Discover more from From Streets to Scholarship by Terence Lester
The Legacy of Redlining on Black America
Charting a History of Discrimination and Displacement
This week marked three pivotal events in my life. To start, Cecilia and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. It feels as though we stood at the altar just yesterday, committing our lives to each other. Where has the time gone?
We took the day to reflect on all the ups and downs, mountains and valleys, and got to dream about where we would like to go. It is our prayer and hope that God allows us to keep growing together as we continue to learn ways to show up for each other and as a team in this world.
Second, I received news that my dissertation, penned during my Ph.D. program, has earned a place on ProQuest. Known for its extensive archive of academic works, ProQuest is a revered platform in the scholarly world. When I clicked the link, it was surreal.
And, just like I had never read it before, I started to read the words as I reflected deeply about MLK Jr. and the lives of those unhoused in the U.S. And then, the third thing hit me—a particular line from my dissertation broke my heart all over again,
Black people only make up about 13% of the total population of the U.S. but are overrepresented in the unhoused community for structural and systemic reasons related to housing exclusion.
And, when I mention overrepresenting, research shows that 52% of all unhoused in this country are black.
Imagine this for a moment—black people represent half of all people who are unhoused in the whole country.
Not only is this both striking and triggering personally as a scholar, but it also prompts a multitude of questions in my heart. This is especially true when states like Florida challenge the inclusion in their Black History curriculum of the notion that those enslaved benefited from their enslavement.
Why can't people see the link between history and Black homelessness?
Why is homelessness seen differently from poverty?
During my research on social constructions, public policy, and the history of homelessness, my committee compelled me to grapple with the undeniable reality of the intersection of race and homelessness.
I've recently given many interviews about my new book, All God’s Children, and I'm frequently asked about the intersection of race and class and its significance. My answer remains consistent:
The overrepresentation of Black and Brown people among the unhoused is not simply happenstance. It's deeply connected to public policies and systems anchored in racial biases. Consider just the impact of enslavement and redlining as examples.
The legacy of enslavement and redlining has contributed to many of the socioeconomic challenges faced by Black people, including homelessness.
Ever wondered why some neighborhoods seem richer or poorer than others? Or why do some folks have a harder time getting ahead? Some of it goes back to history, specifically practices like enslavement and redlining. Let me break it down for you with a quick history lesson:
When People Worked But Didn't Get Paid (Enslavement):
Unpaid Work: Imagine working all day, every day, and never getting a paycheck. That's what happened to Black people (my ancestors) for hundreds of years. They couldn't save money or give their children the inheritance of land—and when they did, it was stolen or taken.
Stuck in One Place: After being emancipated, many Black people worked on the same lands but now for very little pay. This system, called sharecropping, made it really hard to escape poverty and build wealth.
The Unfair Housing Game (Redlining):
No Loans for Certain Areas: Those who wrote the policy decided that certain neighborhoods, often where Black people lived, were "too risky" for home loans. This made it hard for Black families to buy land, a form of wealth.
Businesses Said "No Thanks": Businesses didn't want to invest in these "risky" areas. So, these neighborhoods got left behind and didn't grow.
More Poverty: This led to certain areas being much poorer than others, and this cycle of poverty continued in the black community.
This is merely a snapshot of the intersection of these two factors (homelessness and race).
Now, consider this: if Black people were denied home loans during the Jim Crow era and were also confined to impoverished areas, can we see a connection to the higher percentages of Black people experiencing homelessness today?
Understanding this history is crucial. As both a scholar and a Black man, I penned the following words in my dissertation mentioned above:
“…it is important to report that homelessness and race are connected in the U.S. because when conversations happen about homelessness, the intersections of race and class are left out. Over the last 100–150 years, Black people have been discriminated against in healthcare, education, employment, wealth building, and housing. In fact, we know that housing is not the only factor in homelessness, but to talk about housing without acknowledging historical discrimination toward Black people and people of color is irresponsible.”
It's important to recognize this history and honor Black history, considering its lasting impact on us today. Just over a week ago, I had an interview with Mason Mennenga on his podcast, A People’s Theology, where we delved into why understanding this history is vital.
If you're interested, you can watch the interview below in which I mention a little of this history in the interview:
If you want to explore homelessness in the U.S., please consider checking out the book“I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People.”
Explore my book “When We Stand: The Power of Seeking Justice Together” to delve into the profound impact of community involvement and collective action for social change.
Discover “All God’s Children: How Confronting Buried History Can Build Racial Solidarity” to gain insight into the significance of understanding the historical narratives that shape individuals and foster racial solidarity.
Or, subscribe to the Love Beyond Walls Newsletter—visit the site and sign up.
Lester, T. (2023). When policy overlooks worth: Exploring harmful policies and social constructions that exclude the unhoused from martin luther king jr.’s beloved community (Order No. 30573330). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Union Institute & University; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2845356082). Retrieved from http://proxy.myunion.edu/login/?url=https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/when-policy-overlooks-worth-exploring-harmful/docview/2845356082/se-2
Fowle, M. Z. (2022). Racialized homelessness: A review of historical and contemporary causes of racial disparities in homelessness. Housing Policy Debate, 32(6), 940-967.
On a single night in January 2019, almost 300,000 people identifying as Asian, Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, or mixed race experienced homelessness1 in the United States (Henry, Watt, Mahathey, Ouellette, & Sitler, 2019). They represent more than half (52.4%) of all people experiencing homelessness, despite people of color and mixed race comprising less than a quarter (23.5%) of the total U.S. population. For non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people born between 1946 and 1963, the lifetime prevalence of homelessness is 1 in 6 and 1 in 12, respectively, compared with 1 in 21 for non-Hispanic White people (Fusaro, Levy, & Shaefer, 2018).
Sullivan, K., & Rozsa, L. (2023, July 24). DeSantis doubles down on claim that some blacks benefited from slavery. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/07/22/desantis-slavery-curriculum/
Lester, T. (2023), pg. 10.