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The Next Louisville: Redlining's Complicated Legacy

Erica Peterson

Like most American cities, Louisville’s neighborhoods have been shaped by the past century of housing policies. And those policies have helped accentuate economic divides, creating today’s map of economic inequality.

That’s examined nationally in "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein — a comprehensive look at government-guided segregation across America.

In the book, Rothstein lists example after example of the ways federal, state and local government enacted policies that dictated where African-American people lived, and the ways their families were allowed to accrue wealth.

Last year, Louisvillereleased an interactive map showing the redlining created by the Home Owner's Loan Corporation that guided home loans in the 1930s. The maps also show how those policies have resulted in today’s segregated neighborhoods, and the clusters of concentrated poverty in some parts of West Louisville.

On Monday, Rothstein will speak about redlining and his book at 7:00 p.m. at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. It’s part of Empower West’s city-wide book read. The group is a coalition of Louisville pastors and churches, focused on empowering the city’s West End.

I sat down separately with three of the pastors involved in Empower West — Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church, Erica Whitaker of Buechel Park Baptist Church and F. Bruce Williams of Bates Memorial Baptist Church — to talk about the book and the legacy of redlining in Louisville. Listen in the player above, or read below.

Erica Whitaker: Redlining is a government action of segregating and drawing literal and figurative lines to separate black and white people in different neighborhoods.

Joe Phelps: Rothstein builds case upon case to illustrate how local, state and federal governments worked to really keep black people out of certain areas and force them into certain areas.

F. Bruce Williams: I think what African-American people will say is "We’ve been telling you this all along."

EW: As I read page to page, I just feel kind of this deep anger, towards what has taken place relatively not so long ago.

FBW: I think every person of color who’s reasonably awake knows intuitively that’s the case because of experiences they may have. For example, trying to get a loan for a house and not being able to get the loan.

JP: Back in the 30s and 40s when the redline maps were drawn, west Louisville was carved out as a less desirable place. They were having trouble with flooding, this was after the flood, and that was also where the industry was, so let’s put the black people there.

EW: Something that I read in the book was understanding kind of the GI bill and the New Deal and how that was only for the white Americans. The American Dream was only offered to whites.

FBW: You can’t fix what you don’t face.

EW: And the GI bill benefited my white great-grandfather, coming back from war. He was given an opportunity to buy a home. But those black men who fought alongside him were not given the opportunity to buy a home, because the GI Bill was not offered to them.

FBW: And it’s so nefarious, it’s so diabolical how systemic it is and how tightly it has been woven throughout the fabric of our country and community. If you’re not careful, it can be overwhelming.

JP: We’ve blamed black people for poverty. When the reality is if we’re going to do any blaming it needs to be against the agencies and the white institutions that took money from them essentially and have kept them in the position that they’re in now of being impoverished. 

EW: We put a lot of pressure on the black community, on African-Americans to help teach us and to come out of our own kind of embedded racism. But we have to put forth more effort, as white Americans, to learn this on our own.

FBW: That mentality is, "You need to do something because I’m not a part of the problem." And the typical, often white response is, "Well, whether it was my ancestors or not, I wasn’t here, I wasn’t responsible for setting up the system." That’s true. But you benefit from the system.

JP: Maybe my government had some beneficial or kind reasons or logical reasons for doing what they did. Nonetheless, what they did has adversely affected black America. And I, as a white person realize that I am a person who got privilege as a result of what was taken from black people.

FBW: So you have a responsibility now, if you disagree with the unholy arrangement, then you can’t just call on people who are victimized by the system to be the solution. A large part of the solution is the people who have influence and power and who benefit. What that requires then, is that people give up privilege, which is difficult.

EW: We often say, "Oh that’s in the past." But it really is a fresh history that we can find solutions for today.

JP: I’m hopeful that our mayor will take some bold action and will come out with an executive order that tries in some way to repair the damage done.

FBW: It has nothing to do with resources or the skill set to be able to pull it off. It has to do with the will of the city. The city does not have the will to do it. And the city won’t admit that that’s it. They want to say "We tried this, we tried that." But it’s not a priority to the city. If it were, it would be done.

JP: Is there a piece of property in West Louisville that’s owned by the city that could be returned to people in West Louisville in such a way that it would empower the people in West Louisville to gain wealth and gain their own sense of power.

FBW: Case in point. I’ve been here long enough in Louisville to remember what the riverfront and what downtown used to look like. It was terrible. The city decided, that’s got to change. There was nothing easy about that. They did not stop until what they wanted to do was done. It had nothing to do with resources. Where there were no resources, they found them. 

JP: So I think there is a call for people, especially people of faith, to repair the damage that’s been done.

EW: For too long, white people have been apathetic.

JP: I think it’s gotta start one person at a time, one community at a time, one faith group at a time. And I think, one city at a time

FBW: It’s the equivalent of thinking, because I don’t live in that community, it doesn’t affect me. That would be like being in first class in a plane, and a fire catches on in coach. And you think ‘That’s in coach’…if coach goes down, the whole plane goes down. Well, that’s true about the West End. We’re all connected.

Empower West’s City-Wide Book Read, featuring author Richard Rothstein, will be Monday, February 12 at Crescent Hill Baptist Church.

The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here.

Listen to Redlining's Complicated Legacy

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