Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Systemic Sin Looks Like - Part 1

In response to this post on The Whole Gospel, I want to give two examples of the systemic (corporate) sin that Jesus gospel overcomes.
The first comes from Kansas City's history.  I'm about halfway done with a book entitled Race, Real Estate and Uneven Development:  The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000.   

The population of Kansas City, like most Midwestern and northern cities, was racially integrated and centralized up through 1910.  The invention of the car lead to the creation of the suburbs, the creation of the suburbs lead to the dividing of the city along racial lines - i.e. - Jews and Blacks were not allowed into the same neighborhoods as whites.  Now there was racial tension in these racially mixed neighborhoods, but the neighborhoods were still racially integrated. 

From 1915 until 1930, there was a large immigration of black families from southern cities to Midwestern and northern cities.  "In many cities, increased competition for housing and consequent racial conflicts including intimidation, harassment, cross burnings and violent race riots... The National Association of Real Estate Boards disseminated and amplified this ideology through its many textbooks, pamphlets, and periodicals that warned real estate firms that racial minorities threatened property values and that neighborhoods should be racially homogeneous to maintain their desirability." 

"As housing activist Charles Abrams noted, 'Buyers liked the idea of being accepted into an exclusive neighborhood.  To be discriminating, they were told, you must be discriminatory.  The dream of the warm fireside, of the security and pride of ownership would be enlarged to include a whole community of neighbors, friendly, similar, socially acceptable, interesting and white.'  In essence the production of the FHA and the entire real estate and banking industries after the 1930's.  Later, various euphemisms such as 'protecting property values,' maintaining 'security,' 'stability,' or 'integrity' of community space became the dominant language used to reinforce social homogeneity without referring explicitly to race." 

Unfortunately, this idea of "protecting property value" through the establishment of racially and economically homogeneous neighborhoods seemed to almost be common sense to me - at least that's what I've always been told.  This book explains how developers like JC Nichols and government agencies like Federal Housing Agency as well as real estate firms created, disseminate, perpetuated and cemented that way of thinking. 

JC Nichols helped develop the idea of a "housing covenant"; a promise to the builders and residents that no minorities would be allowed to buy a home in the newly developed neighborhood and that if a house was sold to a black person, the individual or company selling that house would face serious consequences.  Check out this quote from JC Nichols himself who advertised his subdivisions ad "the most protected and highest class region in or near Kansas City" and his property deeds always warned prospective buyers that "none of the lots hereby restricted may be convened to, used, owned, nor occupied by negroes as owners or tenants."  This was of thinking worked, as the stats given in this book reveal.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that less than a handful of black families (2 families in Prairie Village) could be found living in the new Johnson County suburbs. 

I now flinch whenever I see a JC Nichols sign around town.

Eventually, the laws supporting these housing covenants were declared unconstitutional at the federal level.  There are examples, however, of these covenants still being enforced in KC in the late 60's, 20 years after federal courts ruled against them. 

After the repeal of these housing covenants, however other methods for keeping the black people in the ever-deteriorating city arose.  The FHA developed new mortgage laws allowing for a smaller down payment for first-time home buyers, yet records show that blacks rarely were approved for FHA loans.  "As a result, the agency's mortgage insurance system and home ownership subsidies established a racially dual home financing system market by refusing to insure mortgages in areas not covered with a racially restrictive covenant, thus denying mortgages to Black families, and channeling capital into suburban housing construction."

 Occasionally, black people were able to push through the lines of racial demarcation (ie. 27th St for several decades), ignore the threats and move into the nicer white neighborhoods.  But the real estate agency had methods for fighting back and reestablishing the white status-quo.  Real Estate appraisers, a practice still largely unregulated, would drop the appraisal value of houses in racially mixed neighborhoods, prompting the decay of these neighborhoods and the commencement of "white flight."  To quote the book, "Once the real estate industry encoded racial discrimination into the structure and operation of the FHA, the racialization of metropolitan space was set in motion." 

The all-black neighborhoods suffered from the withdrawal of resources such as jobs, rising equity for homeowners and quality schools.  As the neighborhoods deteriorated, the white powers-that-be as well along with the average white homeowner patted themselves on the back for the foresight to protect their slice of the "American Dream" and continued to expand the gap between the majority of whites and the majority of blacks. 

I'm only halfway through the book, but I've just started a chapter on the redevelopment of slum areas and the fighting of "urban blight."  A process of reinvesting in the city and pushing poor families even further to the margins, a process that would eventually come to be known as "gentrification."

This exaclty the type of systemic sin we see being addressed often in Luke's Gospel.  Mary fired the first shot in her Magnificat from Luke Chapter 2:
46 Mary responded,

"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.

47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,

and from now on all generations will call me blessed.

49 For the Mighty One is holy,

and he has done great things for me.

50 He shows mercy from generation to generation

to all who fear him.

51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things!

He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.

52 He has brought down princes from their thrones

and exalted the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away with empty hands.

Jesus followed it up with the commencement of his public ministry at his hometown synagogue, in quoting the Prophet Isaiah:

16 When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures.17 The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
18 "The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,

for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

19 and that the time of the LORD's favor has come.*"

20 He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently.21 Then he began to speak to them. "The Scripture you've just heard has been fulfilled this very day!"

Not surprisingly, there was an attempt on Jesus' life immediately after his reading from Isaiah.  But no matter the pressure we face from those trying to hold onto their power and privilege through the perpetuation of the status-quo, we must honor Jesus by working on behalf of the poor.  Not just charity, but system-changing work. 

An important part of the gospel is working to overturn systemic sin and oppression. 

For part two of this discussion of systemic sin, click here. 

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