Why Covenants Matter

It is hard to overestimate the importance of race restrictions in shaping American cities in the first half of the twentieth century.  Covenants and restrictive agreements were largely responsible for the dramatic increase in residential segregation in northern cities between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of World War II.  They were a formative influence on the legal strategy of the NAACP during the early years of the civil rights movement.  And, although the Supreme Court decision in Shelley v Kraemer (1948) prohibited state enforcement of race-restrictive covenants, they continued to shape private realty and public policy. 

Municipal zoning, especially in suburban settings, was often animated by a determination to sustain this segregation by other means.  Federal mortgage and insurance programs, launched in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, incorporated and cemented these restrictions into their protocols for risk-rating neighborhoods.  Although now unenforceable, race restrictions live on in land records and residential deeds, sending powerful signals about good neighborhoods and bad, and about the threat of racial transition to property.  And they live on in the stark and sustained gap in racial wealth, a direct legacy of racial restrictions and the segregation they created and sustained.