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Big Idea

How Minneapolis mapped its own history of racial segregation

The Mapping Prejudice project revealed how inequities can endure — and inspired changes in the law.

By Ha Ta

To undo the legacies of American cities’ racial wealth gaps, it’s important to know where those inequalities came from. Minneapolis residents have been learning about their own city’s racial inequality and history of housing discrimination through an ambitious data visualization project that maps housing discrimination in Minneapolis in the early 20th century.

The problem

Despite the economic booms of the past few decades, the racial wealth gap in the United States has widened. The net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family, according to the Brookings Institution. And home ownership — an opportunity to own an asset that usually appreciates in value — is one major reason for the disparity. According to a 2017 study, homeownership rate of white Minnesota households is 76%, while that of households of color is at 40%. 

Historically, racial covenants — legal clauses inserted into property deeds that restricted land use and homeownership based on race — were a widely used mechanism for entrenching such housing inequality. One such clause documented in Minneapolis, for example, declared that “said lands or buildings shall never be rented, leased or sold [to] … [or] be occupied exclusively by person or persons other than of the Caucasian race.” 

The solution

In 2016, four Minnesotans launched the Mapping Prejudice project, which set out to create an interactive digital map to help the public visualize the spread of 22,000 racial covenants throughout Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis. 

Mapping Prejudice has unearthed, documented, and mapped tens of thousands of such property deeds from the years 1910 to 1955. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial covenants were unenforceable in court, and Minnesota banned them in 1953. But the project reveals that the segregation patterns they created persist today.

“Mapping Prejudice really helped connect the dots, so the Realtors were able to see this is an artificial construct that our industry put in place.”

Joe McKinley, vice president of advocacy and community engagement for the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors

Mapping Prejudice used computer software to identify records that seemed to have racial language. “We had the profound good fortune to want to do a project like this in a place where the county government had just finished the process of digitizing the deeds,” says project co-founder Kirsten Delegard, “and was very receptive to the idea that they could give us a copy of all these property records to use for this research.” An absence of digital records would make the project hard to replicate, she says; if the documents hadn’t been digitized, she estimates, it would have taken 40 years to scan and process every deed from Hennepin County’s history.

The challenge

Many Americans tend to underestimate the long-term effects of racist policies, instead believing that the root of racial inequality lies in personal choices. Half of white Americans surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, for example, believed that Black Americans would be as well off as whites if they “tried harder.” The project’s findings — that housing inequities persist decades beyond being deemed unlawful — undermine those assumptions.

At the same time, historical research projects like Mapping Prejudice can seem disconnected from the communities they examine. To avoid that, the group organized workshops in which volunteers learned about racially restrictive covenants and the history of segregation in Minneapolis. Then the team enlisted the volunteers’ help in analyzing the records, reading the deeds, creating a database, and plotting the covenants. In all, 5,000 people took part in the project, including teachers, community groups, librarians, retirees, and real estate agents. “I want as many people as possible to read these records,” Delegard says, “because as soon as you read one, it’s so powerful, even if you know all this history.”

The big picture

Some believe the project has already contributed to changes in Minnesota laws and regulations. In 2019, the city of Minneapolis ended single-family zoning, which allocated nearly three-quarters of its residential land for single-family homes. Critics argued that in the mid-20th century, after racial covenants were ruled unenforceable, the city used single-family zoning to keep poor people of color out of certain neighborhoods. Instead, to create more affordable housing, the city will allow duplexes and triplexes to be built anywhere in the city.

Janne Flisrand, a Minneapolis resident who is co-founder of the advocacy group Neighbors for More Neighbors, says Mapping Prejudice’s work helped her group advocate for the abolition of single-family zoning. “What Mapping Prejudice provided to us was tools to understand the history,” Flisrand says, “and the ability to put the words to it that we didn’t necessarily have before and also academically rigorous data that we didn’t have before.” City planners also turned to Mapping Prejudice’s work when they made the case for change in the city’s new comprehensive plan. “There are words that came directly from Mapping Prejudice that are in that proposed plan,” Flisrand says.

In 2019, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed an act that allows Minnesota homeowners to amend their property deeds to renounce racist language. The bill’s co-author credited Mapping Prejudice with inspiring the change.

Recently, two associations of real estate agents have successfully lobbied for increased down-payment assistance programs for residents of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their suburbs. Joe McKinley, vice president of advocacy and community engagement for the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors, says his members’ involvement came after they volunteered for the Mapping Prejudice project. SPAAR’s charitable foundation has donated $50,000 for Mapping Prejudice to extend its project to Ramsey County, including St. Paul. 

“Many of our members were discussing how there are disparities in the rates of homeownership between white people, Black people, and people of color, and a lot of our Realtors were like: ‘Well, I didn’t play any role in creating those, so it’s not my issue,’” said McKinley. “Mapping Prejudice really helped connect the dots, so the Realtors were able to see this is an artificial construct that our industry put in place. Then they became a lot more invested in trying to come up with solutions.”

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Ha Ta is a writer based in Boston.

Photo by AP Images

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