Red Lines is a song about racism and the history of redlining.
Starting in the 1930s, banks used maps with red lines around neighborhoods where black people lived, thereby designating these areas as high risk for home loans.
A song about racism
This song is about a procedure called redlining, which is part of the history of racism in the United States.
For someone who has never been its victim, the full breadth and depth of racism can be difficult to see and comprehend. Sometimes, I wish I could claim that I have a full awareness and clear understanding of racism, but to make such a claim would only mean that my true knowledge is quite shallow. If I want to be an anti-racist - if I claim to oppose racism - then it is important, even necessary, for me to invest effort in learning about it. And, the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is I still don't know. One way to learn about racism is to study its history. For example, the history of a procedure called redlining illustrates how a racist policy can be invisible to those who feel no pain, yet at the same time, invasive like a disease with pernicious, long-term effects.
What is race and what is racism?
Redlining is a story of racism, and before telling this story, it is important first to consider how we can define race and racism. A race is a group of people that are perceived to share some form of similarity in physical appearance, and that society classifies as belonging to a single group. Although people used to believe there were scientifically evidenced differences between race groups, today we know that race is merely a social construction. It is a matter of perception, and there are not meaningful biological reasons for classifying people into the distinct race categories as they are commonly perceived today.
What, then, is racism? People have defined racism in many different ways, and I like to use a particular definition that is relatively precise. Specifically, I propose a definition of racism that has two components. The first component is that racism can only exist when there is a disparity between racial groups. One group needs to have, on average, more of something than another group. For example, one group needs to have more power, money, status, resources, freedom, or opportunity. The second component of my definition is that racism occurs when people either: (a) deny or remain unaware of the disparity, or (b) believe the disparity is appropriate, deserved, acceptable, just, good, or fair.
For example, in the United States black men currently have a higher probability than white men of being placed in a prison. Thus, there is a disparity between the two groups. According to my definition, then, it would be racist to ignore this disparity and it would be racist to claim that black men are imprisoned at a higher rate because they somehow deserve to be imprisoned at a higher rate. In contrast, it would be anti-racist to be attentive to this disparity and to believe that black men are imprisoned at a higher rate because, on average, they face more discrimination and are given fewer opportunities in life and because the legal system is prejudiced against them.
What is the history of redlining?
The history of redlining is just one example of how black people have faced discrimination and have been denied opportunities in life. It begins during the great depression of the 1930s, when there was an increase in bank failures and home foreclosures, and during this time it was quite difficult for most people to own homes. To address this issue, congress passed laws and established federal agencies such as the Federal Housing Association (FHA) intended to increase people’s ability to obtain home loans and gain access to housing. The problem was that these agencies focused on increasing access to housing for white people while discriminating against black people.
To help determine which people should be given home loans, these government agencies conducted evaluations of different neighborhoods to determine the likelihood that people living in those neighborhoods might default on home loans. Areas where black people lived were described as “hazardous,” “declining,” and suffering from an “infiltration of a lower grade population.” The government agencies then created security maps indicating levels of risk associated with different neighborhoods. Areas where black people lived were consistently identified as having the highest risk of loan default, and these neighborhoods were indicated with red lines on the security maps. Hence, the process of identifying black neighborhoods as having high risk became known as “redlining.”
This meant that banks either refused to provide loans to people living in black neighborhoods, or they charged unreasonably high rates for people in these neighborhoods. Moreover, government agents presumed (without evidence) that if black people lived in a white neighborhood, it would drive the prices down, and thereby result in increased loan defaults. Therefore, the FHA established a policy that required neighborhoods to be segregated – claiming that, “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”
The net effect was that it was nearly impossible to get home loans in black neighborhoods, and black people were not allowed to move to white neighborhoods.Without access to funding for buying, building, and improving homes and businesses, black neighborhoods declined.
Because home ownership is a key way that people can accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children, this limited the ability of black people to accumulate money. Although the Civil Rights act of 1968 made housing discrimination illegal, it did not ameliorate the effects of three decades of overt housing discrimination. Indeed, a recent study comparing neighborhoods that received the red line designation with comparable neighborhoods that escaped this designation, found that the effects of redlining were still readily apparent over three decades after the policy had ended. In general, people who inherit benefits from many successive generations of privilege are better off than those who inherit the disadvantages associated with generations of discrimination.
The song Red Lines not only focuses on the history of redlining, but also includes references to other events in this history of racism. For example, political campaigns in the 1970s capitalized on racist attitudes with television advertisements depicting race riots and black people perpetrating violence (sights and sounds of fear flashed upon the screens). Politicians made promises to restore “law and order,” and to fight against “welfare queens.” These tactics allowed politicians to appeal to racist voters (because it was implicitly understood that criminals and welfare recipients were mostly black) without sounding overtly racist. The song also refers to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that required a minimum sentence of 5 years for possessing 5 grams of crack (a drug that was more frequently used by black people), whereas the same 5-year minimum sentence required 500 of grams of cocaine (a drug that was more frequently used by white people). The song also makes a reference to the current disparity in which black men are imprisoned at a higher rate than white men.
In addition to describing some events in the history of racism, the song Red Lines focuses on a type of racism that may be especially prevalent at the current point in time. Specifically, it focuses on the type of racism (as I define it) where people believe racism is bad, yet they are simply unaware of existing disparities between groups and believe that the effects of racism have mostly come to pass away.
They have “ears to hear,” but remain unaware of the extent to which racism still “tilts the needle in one direction.”
The song is built on a belief that the world will be a better place if we seek to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination. This requires deliberate effort to understand racism, to study the history of racism, and to learn about its current effects. The more we seek to learn, the better equipped we are to hear it and see it, and this in turn makes us better able to take steps to reduce it.