon Valley but want to live in SF.

  • Combat Missionary||

    Yup. Zoning ordinances are used to gentrify neighborhoods. Didn't Spike Lee just go off about gentrification?

  • Florida Man||

    “Blacks,” said Mayor Barry Mahool, “should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance....

    I read that as "shouldn't" at first and thought "of course not, who would suggest that.". I was taking a lady back for surgery yesterday, and she was telling me about when she was having her children she wasn't allowed in my hospital. They had a colored hospital and the delivery ward was in the basement with the boilers. Being born in 1981 it really leaves me stunned when I think that this kind of bigotry was out in the open for all to see.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    Did you change your handle from "Floridian"? If so, I looked into what Vanguard stuff I have in my IRA, and the 5 year ROR for each fund.

  • Florida Man||

    Yup! Awesome thanks for the info. I bought the admiral 500 index. I'll look into the ROR with my monthly contributions.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    For my IRA, I keep most of the balance in VTIVX, which is the Target Retirement 2045 fund. I bought it in 2009, and it has made about 20% a year since then.

    For my non-IRA liquid accounts that I use for everyday expenses, I have VASCX (Life Strategy Growth Fund). It is quite a bit more volatile. It jumped up about $1500 yesterday, and it will probably drop that much today.

    I also have VBIAX, the Balanced Index Fund (Admiral Shares). It creeps up slowly but steadily.

  • Florida Man||

    Awesome. Thanks for remembering.

  • OldMexican||

    Another study, in 2009, found "a strong and significant … relationship" between low-density zoning policies and racial segregation. Yet another paper, published last year, found that “over half the difference between levels of segregation in the stringently zoned Boston and lightly zoned Houston metro areas can be explained by zoning regulation alone."


    The rules for the modern segregationist:

    a) Price minorities out of the labor market by artificially inflating their cost to hire.
    b) Make minorities dependent on government so they don't get funny ideas like working for a living and shit.
    c) Impose licensing laws and other barriers of entry to business that hit minorities the hardest.
    d) Impose "zoning" rules so that only the beautiful people can afford to keep their homes.

    Et voilá!

  • Florida Man||

    E: Profts!

  • Florida Man||

    Profits, damn it.

  • Doctor Whom||

    F. Say with a straight face that you're actually doing these things in the name of anti-segregationism. (Cue the Orwell slogans.)

  • SusanM||

    Hey it happens to whites too. It's the last stage of gentrification as much as it is ethnically motivated.

  • seguin||

    Tell me about it. My business (ostensibly auto-related, but more general machining) was all but ridden out on a rail out of my hometown. I had to move to the next suburb down.

  • Combat Missionary||

    Fight the power! My wife complains that our house looks like a used car lot. I've done full-blown engine overhauls in my driveways when I'm off-duty. The city can bite it.
    I had a neighbor that got hassled for putting in his own fence. Code enforcement ticketed him; said it was too close to the sidewalk. His response? He drove up and down all over town and took pictures of every fence that was also in violation, and told the city they could either require EVERY fence in town like his to be ripped out, and they'd be kicked out in the next election, or he'd file an equal protection lawsuit if they didn't, or they could repeal that section of code. They repealed it.

  • PapayaSF||

    It is amazing to consider how many current "progressive" causes were invented or originally promoted, in whole or in part, for racist reasons: birth control and abortion, gun control, and minimum wages. I think drug laws may fit there as well, given that keeping blacks from getting pot seems to have been a major motive for the original ban.

  • SusanM||

    Judging by who gets hit hardest in the WoD it still is.

  • PapayaSF||

    Yes, but progs have changed their minds on drugs, while they still support birth control and abortion, gun control, and minimum wages without knowing the history of those ideas.

  • Doctor Whom||

    When you tell them the history, you get that all-purpose scathing rebuttal known as "La la la, I can't hear you." Yet they get to cite the racist origins of any law that they don't like. It's almost as though they weren't 100% intellectually honest.

  • Mokers||

    But the right people are in charge now.

  • Tamfang||

    And the progressive reforms, though they may have been misapplied to unsavory ends in the past, have been found to be good for everyone who matters after all.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The federal law against pot was certainly SOLD with some of the most offensive "we gitta keep them niggers in line" swill ever. I still suspect, though, that is was really a "full employment for out of work prohibition agents" measure.

  • Tamfang||

    My favorite Progressive once said, "There are lots of causes of Black unemployment and none of them have anything to do with a minimum wage." I asked how he's so sure of that. "You may have heard of a little thing called slavery. Slavery wasn't caused by a minimum wage. There, I've run rings around you logically."

    This, by the way, was someone to whom an interest in mathematics is like a taste for bad music; I guess his disdain extends to formal logic too.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Don't forget eugenics.

  • bshep19||

    So many progressive causes are rooted in racism. Take gun control for example.

  • PapayaSF||

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Now, now; Progressives aren't RACISTS. They think All of us are peasants who should do what they say.

  • jeeenmik||

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail
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  • 110 Lean||

    Maybe this isn't the right place or best time to break this to you, but while you've been making money at home, I've been in the bus station men's room cornholing your wife.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Oh, now, don't do that. You don't know where it's been!

  • ULOST||

    You too?! She told me I was special.

  • Edwin||

    Not only are zoning laws and land use restrictions bullshit that increase the price of housing, but the very concept of land ownership is bullshit that increases the price of housing.

    The "homesteading" premise is entirely separate from premises like the NAP or premises that accept that property ownership as legitimate, and it's a premise that is bullshit and no one would accept without serious mitigating added factors. I mean, a lot of you guys see IP as silly, how is homesteading any different? It's like fine, we need to incentivize the system, so people actually do the thing (in IP, it's invent stuff, with land, it's improve land), but with IP everyone recognizes that the ownership should end after a certain amount of time. Why the hell not with land? So just because your great grandparents were good at murdering Indians or built one fucking drainage ditch, you get to restrict 8 acres from everyone else forever and ever?

    It isn't hard to imagine a system of slowly declining property rights based on the nature of the initial improvement. The for rent sign for the neighboring apartment building where I live has been there for like a year. No, they haven't found someone to rent the place AT THE PRICE THEY WANT, not altogether. At the same time, rent all over gets worse and worse every year. The whole time, that place is completely livable and vacant. How is that fairness, justice, or free marketism?

    Georgism for the world

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