Segregation In Sacramento -- The Hidden History
By Cathleen Williams

Racial segregation – Sacramento? Deliberate, unrelenting, continuing, determining the very shape of our region, deciding who lives where, and as well, how investments and public services are distributed up to the present day. Can it be? Isn’t racial segregation typical of the Southern states, not California, with its multiple layers of diversity and migration, its proud liberalism?

Certainly there is little discussion of racial segregation and ongoing discrimination here at home, even as the City undertakes vast new investments in infrastructure like the proposed downtown arena and Richards Boulevard. But research is now revealing the full history and extent of the deliberate policy decisions that created our segregated city. The scholarship of a Sacramento native, Dr. Jesus Hernandez of the U.C. Davis Department of Sociology, has documented just how racial segregation has been implemented and enforced here at home.

A glance at a map of the county reveals its raw reality – the isolation and concentration of low income and non-white residents in the north area, in neighborhoods like Del Paso Heights, and in south Sacramento, in neighborhoods like Oak Park, Meadowview, Glen Elder, Fruitridge, and North Franklin. And as Dr. Hernandez points out, all this has occurred, and continues to occur, without “racial actors” – it’s just something inevitable, with the actual decision makers hidden behind a screen of complex, overlapping, non-racial justifications and motivations. Of course, segregation is profitable, too, in lots of ways.

What Happened?

Analyzing the long process of discrimination that has shaped our segregated city, Dr. Hernandez has identified three major “devices” which were used by locally powerful private interests, including mortgage bankers, real estate agents, and developers, and by public agencies which originally mandated segregation. (See, Hernandez, J. “The Residual Impact of History: Connecting Residential Segregation, Mortgage Redlining, and the Housing Crisis,” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University (2009).)

The first device, put in place early in the 1900’s, and soon evolving into a standard practice which was not fully outlawed until the 1960’s, was the “restrictive covenant,” that is, “property deed restrictions on non-white occupancy.” (Hernandez, p.6.) Such covenants were initially used to exclude non-whites from subdivisions just south of the central business district, for example, Curtis Park, as well as East Sacramento. (Hernandez, p. 7.)

The second device was “mortgage redlining,” restricting access to credit by non-white borrowers (mostly African-American, Mexican American, Chinese and Japanese) who were concentrated in the few neighborhoods where they were allowed to live. Some 75% of Sacramento’s non-white residents lived in the “West End,” the area west of the State Capitol bordered by the Sacramento River on the west and the American River on the north. By the 1930’s, the practice of denying mortgage credit, initially implemented by local realtors and banks, was further institutionalized by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) which was created to buy up FHA mortgages. (Hernandez, p. 8-10). These agencies required restrictive covenants.

As a result of mortgage redlining, West End property owners were without financing for rehabilitation and improvement; the West End became a rental neighborhood, considered a “ghetto” or “slum,” classified as “blighted,” and then, in the fifties and sixties, condemned to wholesale destruction through local redevelopment agencies under California law, agencies that received federal funds to accomplish this very result. The area is now dominated by the depopulated, impersonal blocks around Capitol Mall, by upscale housing, and by the downtown mall; it is cut off from the Sacramento River by I- 5, which also displaced area residents. (Hernandez, p.10-12.)
Redevelopment (and freeway construction) is the third device that determined the segregated shape of Sacramento, as the residents of the West End were evicted and had to find housing in areas without race covenants – such as Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, and south Sacramento. As Dr. Hernandez writes, “Displacement came at a high cost for West End residents…the forced relocation…effectively dismantled and neutralized the strong support networks for families and non-white businesses that made the West End a vibrant and vital community.” (Hernandez, p. 12.)

At the same time, federally subsidized freeways were creating a bonanza for banking and development interests, facilitating, up to the present, the construction of subdivisions outside of the urban core. According to a recent study, the notion that these areas were populated as a result of individually motivated “white flight” is a fiction which disguises the vast public investment in infrastructure which opened up these areas as primarily white enclaves. (See, Robert O. Self, American Babylon, Univ. of California Press, (2003).)

After decades of fair housing laws, our city still retains and perpetuates segregated neighborhoods as new development occurs outside the now “decayed,” neglected, poverty stricken neighborhoods in north and south Sacramento County. (See, for example, the Sacramento Bee 8/19/12, “Life Is About Survival On South Sacramento’s Loucreta Drive”.)

The Tragic Harvest of Segregation, Displacement, and Disinvestment

In redeveloping the West End, Sacramento’s single room occupancy (SRO) hotels were largely demolished in the 1960’s and 1970’s; there were some 3,000 SRO rooms downtown, which once provided shelter to low wage and unemployed workers for just $5.00 per night in today’s dollars. Little or no consideration was given to the fate of this population in redeveloping the area. Partly as a result of the policy decision not to provide comparable low cost housing (as well as political decisions in the 1980’s to stop building public housing and to stop housing the mentally ill), the poorest of the poor in Sacramento, as in other cities, are today “incapable of securing housing at all times without assistance” – they are homeless. (See, 2009 expert opinion by Dr. Jason MacCannell, Lehr v. City of Sacramento, District Court of Northern California.)

Outside the West End, the redlined areas of forced relocation included much of the north and south areas of Sacramento County. The scourge of predatory lending, subprime mortgages, and, ultimately, foreclosure, are also highest in these areas following the financial crisis of 2008 (Hernandez, p. 16), along with rates of poverty, unemployment, school drop-outs, gangs, drug addiction, and crime. And the main “solution” now proposed is to deploy more police on the street – as if this will cure the deprivation of credit, investment, infrastructure and public services in these neighborhoods. (See, Sacramento Bee, 6/11/13 “Guns Rule Street in West Lemon Hill Neighborhood.”)

What Now?

The problem of discrimination is ongoing – for instance, the Sacramento City Unified School District recently decided to close seven elementary schools in the south area – mostly those in the same neighborhoods where non-whites are concentrated, a policy decision which the local federal district court found racially discriminatory in its impact, involving “troubling” inconsistencies in the criteria for closure applied to schools in more affluent areas.

It is important to understand the hidden history of segregation because it prepares us to unite and engage in action and advocacy to defend our communities from ongoing disinvestment, displacement, and discrimination, and to reverse these policies. Segregation hurts us all.

The author of this article has drawn from Dr. Hernandez’ published work, and from personal interviews, for this article; however, responsibility for all errors and opinions are hers alone