The University of Michigan’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union hosted Law Professor Michael J. Steinberg in a virtual event on racially restrictive housing covenants in Ann Arbor Sunday night. Steinberg’s work includes investigating racially restrictive covenants — or laws barring people of a certain race, particularly Black people, from buying or renting property — throughout Ann Arbor with Architecture professor Robert Goodspeed. 

Together, Steinberg and Goodspeed found that these types of covenants cover thousands of homes throughout the city. Though no longer enforceable by law, these covenants point to one extensive yet often overlooked legacy of racism in Ann Arbor.

LSA sophomore Grace Watson, secretary for the University’s ACLU branch, said she asked Steinberg to speak to the club after reading an article from The Michigan Daily featuring his research on the covenants. 

“(I appreciated) the fact that (Steinberg) is really taking his research and the conclusions he drew from his research and really trying to make a difference,” Watson said.

Steinberg said he first became interested in studying racially restrictive housing deeds when he bought his first home in Ann Arbor. After the purchase, Steinberg found a section in the closing packet specifying the house could only be occupied by “Caucasians.” 

“I asked my real estate agent, and he said, ‘you know, these things are on many homes throughout Ann Arbor, thousands, and they’re not enforceable anymore, so don’t worry about it,’” Steinberg said. “Then I moved to a different house, and (I saw) the same thing, a very similar covenant. By that time, I had gone to law school, and I said, ‘can’t we do something about this? I don’t want to live in a house that says ‘whites only.’” 

Steinberg said many Ann Arbor residents who view the city as a liberal haven are horrified to find that the deed on their home includes a racially restrictive covenant. Worse, he said, was when he talked to residents who believed owning a home without a racial covenant excused them from the responsibility they carry for their white privilege. 

“People in Ann Arbor say Ann Arbor is such a liberal town,” Steinberg said. “Look at our signs: ‘Hate Has No Home Here,’ ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But people don’t understand that white supremacy is baked into the city of Ann Arbor as it is in virtually every city in the entire country. And there’s no better way we thought to bring home the fact that white supremacy exists here than to show people that the very homes that they live in have these racially restrictive covenants.” 

Steinberg said his research project created educational and historical resources to help Ann Arbor residents and policymakers understand racism’s pervasive effects in the city and propose ways to mend the centuries of damage caused by it.

“We want to emphasize that there’s present impact of past discrimination,” Steinberg said. “And when people say, well, (Ann Arbor) is such a friendly community, why don’t more Black folks live here? It’s because of these policies that deprive people of wealth and made it difficult for them to live in a place like Ann Arbor.” 

Steinberg said people involved in racial justice work are divided on how best to address the thousands of standing racially restrictive covenants embedded in Ann Arbor home deeds. 

“Some people say, ‘well, we should definitely get rid of (racially restrictive covenants) and do whatever it takes so when somebody buys a house, they’re not going to see that there used to be a racially restrictive covenant on it,’” Steinberg said. “There’s other people who say it’s important that people know about the history of discrimination and we can use it as an educational tool.” 

After the event, LSA sophomore Alex Van Kuiken, treasurer for the University’s ACLU branch, said Steinberg’s description of the disparity between Ann Arbor’s purported liberal leanings and its long history of racial discrimination resonated with him.

“There is definitely an impression among people that Ann Arbor is a very liberal city and that U of M is a very liberal university, even though in my personal experience in going to the University, I haven’t found that to be the case,” Van Kuiken said. “I’ve found that while it might not be directly on the surface, that history of discrimination is felt in the city of Ann Arbor. I think knowing that history is something really important and is something we should all be involved with.” 

Watson also told The Daily she found the event engaging and was fascinated by Steinberg’s research.

“I’m really excited to see where his project takes him,” Watson said. “I definitely hope that in the future, we will see changes within the Michigan community.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu

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