Yale Law School

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Saving the Neighborhood—A book by Richard R.W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose

Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms

By Richard R.W. Brooks, Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law and Carol M. Rose, Gordon Bradford Tweedy Professor Emeritus of Law and Organization and Professorial Lecturer in Law

As an unprecedented number of African Americans migrated from the rural South in the early 20th century in search of better jobs and better lives, many white communities created covenants designed to restrict property ownership and residency by race.

“As legal instruments, existing in official records, racial covenants took on the mantle of civic acceptability,” write Professors Richard R.W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose in their new book Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms. “In this respectable legal form, racial covenants could be deployed by a variety of professional institutions, becoming tools for real estate developers, brokers, financial agents, and insurance institutions—including those of the U.S. government.”

Brooks and Rose examine how restrictive covenants and social norms reinforced each other to became powerful guarantors of segregation until 1948, when the Supreme Court decision in Shelly v. Kraemer declared the covenants legally unenforceable. Saving the Neighborhood goes on to examine why the covenants continued to exert influence even after the Court’s ruling.

Because racial covenants lived on in real estate records they were still able to influence the beliefs and decisions of real estate professionals, home buyers and sellers. Even after Shelley, racial covenants remained effective as signals, creating common knowledge of local attitudes and likely actions, which in turn swayed the behaviors of banks, brokers, developers, insurers, excluded minorities and the white neighbors. Those signals remained oddly durable even as housing discrimination became increasingly unacceptable. Over time the impact of racial covenants would fade, but their legal and social significance lingered well beyond 1948.

“Racially restrictive covenants are a thing of an older era,” the authors write, “an unpleasant reminder of a more racist past that cannot quite be forgotten. It cannot be forgotten in part because our method for establishing property rights in real estate depends on history—but in part because the past is still inscribed on our racially divided cities and neighborhoods.”