Since the day Columbus discovered the New World, the imposition of European culture on the region both north and south of the equator had two basic forces at work. One was genocide with respect to the Indigenous peoples and the second was enslavement and, once that was abolished, white supremacy. White supremacy was bolstered by class differentiation, not just by skin colour, but also by religion, income, education.
While there were and are regional variations, virtually no country in North or South America was exempted from these forces. In addition, political governance in the nations of the western hemisphere was dictated by these factors.
Even though slavery was abolished in the 19th century, segregation and economic oppression, together with the fear for the life, limb and property of the oppressed remained dominant in the southern U.S. and, to a lesser degree, in the north as well.
A fascinating research project entitled Mapping Prejudice (launched by the geography department at the University of Minnesota) is helpfully providing chapter and verse for this long, sad story of oppression of non-whites.
One important subject examined is the impact of municipal regulations which resulted in, effectively, apartheid for Black Americans. The most effective instrument of this regime of apartheid was the imposition of covenants on real estate that forbade selling, conveying, leasing, subletting or allowing the property to be occupied by any person or persons not fully of the so-called Caucasian or white race.
When such covenants first came into being in 1907, Minneapolis was not particularly segregated. However, as their use spread, Blacks, (indeed all non-whites) were pushed into a few small areas of the city. This laid the groundwork for the contemporary patterns of residential segregation. And Minneapolis was not unique. The type of de facto segregation was common throughout the U.S. from coast to coast.
Something similar was used in Canada. In Vancouver, for example, covenants existed forbidding land transfers to Chinese and Jews until the 1970s.
Civic politicians embraced the usage of covenants as a way to promote neighbourhood stability. They even frequently insisted on them being used in federally funded projects. And mortgage lenders in the U.S. viewed the existence of covenants as providing essential insurance for their investments in residential property.
Such restrictive covenants were eventually outlawed. First the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable in 1948; then in 1968 the Fair Housing Act made them illegal.
As Mapping Prejudice documents in their materials: separate is not equal. It channels the flow of resources. Where you live largely determines your access to community assets. Communities of colour have more environmental hazards like landfills and highways.
They have less access to medical care, which translates into higher rates of infant mortality and premature births. Schools in minority neighbourhoods usually have fewer experienced teachers and less challenging curriculum.
The interconnected sets of long-standing obstacles to education, property ownership and wealth accumulation for American Blacks (as well as for Latinos) have resulted today in their much lower median household assets than for white families. Addressing this inequity will not be the work of a year or even a decade. Discrimination in hiring and promotion and in access to education cannot all be eliminated in one fell swoop. It will require careful thought, relentless pressure and effort by all sectors from individual citizens, business, educators, politicians, lawyers and other professionals.
The sad fact is that Canada is not free of the same challenges, particularly with respect to Indigenous peoples and other peoples of colour. It will not be easy but it is essential to address these challenges effectively. Canada’s — as well as America’s — long-term growth and prosperity depends on alleviating the resentment and indeed anger among the groups who were denied respect and equal treatment for more than 400 years.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.