COMMENTARY: The Mystery of Systemic Racism

Economist and islander Tanya Roberts writes about how systemic racism impacts housing & homeownership.

Systemic racism is mostly about government policy, which means it can be hard to see in our everyday lives. We can think our actions are not racist and wonder how we can live in a racist society. Is it only the actions of a few “bad apples?”

I am an economist and I had heard about redlining and thought it was something the banks dreamed up. But the government was the main instigator.

In 1933, the United States had a housing shortage after the Great Depression. To guarantee home loans, the Federal Housing Administration developed a rating system for neighborhoods. Mixed race neighborhoods were given the lowest rating, which made it difficult for Black people to get a home mortgage. If one could be gotten at all, the interest rates were higher than other locations.

In addition, White housing developments often prohibited homeowners from selling homes to Black people. The net result was to create strict housing segregation. Black homeownership stagnated while White homeownership in the suburbs exploded.

Later, urban renewal often harmed Black neighborhoods which were torn down, and while there were promises to rebuild, sometimes that never happened — in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example. The placement of interstate highways also harmed Black neighborhoods.

Homeownership has another important role. The primary way middle-class white families gain wealth is from the equity in their homes. Today Black wealth is about 5 to 10% of white wealth. This wealth disparity means Black families are more likely to live in poverty and suffer its associated trauma. (Black incomes on average are about 60% of White incomes).

Housing is a major focus of the organization, New Movement to Redress Racial Segregation (NMRRS). According to its website, NMRRS is an emerging racial justice organization that aims to organize racially and ethnically diverse local movements of civil rights advocates in communities throughout the U.S. Their goal is to help residents build and wield collective power needed to redress the residential segregation of their own and neighboring communities.

On Vashon, the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council has a new affordable housing committee. The committee is looking for new members and new perspectives. To find out more, email or call me at 240-505-6110.

In Washington state, Governor Inslee created the ethnically diverse Poverty Reduction Work Group that has created a 10-year plan to reduce poverty. Housing is part of the plan.

I am glad The Beachcomber is publishing these letters to the editor about racism. I invite you to write about your experience in dealing with racism.

For more information, visit Blueprint for a Just and Equitable Future at, or listen to the podcast, “A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated Amercia,” at

Tanya Roberts is a Ph.D. economist from the University of Washington. While a graduate student, she was asked to develop and teach a new course, The Role of Women in the US Economy. For a textbook, she used The Economics of Discrimination. Tanya grew up in Federal Way, spent most of her career in Washington, DC, and moved to Vashon in 2017.