Urban sociologist Dr. Jesus Hernandez traces the origins of social ills in Sacramento back to decades-old policy decisions that racially divided the city into neighborhoods with disparate access to resources and economic opportunities. Viewed on a map, this geography of race traces an X across the region, a pattern that Dr. Hernandez says continues to shape neighborhoods and the lives of their residents.
"We can measure every social ill by this geography," he explains.
Dr. Hernandez joined Insight host Beth Ruyak to talk about his research and why housing rules from the early twentieth century continue to influence the community today. That conversation has gained renewed attention in Sacramento as advocates have pointed to the role of inequality and lack of investment in Meadowview, where Stephon Clark lived and was killed by police, and which has experienced high crime rates and poverty.
Ruyak: A way you describe the city is with a big letter “X,” and how the lines of that X actually point to the divisions that you're addressing.
Hernandez: So this X we can see — and anybody who's living in Sacramento will clearly see this — all the way from North Highlands down to Meadowview, is a pattern of poverty concentrations, of minority populations, lack of a public investment. And going east to west, You see these patterns of prosperity and opportunity, public infrastructure. It's where we keep our schools open.
You can take any social ill and measure it by that X: who drops out of high school, where gang activity is, who doesn't have health insurance, where subprime lending is, where foreclosures are. Who gets the flu, who uses more water. Just about anything.
You guided an episode of the KCET program, “City Rising,” and you talked about property value and race becoming linked. When did that happen?
So back in the 1930s, as a way to come out of the Great Depression, we have the Federal Home Administration (FHA) coming up with a new way to look at mortgages: amortise them over 30 years. A condition of getting those loans was to have race covenants on these properties.
So FHA financing — the key to getting people into homeownership and the key to spurring construction — was basically limited on the color of your skin. So you begin to have this stigma that arises, where only certain people are allowed to live in neighborhoods. The appraisal process reinforced that because it looked for which neighborhoods were racially integrated and those racially integrated neighborhoods had reduced value on their property.
There's discussion today about the language and the existence of these covenants [and] whether we ignore them or not. In many cases they're still on the books. What about that?
Even though they're not legally in effect, they created social norms that remain in effect. The article in Time magazine a few years ago that said Sacramento was the most diverse city in the nation didn't look at any of this, because in places like Land Park, Curtis Park, East Sacramento, Carmichael and Folsom we can see that these places are not racially integrated.
This notion of linking race to value created this stigma [and] whenever we talk about investment it still stays with us. [If] we look at public investment dollars across the region, we can see that there is a racial pattern to these public investments and where they go, and this is part of the pattern that's still with us today.
Race and poverty are not created by the people in a neighborhood, but directly created by public policy. The FHA lending patterns, the race covenants and redevelopment booting everybody out of downtown are specific examples of how public policy perpetuates racial patterns.
In the CapRadio project, “Place And Privilege,” you went with reporter Cosmo Garvin to a gate that puts a divide in a neighborhood. Explain again why that gate was put there and why why is it still here.
You know sometimes you have to laugh at these things because if you don't, it can really make you mad very quickly. That gate separates a housing project from the Land Park neighborhood, [which had] race covenants, and this road was supposed to go through as a pathway. [They] specifically put a gate there to block that passage, to make a clear distinction that these people that live in this situation are not wanted in this neighborhood. This is part of that social other we create.
Because that's what race is really about: creating that social other. And that's why it's so difficult to talk about, because we don't understand what race is. Race is not your color of your skin. It's creating this distance between groups of people physically, socially, economically.