On the surface, two new bills in the Kansas Legislature that would eliminate racist language in old deed restrictions look like a good move with no downsides. After all, turning our attention to the inequities of our past can serve as a reminder of how laws have changed and how society has seemingly evolved.
But what do we do to make sure that the backyard racism of a Jim Crow not so long ago still remains in the consciousness of our community so we don’t repeat those mistakes – and so we don’t forget the impact that still remains today?
The same measures – House Bill 2174 and Senate Bill 77 – were offered by State Representative Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat, and State Senator Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat.
The legislation would authorize any city, county, or the Kansas Human Rights Commission to strike out a racially restrictive covenant by drafting it from the plat description or government homeowners association document. Under current law, that language, while unenforceable, can only be removed by an HOA.
Overwhelmingly, it is good to remove the racist language that reflected the times. The era in which it was legal to prohibit ownership or occupation “by any person of Negro blood or by any person who is more than one-quarter of Semitic race, blood, origin, or extraction, including, without limitation in said designation, Armenians , Jews, Jews, Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabs” – as in a Johnson County pact quoted by The Star’s Judy L. Thomas – is within the lives of many people still with us today.
It’s offensive language to see now: acts that essentially say no blacks or Jews can live here except for black servants.
But one of the hardest things we Americans have to do is acknowledge our horrific but common heritage of racism by eliminating its reminders, like old statues, public buildings, and fountains named after people with a racist history. It’s a tough line to walk, but it’s a line that we Have walk to show the impact of history on the world we are in now.
Developer JC Nichols was one of the most significant and famous architects of creating and enforcing this type of restrictive covenants. And those policies have tentacles that continue to reach out even after they become legally unenforceable.
Among the restrictive covenants used primarily in the sale of Johnson County homes on the Kansas side and west of the infamous Troost Avenue color line on the Missouri side, we sometimes forget that the racial divide and the racial wealth gap today — in particularly among black and white Americans – it took root a long time ago.
Many studies have shown that home ownership is a huge contributor to a family’s wealth, including wealth passed down to subsequent generations. But in a city where racist actions, redlining and blockbusting were common measures to keep neighborhoods white, we must continue to tell the honest story of how those neighborhoods came to be what they are.
We usually resist confrontation with 20th century fascism, but here it is appropriate: German society today openly confronts the stain of Nazism with the concept of “vergangenheitsaufarbeitung”, which loosely translates into “processing of the past”. If Kansans eliminate racist language from these actions, they should also pay attention to marking what was. Every city and county may have a different way of tackling this issue, whether with plaques, local museum exhibits, annual programs, or other creative means.
On a personal level, families need to speak up about these past practices and not just the families affected by this legalized discrimination, but all families, including those who have benefited from it. We can’t run away and say, “That’s not who we are” — because that’s exactly what the communities that took advantage of stock restrictions were like.
It is admirable that lawmakers want to remove the vestiges of times gone by. But we need to figure out how to make sure this story isn’t whitewashed and truth-telling isn’t obscured.