Language as a Tool for Discrimination

<- Back to All Student Work & Projects

Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

Language as a Tool for Discrimination

Maya Isabel Villafuerte | Fall 23

The way we speak and the words we use are powerful tools of communication. Unfortunately, not everyone uses their linguistic power for good, and in many cases language was integral to the oppression of BIPOC people and communities. An example of this oppressive language use is through racial covenants inscribed into housing deeds. Racial covenants were just one of many tactics to encourage housing discrimination and keep neighborhoods segregated, if racial covenants could be included in deeds then neighborhoods would not have to “yield” to integration. Covenants became popular in Minnesota during the 1910s, and continued to be added into housing deeds until the 1950s. 

(Pie Chart is representative of Ramsey County Deed Data, and  was compiled by Mikaela Campbell)       

In the chart below, we may see how many people and which types of people were meant to be excluded from prime housing. The majority of the clauses excluded only Black people, while other clauses included other BIPOC communities. If you see at the bottom of the key, there are the terms “white” and “caucasian”. The reason for their inclusion is due to the different types of racial covenants within housing deeds. 

There are two main types of Deeds: exclusionary ones that typically say who is not allowed to buy the home, and inclusionary ones that state who is allowed to buy the home. And within those two types, exclusionary is where lists of BIPOC people are found, because these were the people that white neighborhoods did not want buying houses nearby. Inclusionary clauses usually stated “only people of the caucasian race/white people may purchase….”, so while white people were technically included in racial covenants (as shown in the pie chart) they existed within racial covenants in a completely different way than BIPOC existed within them. 

To add insult to injury, racial covenants were incredibly efficient  measures in controlling the housing market. BIPOC inclusion through racially-restrictive housing deeds effectively created white neighborhoods, forcing BIPOC families to look elsewhere. By the time racial covenants were named both unenforceable and illegal, it was too late–the covenants had already done their work. Racial covenants were a powerful tool for discrimination during the 20th century, and the effects of such harmful and racist ideologies still mark neighborhoods today.

For example, during the early days of racial covenants in the 1910s, it was popular to use the inclusionary clause, “only people of the white or Caucasian race may occupy this dwelling”. This wording is specific to this decade because racial covenants within housing deeds were something completely new, and realtors wanted to make neighborhoods exclusive to white people. The usage of this specific wording carried on into later decades but was the most popular at the beginning of racial covenants in Minnesota. As covenants continue into the 1920s, exclusionary clauses start to become more popular; meaning that instead of saying ‘whites only’ the covenants would list out all the different races and religions of people that would not be allowed to buy the property. While some clauses followed the list format, others simply put the restriction “no colored people” within their covenants. Into the 1930s, exceptions to these clauses began to crop up within covenants, many of which were for minorities who were servants in the home, the exceptions allowed these workers to live on the property but still disallowed ownership. As Minnesota neighborhoods moved into the 1940s, many of the previously listed clauses and amendments continued to make headway, but ultimately racial covenants started to fall out of fashion towards the end of the decade and into the early 1950s. By that time the original covenants from the 1910s were already doing the work of segregating neighborhoods, so new covenants weren’t as “necessary” for the segregation process. The data used for this project only goes as far as the 1950 U.S. Census, so it is not yet known what covenants were written beyond that year.