The Covenants’ Legacy

Why do racial covenants still matter today? Mapping Prejudice’s Kevin Ehrman-Solberg has called them “ground zero in a layer cake of structural racism.”

At the turn of the 20th Century, Minneapolis’s Black population was small but spread across the city. The covenants, however, pushed Black families into a few small enclaves, primarily in Near North, Phillips, and a narrow strip of land that is now Interstate 35-W.

Covenants in 1910 versus 1940. Source: Mapping Prejudice
Minneapolis African American population in 1910 versus 1940. Source: Mapping Prejudice

Then, in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Authority classified those Black neighborhoods as “hazardous,” making them appear risky to lenders. That policy—which became known as redlining due to how the FHA marked those neighborhoods in red—made it nearly impossible for families to take out loans to buy their own homes.

Mapping Prejudice’s Kirsten Delegard has called the back-to-back policies of covenants and redlining a “one-two punch that depressed [Black] homeownership.” And since homeownership is the primary way that Americans build wealth, these policies had devastating effects on Black families’ ability to pass wealth to their children.

A map of redlining in Minneapolis.

A knockout blow to many Black families’ wealth came with the highway system.            

In the 1950s, when city planners plotted out where to lay three major highways—Interstate 35-W, 94, and Minnesota State Highway 55—they largely bypassed covenanted neighborhoods and paved through redlined communities. So while their plans ultimately disrupted the homes of a quarter of Minneapolis’s white population, they disrupted more than 80% of the city’s Black population, forcing many of those families to live near polluted freeways or lose their homes altogether.

The domino effect of these policies has created some of the worst disparities between white and Black people in the country.

In October 2020, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution disavowing the past use of racial covenants, noting how they established segregation and negatively impacted Black families’ “property ownership, accumulation of wealth, property transfers, mortgage eligibility, rental eligibility, property values, property tax base, [and] fortified systemic racism and compounded economic divestment in specific communities within Hennepin County.”

Click the resolution to read it in full.

Let’s break down some of those disparities:

Minneapolis now has the worst homeownership gap between white and Black people in the United States: While 76% of white families are homeowners, only a quarter of Black families own their home.

Data source: Redfin

People who own covenanted homes still benefit from higher property values: According to a team of University of Minnesota economists, covenanted homes are now worth 15% more than similar homes that weren’t covenanted. Moreover, white people are still the primary owners of those covenanted homes.

This segregation persists: Neighborhoods where covenants dominated are still less racially diverse today. Armatage, for example, is 85% white compared to 63.8% in Minneapolis overall. Communities where Black people settled after covenanting began, however, are still primarily home to Black families and other people of color. Only about a quarter of the residents in Near North, for instance, are white.

Compare the covenants to the city’s contemporary racial demographics in the next map.

Segregation like this can affect who is the victim of deadly force by police: A recent Boston University study found that Black people are more likely than white people to be killed by the police if their city is highly segregated. This is reflected in Minneapolis, where nine of the ten people killed by police since 2013 were people of color—seven of whom were Black. 

Photo credit: Brian Coe

Segregation is also tied to wide income disparities: In The Cost of Segregation,” the Urban Institute found that “higher levels of black-white segregation are associated with lower black per capita income.” Minneapolis, for example, has the second-worst income gap in the country, where the median Black family earns less than half of what the typical white family earns.

Covenanted neighborhoods have greater opportunities for children: Using several factors such as quality schools and safe housing, ranks neighborhoods based on whether they are likely to provide access to good opportunities for children. Based on its Minneapolis map, opportunities thrive in Southwest, but they’re “very low” in redlined and non-covenanted neighborhoods.

In the Twin Cities region, overall, only 7.6% of white children live in neighborhoods with “very low” opportunities. But more than half of Black children do.

Covenants also prohibited Black families from living near much of the most desirable parkland in the city. The restrictions stretched along much of Minnehaha Creek and they surrounded Lake Nokomis.

Speaking to NPR, Shannon Smith Jones, executive director of Hope Community, said, “If you looked historically, you would see the restrictive covenants along those green spaces. So historically we haven’t had the ability to live in very beautiful, nice green spaces that are healthy.”

Minnehaha Creek

Relatedly, segregation is a “fundamental cause of racial disparities in health.” Numerous studies, for example, have shown how Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Mayo Clinic has outlined some of the reasons for this, including racism, a lack of access to health care, and a higher likelihood of working in jobs that can’t be done at home.

Throughout 2020, you could practically guess where COVID-19 numbers were highest and lowest by looking at a map of the covenants: Redlined and non-covenanted communities have much higher case numbers than Southwest Minneapolis.

Minneapolis COVID-19 numbers in mid-2020.

These are only a few of the ways that racial covenants ultimately shaped Minneapolis, but from higher property values to far fewer COVID-19 cases, Southwest Minneapolis still clearly benefits from its racist origins.

Now is the time to acknowledge the past so that we can strive for an equitable future. To learn how to renounce a racial covenant on your home, please continue reading.