The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many racial health inequities that existed well before this public health crisis. Americans of color have disproportionately been infected by and died from COVID-19. They are more likely to have underlying health conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. While COVID-19 has pushed racial health inequities into the national spotlight, the underlying differences in social, economic, and environmental conditions that give rise to inequities in COVID-19 infection, transmission, and severe illness are far from new.
The twentieth century's formal and informal practices of racial residential segregation have systematically shaped characteristics of the built environment that may increase susceptibility to not only COVID-19 but other underlying health conditions that increase the susceptibility to and severity of illness from COVID-19. Racial residential segregation may impact health through poor housing conditions, disparities in educational and employment opportunities, inadequate transportation infrastructure, access to healthcare, and economic instability. Where people live impacts their exposure to health-promoting resources and opportunities (i.e., access to quality food, recreation, healthcare, etc.) as well as exposure to health-damaging threats (i.e., environmental pollutants, poor housing quality, etc.).
Among the most impactful practices that created these stark differences in neighborhood resource distribution and concentrated disadvantage was redlining: the practice of denying fair access to credit, particularly mortgages, based on the race of the residents of a neighborhood. For much of the twentieth century, the federal government encouraged redlining. In the 1930s a federal agency, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), graded neighborhoods in nearly 250 American cities scale neighborhoods on a four-grade scale, A to D, "Best" to "Hazardous," that were then visualized on a series of maps. Race was a key—arguably the key—variable in determining these grades. Neighborhoods of color received D or C grades with only white neighborhoods receiving A and B grades.
There is no better archive of redlining than the HOLC maps and the accompanying area descriptions. This site juxtaposes these maps from the 1930s with contemporary health disparities. In most cities, you will see striking similarities between redlining eighty years ago and health disparities today. This is a testament to the long-lasting impact of racial segregation and redlining in shaping the enduring contours of marked inequality in American cities.
One of the reasons that the HOLC materials are such a clear window into the history of structural racism in the United States is how directly and starkly racist ideas were expressed in them. Racism was not subtext; it was text. As a consequence please take note: this means that some of these historical documents contain offensive racist language.
Not Even Past presents maps for 200 cities. When you select one you will see two maps side by side.
The one on the left will show the redlining map made by the Home Owners Loan Corporation during the 1930s. They graded the "mortgage security" on a four-grade scale: green "A" neighborhoods were deemed "best," blue "B" neighborhood "still desirable," yellow "C" neighborhoods "definitely declining," and red "D" neighborhoods "hazardous." Lower grades made it harder for applications to secure mortgages to purchase homes in those neighborhoods. The colors might be thought of as akin to traffic lights. Green signaled lenders, when making decisions whether to approve a mortgage, to go, yellow to exercise caution and think twice, and red to stop.
Neighborhoods where the residents were African American, Asian American, Latinx, or immigrants were far more likely to receive D or C grades. The effects of the discriminatory practices of redlining are so pronounced that they last until this day. (For more on redlining and these maps, please visit Mapping Inequality.)
The map on the right shows the Center for Disease Control's Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) scores for census tracts today. The Social Vulnerability Index is widely used to assess a community’s capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from human and natural disasters. The social and economic resources available to a community and its underlying vulnerabilities are key factors in how hard it may be impacted by a disaster.
The SVI combines a number of these factors: social and economic, housing and transportation, minority status and language, household composition, and disability to provide a metric of comparison between areas. Since their development in the 2000s, indices of social vulnerability have become an important tool for emergency planning and public health assessment.
Between the maps you'll see a diagram.
The rectangles on the left are the areas from the 1930s redlining HOLC map by grade, those on the right census tracts plotted by their SVI score. The paths between them connect the same areas across time and show continuities and changes. For example, paths that are more or less horizontal might be interpreted as showing continuity between the past and the present or showing some of the impact of redlining in cementing privilege or vulnerability in an area for generations. Paths that fall from left to right, yesterday to today, might show a decline in the relative privilege of an area. Paths that rise from left to right, yesterday to today, show change in the other direction; neighborhoods that have been gentrified in recent years, for example, will often be represented that way on the graphs.
Click on either the map of the rectangles on the chart to select an area in the past or today to view more details. At the top will appear selections from the HOLC area description for the selected area showing the HOLC's description of the area's population and character—very often clearly showing their racist perspectives. Generally, this is a selection from the area description; a link will be available on the bottom to view the full area description on Mapping Inequality. (A handful of cities do not have area descriptions or they are not available.)
The bottom will show several charts situating the demographic, economic, and health data for the census tract in comparison to other tracts in the city.
Each dot represents a census tract or, if a HOLC area is shown, an estimation of the overlapping census tract areas. The label for the graph can be selected to map that variable, e.g. asthma rates, and the dots can be clicked to select the tract.
The data for contemporary age and poverty data comes from the U.S. Census's American Community Survey 2018 Data Release. Minority demographics, defined as "all people who were other than non-Hispanic White," dates from 2011-2015 and comes from the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's Census Information Sheets. Life expectancy estimates are from the CDC's U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy Estimates Project. Contemporary health data comes from the CDC's 500 Cities: Local Data for Better Health. See their Measure Definitions for complete details about how they define each health outcome.
At the DSL, Robert K. Nelson designed and developed the application, Justin Madron organized the spatial and other data, and Nathaniel Ayers designed the landing page and provided input about the application design.
The National Community Reinvestment Coalition and its grassroots member organizations create opportunities for people to build wealth. They work with community leaders, policymakers and financial institutions to champion fairness in banking, housing and business. NCRC was formed in 1990 by national, regional and local organizations to increase the flow of private capital into traditionally underserved communities. NCRC has grown into an association of more than 600 community-based organizations in 42 states that promote access to basic banking services, affordable housing, entrepreneurship, job creation and vibrant communities for America’s working families.
If you are citing Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining, we recommend the following format using the Chicago Manual of Style.
The Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, https://dsl.richmond.edu/socialvulnerability.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.