In the United States, April commemorates Fair Housing Month, the anniversary of King’s assassination and the now global Earth Day. This year, these events find an appropriate relationship in a sobering new study published on Nature.com which identifies a strong correlation between structural racism and the location of active and inactive oil and gas wells. The raw numbers on demarcated neighborhoods date back almost a century, but the human, societal and financial costs persist to this day.
David JX Gonzalez and other researchers from three major universities explored data from the Great Depression era. They found that gated neighborhoods in the United States comprising racially and economically marginalized populations had twice the density of oil and gas wells in and near them than those with predominantly white, more affluent residents. .
The study does not assume causation in its findings. However, the link between increased environmental risks and majority-minority communities is clearer than air.
The study looked at 33 cities in 13 states that had neighborhoods note by a federal agency for lending risk (A for “best” to D for “dangerous”) and at least 10 wells drilled or operated within 100 yards of these graded areas. He then focused on 17 of these cities for which 1940 US Census information was available.
Here’s where this historical data tells a disturbing story.
Yes, redlining is systemic racism
The term “redlining” probably comes from historical maps used by the study, which were developed by the Home Owners Loan Company (HOLC), a three-year New Deal program enacted in 1933 to provide mortgage refinancing to prevent non-farm foreclosures. Maps are from HOLC’s City Survey project, conducted from 1935 to 1940. Color-coded neighborhoods, HOLC shaded and delineated D-rated areas in red.
Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Native American, Asian, and other ethnicities – sometimes described in HOLC records as “subversive racial elements– filled in many of these red-outlined areas at the time and often do to this day. HOLC only developed the cards after issuing the bulk of its loans, so historians and other experts differ in their assessments of whether HOLC applied racial factors in making loans.
Discriminatory practices in the private sector — real estate, insurance and lending — took place long before the moniker of redlining surfaced and before federal government involvement in housing. These industries provided much of the data captured in the City Survey project. Therefore, it is possible that the maps of HOLC acted more as a reflection of prevailing racist practices than as a catalyst for them. The cards probably has become a tool for later stages of loan management, including foreclosure resale appraisals.
Regardless of culpability of HOLC or innocence in this sense, his maps testify to the unfavorable racial attitudes and practices of this period. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), on the other hand, established in 1934 to provide new mortgage financing, wrote racist guidelines. His 1939 underwriting manual stated that “for a neighborhood to maintain stability, it is necessary that properties continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes”. Additionally, the FHA destroyed its own cards in response to a 1969 civil law trial.
The Legacy of Red Light Districts: Persistent Attacks on Wealth and Health
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 improved opportunities for homeownership – the greatest generator of generational wealth in the United States – with rates for blacks rise over the next decade. But over time, black homeownership rates fell back to 1970 level as redlining suiteracially restrictive real estate covenant effects persisted, gentrification grew and recessions hit. Valuation bias is still apparent, too.
A house further loses value by its “location, location, location” in a delineated neighborhood near an environmental hazard. Individuals and families are losers, as are public schools when property values fall or remain low. In a circular fashion, poorly performing schools have a negative impact on property values. Tax bases are hurting, so rates are rising for residential and commercial taxpayers.
Studies link chemicals to air, water and soil pollution proximity to oil and gas wells to various diseases and consequences, including respiratory diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and premature births. Increase in healthcare costs then affect other sectors of the economy: sick employees cannot work and families have less disposable income for many consumer goods.
Structural racism and environmental injustice are a toxic combination for everyone.
the Study by Gonzalez et al focuses on the numbers, correlating oil and gas well sites with demarcated neighborhoods. However, through his choice of data source – HOLC maps and descriptions – he triggers an examination of the intricacy of racism in the social and economic fabric of the United States.
It is to wonder how much more prosperous the country could have been without these “correlations”.
Image credit: Mapping inequalities via the national archives