Even as the South Sound prepares to observe Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 21, racism still surfaces in blatantly repugnant ways. Earlier this month, for example, there was no masking the meaning of leaflets circulated by the Patriot Front, a white-nationalist hate group, in neighborhoods from South Tacoma to Olympia.
But a more subtle form of racism is hidden in manilla folders and filing cabinets. Decades-old real estate documents are laced with language that helped establish white-only enclaves in Tacoma and other cities, a remnant of the disgraceful redlining era.
One place where the secret has been unearthed is Tacoma’s West Slope neighborhood, home to million-dollar views of the Olympic Mountains and the Tacoma Narrows. A World War II-era developer included racial restrictions in the Narrowmoor subdivision lots he sold there — a common practice at the time to keep property values high.
Discriminatory covenants have been invalid under federal law for more than 50 years, and many homeowners don’t know they exist. But the detective work needed to dig them up, bring them to light and set the historic record straight is a worthy effort.
And it just got easier, under a new state law.
As of Jan. 1, Washington homeowners can modify a racially restrictive covenant for their property by following a four-step process on the county auditor website. (It also gives tips on how to sleuth out whether the deed to your house contains such language.) Once complete, the modification will strike the original restriction and declare it void and unenforceable.
House Bill 2514 was sponsored by Rep. Christine Kilduff with an assist from other Pierce County lawmakers. The bill passed the Legislature nearly unanimously last year, and it’s easy to see why.
Simply put, it lets people ensure their property records catch up with history and reflect morality, for their own conscience and for all future owners.
Cleaning up these mistakes is a way of owning up to our region’s participation in the U.S. redlining movement. After the Great Depression, lenders, developers and other power brokers systematically denied people of color and immigrants the benefits of homeownership. A News Tribune story last summer used old redline maps to show how the socioeconomic impacts of that era persist in Tacoma’s demographics today.
In the West Slope neighborhood, owners and buyers who bother to read the fine print have stumbled onto covenants that say: “No part or parcel of land ... shall be rented or leased to or used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of the African or Asiatic descent, nor by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants domiciled with an owner or tenant and living in their home.”
Tacoma isn’t alone. University of Washington researchers have found racist covenants for more than 20,000 King County properties, according to The Seattle Times.
As of Monday, nobody had yet recorded a modification document with the Pierce County Auditor’s Office. But folks in the West Slope Neighborhood Coalition don’t plan to dawdle; they’ll meet soon to discuss how residents can fix their records together. “It will probably entail a ‘one-stop workshop,’” coalition co-chair Dean Wilson told us by email Monday, adding that “we are hopeful of getting as close to 100 percent as possible.”
It’s an excellent goal, consistent with a resolution adopted by the Tacoma City Council last week after the Patriot Front leaflets circulated. In it, council members reaffirmed “the City’s commitment to the principles of equity and inclusion” and described Tacoma as a “city that is far tougher than those who would seek to divide it.”
Indeed, we mustn’t let divisiveness fester in local communities — neither the blatant outbursts of hatred today nor the codified injustices of yesteryear.