Since presenting their research in January 2021, Michigan Law professor Michael Steinberg and Taubman professor Robert Goodspeed have been working to remove racially restrictive covenants — policies which bar people of color from owning certain homes — from Washtenaw County title deeds.
Steinberg and Goodspeed are currently developing maps that lay out the racially restrictive covenants in Washtenaw County, pursuing legal action to repeal these covenants and expanding their program to discover places of potential de facto discrimination — which may not be explicitly written in law, but happens in practice — in Washtenaw County.
As of Jan. 28, Steinberg and Goodspeed have identified 66 subdivisions in Ann Arbor that contain discriminatory language against people of color within their title deeds. In 1948, the racially restrictive covenants were banned from being enforced, but Steinberg and Goodspeed say the continued existence of these covenants illustrate the prevalence of institutionalized racism.
In their study, Steinberg and Goodspeed concluded that the presence of these covenants can make PoC homeowners feel unwelcome in their own community and exist as a reminder of institutional racism that still persists today.
Ann Arbor resident Jeffrey Hamilton said he felt disappointed by the racially restrictive covenants, despite saying how Ann Arbor is considered a more progressive city.
“I feel honestly offended and very, very let down, but not surprised,” Hamilton said. “The funny thing is, being in Ann Arbor, we were often given the idea that Ann Arbor is a cut above when it comes to these types of covenants … When you look at Ann Arbor, as progressive as it is, it kind of sets you back.”
Hamilton also added that by continuing to have these racially restrictive covenants in place, the city is still upholding institutionalized racism.
“This shows me that there’s still some deep-seated areas of racism,” Hamilton said. “That deep-seated racism might not always be recognized on the surface. We think of racism in specific ways, such as overt bigotry … but not so much the institutionalized part.”
Led by Steinberg and Goodspeed, Justice InDeed was created to help educate homeowners and members of the Washtenaw County community about the covenants. The organization is also currently mapping out all the homes with racial restrictive covenants to help homeowners better understand the history of racism in the communities they are living in.
Law student Susan Fleurant, a student attorney with the Civil Rights Litigative Initiative and a member of Justice InDeed, said there are plans for the mapping system to become more specific.
“The Justice InDeed website has a countywide map of racially restrictive covenants by neighborhood,” Fleurant said. “And there are future plans to expand that mapping work to the individual lot level.”
Another focus of Justice InDeed’s work has been community education, according to Fleurant. The program has been putting together panels to help spread the word to the public about these racially restrictive covenants and inspire people to create change.
Justice InDeed also hopes to enact change within the legal system by mobilizing communities to remove the covenants from the deeds of their entire subdivision. Fleurant said the community organization and education was a step in the right direction of helping subdivisions in Washtenaw County move toward repealing these covenants.
“We’re working to organize neighborhoods in Washtenaw County to educate homeowners and to seek to repeal racially restrictive covenants in their communities,” Fleurant said. “This involves getting a majority of the lot owners in the neighborhood to amend their communal restrictions that contain the racially restrictive covenant.”
Fleurant said the organization is close to implementing real change with removing racially restrictive covenants in the Hannah subdivision in Ann Arbor soon.
“We expect to effectuate the repeal … within the next two months,” Fleurant said.
The program and its work has also inspired other local projects to reverse the covenants, including Black Washtenaw County, founded in 2021 as a team of researchers looking into histories of racial segregation in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. BWC’s main goals include initiating community engaged collaborative research projects, working on exploring and uncovering the history of segregation in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor and educating the public on the details of the Black experience in the community.
Rackham student Soyoon Ryu is part of both Justice InDeed and BWC and said the two programs intersect in their efforts to address the past and present situation of racial segregation in Washtenaw County. Ryu added that Justice InDeed focuses more on the litigative aspect, while BWC expands their scope to other disciplines.
“(BWC) is a heterogeneous mix of different pre-existing projects and newly developing projects, but with a similar objective of documenting intersecting histories of African American community building and racial segregation specifically within Washtenaw County,” Ryu said.
The two groups have been working together to find areas of potential de facto discrimination in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. According to Ryu, Justice InDeed and BWC are focusing on identifying histories of de facto discrimmination in Pittsfield Village and what was formerly known as Willow Run Village in Ypsilanti, as well as Parkridge Homes in Ypsilanti.
“We are collecting an archival of oral history and visual materials to see if these housing developments were either officially segregated or de facto segregated,” Ryu said. “We are in the initial stages of research, and a lot of these developments didn’t have official documents that defined these developments as segregates, but a lot of the oral history materials suggest potential discrimination.”
There is still much work to be done in order to repeal these racially restrictive covenants, but according to Hamilton, this is important work, not just for the communities of those discriminated against, but for everyone.
“We really need to work together, regardless of what position in life we’re in,” Hamilton said. “Because when one is lifted up while one is down, it impacts all of us.”
Daily Staff Reporter Riley Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.