The Spokane case of racist housing alliances overlooks the bigger problems Columns & Letters | Spokane | The Pacific Northwest Inlander
Recently the Washington Court of Appeals declined a Spokane homeowner’s request to beat racist language from the act of his house. This language indicates that “[n]A race or nationality other than white race may use or occupy this property (with the exception of those employed by the owner as employees). The goal of this “racially restrictive association” was to prevent people of color from owning houses in the Comstock district and in other parts of Spokane with similar restrictions.
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Although this racial restriction has long been illegal, a coalition of supporters in Spokane have rallied around the lawsuit to remove the language. They see these antiquated racial alliances as “monuments” to American racism and white supremacy. This drive to change title deeds seems laudable, but it risks dwarfing the greater historical significance of the racial alliances and their consequences that have shaped Spokane to this day.
When developers William Cowles and John McKinley incorporated this language into their deeds for their new Comstock housing estate in 1953, they most likely knew that the US Supreme Court had repealed racially restrictive agreements in 1948, just as they did five years earlier. But Cowles and McKinley included illegal terms in the charter to give a clear signal to potential home buyers: This neighborhood appreciated the segregation and higher monetary value of homes in white-only neighborhoods.
When people of color tried to move to these illegal “white-only” neighborhoods, neighbors let them know they were not welcome and used verbal hostility and even violence to keep them out. For example, in 1961, shortly after Frank Hopkins bought a house in North Spokane (outside of African American recognized areas), someone broke all the windows. Hopkins was put off, and the value of the surrounding homes remained intact.
When people of color tried to move to these illegal “white-only” neighborhoods, neighbors let them know they were not welcome and used verbal hostility and even violence to keep them out.
This coercion is a cornerstone of segregation and discrimination, which not only aimed to separate, denigrate or even deny civil rights, but also to build and maintain generational wealth in white families. We see more evidence of this in job advertisements specifying the race (and gender) of applicants and directing people of color into more difficult and low-paying jobs. Employers claimed this was appropriate as non-white applicants who had attended poorly funded schools and also had difficulty accessing colleges and universities that did not discriminate on the basis of race or gender had an educational qualification.
Even bans on interracial marriage are evidence of efforts to maintain prosperity in white families. Ophelia Paquet, a Tillamook woman in Oregon, was her family’s main breadwinner. But Paquet lost everything in 1920 when her white husband died and the state of Oregon, which prohibited Native American mixed marriage, gave her late husband’s brother marital property. Although Washington has never enacted interracial marriage bans, the state’s racially restrictive housing contracts have had a similar effect. And where race deals failed, lending discrimination continued to prevent colored people from buying houses that diversified neighborhoods and enabled non-white families to build generational wealth.
For this reason, civil rights movements mobilized in the 1960s to address the economic inequalities that had emerged in various areas such as employment, education, lending and housing. Many of us do not remember that March 1963 in Washington was a march “for work and justice”. In these areas of economic reform, however, the white allies often became more cautious. For them, economic reforms such as well-funded public education (including post-secondary education), equal pay and access to home ownership were changes that could undermine their own economic well-being, including the economic benefits they had inherited.
Efforts to remove racist language from housing deeds represent an ongoing change in Spokane society since the 1950s as they resolutely oppose the racism of segregation and identify value in different neighborhoods. However, removing that language alone will not change the demographic profiles of Comstock, Rockwood, High Drive, Glenwood, Mount Pleasant, Audubon Terrace, and other Spokane neighborhoods.
The real monuments to Cowles and McKinley’s endeavors are not in sluggish language buried in title deeds, but in these neighborhoods that remain exclusively expensive and white. Spokane must do more than delete the language of racial alliances. We must actively diversify housing construction in these neighborhoods, support first-generation buyers, and provide loans that destroy the enduring legacy of American apartheid.
Veta Schlimgen is a historian who lives and works in Spokane.