Unlearning the False Narrative: The Film “13th,” Racist Housing Policies and Being an Anti-Racist

By Mary Lacey, project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

13th logo

Like many others during quarantine, I have turned to film and TV to learn about institutional racism. As a white American, I have benefited from the exploitation and oppression of Black and Indigenous people. It is my responsibility to learn about and dismantle racist systems that I benefit from to help end racial injustice. Although conversations about racism are necessary, they are happening too late. It is a privilege for me to learn about racism instead of experiencing it every day.

A film that sparked my attention was the Emmy Award-winning documentary 13th. Netflix’s 2016 release, directed by Ava DuVernay, highlights the role of the legal system’s intentional role in prisons and policing that disproportionately criminalizes Black Americans. It spurred me to learn more about the impact of racism, especially in housing.

The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment, known for abolishing slavery in 1865, but resulting in the continuation of forced labor. The amendment states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (U.S Const. amend. XIII. Sec. 1). In the years after the Civil War, Black Americans were frequently falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned; and because the amendment does not provide protections against slavery for those convicted of a crime, America’s broken legal system began imprisoning people of color disproportionately. The film argues that America uses the 13th Amendment, through the legal system, to continue slavery.

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay, a Black filmmaker and director of 13th, also directed Netflix’s When They See Us, recreating the true story of five Black teenagers convicted of a crime they did not commit. Photo from IMDb by Steve Granitz – © 2014 Steve Granitz – Image courtesy gettyimages.com

The film points out that Black Americans are over-represented in America’s legal system. Although Black people make up 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 40.2 percent of the prison population. This disproportionality stems from the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people through racist policies, the film contends. For example: A 2013 ACLU report found that despite similar rates of marijuana use among Black and white Americans, Black Americans are significantly more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans.

DuVernay also charts the astounding increase in incarceration between 1970 and 2000, through “law and order” policies such as “three strikes,” which can result in long prison terms for minor offenses, and mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.

Dr Ibram X Kendi_from twitter
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist. Photo from his Twitter profile (@dribram)

State-sponsored racism: Recommended books

I’ve also turned to books that illustrate the role of racism in our society, particularly in housing. I am not an expert and I encourage others to read Black authors’ work about housing’s role in systemic racism, from this list curated by Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

One of those authors is Dr. Ibram Kendi, who contends that after we learn about and acknowledge America’s racist institutions and policies, we must take action to be anti-racist. The author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kendi defines being an anti-racist as a process of becoming, not as a fixed identity. Through defining racist actions and learning about systems that created racism, Kendi argues that we cannot be race neutral. Instead, we must be actively anti-racist by calling out racist behavior and supporting anti-racist policies.  

At the end of this post you can find a link to a conversation with Dr. Kendi and Ms. Yentel about racism and housing, along with many other resources.

Racist housing policies

The film 13th parallels a message in the book The Color of Law, written by Richard Rothstein, which exposes the repetitive political narrative that ensures Black Americans are segregated, disenfranchised, and jailed. In training for my job as a project assistant, I read The Color of Law to learn about the intentional actions of government that contributed to segregation and economic oppression of Black Americans.

The book highlights major government policies that contribute to racist housing policy, including the implementation of segregated housing and investment in white suburbs which explicitly oppressed Black people.

Seattle Redlining Map
Seattle’s redlining map, showing areas of the city where banks did not want to make home loans. The red areas – where people could not get home loans — include the Central District, historically home of Seattle’s Black population.

Rothstein’s examples include Seattle, such as housing developments built by Boeing founder W.E. Boeing just north of Seattle city limits that imposed a racial restrictive covenant to prevent non-white people from buying homes.  And it persists today. Despite Seattle’s image of progressivism, a look at housing data in our region further demonstrates a history of racial discrimination. The Seattle Times’ Gene Balk identified that only 28 percent of Black residents in King County own homes, versus 63 percent of white residents.

Balk cites the racist policies of redlining and racial covenants as historical barriers to home ownership, but he says modern economic conditions also contribute. He reports that Seattle’s tech boom excludes Black people from high-paying jobs, which contributes to the racial wealth gap; nationally, Black homeownership has remained steady at 49 percent but has eroded in Seattle. Home ownership disparities contribute to a lack of economic security for Black people, thus illustrating the impact of racist housing policies.

Disproportionalities in homelessness

Unfortunately, the disproportionality in the prison population and home ownership is echoed in King County’s homelessness data too. The 2020 All Home Count Us In report shows Black people make up only 7 percent of King County’s population but 25 percent of the homeless population. This disproportionality has remained consistent since 2017.

Further, student homelessness is disproportionately higher among Black students in Washington state too. My fellow project assistant Anneke created graphics using recent data from Building Changes, one of our partner organizations, who focuses on family and youth homelessness. Their findings illustrate that 60 percent of homeless students in the state are students of color, with Black students experiencing it at the highest rate. They found that one out of every 11 Black students will experience homelessness.

The disproportionality affecting communities of color across institutions demonstrates the intersectionality of social issues, especially in regard to race.

Anneke Infographic Student Homelessness POC
One of Anneke’s four infographics demonstrates the racial disparities among students of color experiencing higher rates of housing insecurity than their white peers. See more infographics at schoolhousewa.org.

The narrative around racial segregation was significantly different from what I was taught about American history, that racism was a result of individual behaviors. However, I now know that racist policies created and still uphold racism today. I am continuing to learn about racist policies and systems and unlearn the false narrative of equality that has biased my perspective on racism in America.

This led me to look at my own hometown and the neighborhood I was raised in.

Your zip code determines your outcomes

13th touches on housing’s role in perpetuating racism through redlining that segregated Black and white communities. These policies led to the economic prosperity of white neighborhoods and impoverishment of Black neighborhoods. The film explores how one’s zip code can predict the outcomes of its residents, highlighting the importance of one’s location and neighborhood.

Through census data, the Opportunity Atlas, which measures poverty among youth, reports that traditionally Black neighborhoods experience higher rates of incarceration, lower graduation rates, lower incomes, and other inhibiting social factors that were intentional to oppress the Black community. As Rothstein highlights in his book, these disparities exist through state-sponsored racist housing policies that benefit white communities.

My home state of Wisconsin exemplifies disproportional data in the legal system, with the highest rate of incarcerated Black men in the country. My white privilege is demonstrated through expected outcomes based on demographic data from Milwaukee County zip codes.

According to Health Compass Milwaukee, 53213, the zip code I grew up in, is 86 percent white, has a medium household income of about $80K, and has a 1.97 percent unemployment rate. In contrast, 53206, one of the most oppressed zip codes in Milwaukee county, is 92 percent Black, has a medium household income of about $26K, and has a 15.58 percent unemployment rate. Sixty-two percent of 53206’s Black men are incarcerated.

The Center for Urban Population Health found that zip code 53206 has the lowest rating for health outcomes, compared to 53213, which has the third-highest rating in Milwaukee county.

Despite these neighborhoods being only a 10-minute drive away from each other, their residents have drastically different outcomes in employment, health, and incarceration. As a result of racist policies including redlining, segregation and policing, disparities among Black neighborhoods illustrate housing’s role in racism.

Milwaukee neighborhood
An empty lot in 53206, one of the most incarcerated zip codes in Wisconsin. Photo from The New Republic by Danielle Scruggs – © 2019 Danielle Scruggs, The New Republic.

“Tough on crime”: Criminalization affects housing opportunities

13th discusses the repeated and intentional means in which federal policies enforced mass incarceration targeting black people, through the use of policing to address social issues, including drug use, mental illness, and homelessness. The role of policing contributes to the criminalization of Black people through the legal system’s enforcement of systematic racism. As I previously mentioned, that criminalization became a popular political message in the 1980s as the U.S. prison population began to skyrocket. DuVernay cites examples of politicians from across the ideological spectrum using “tough on crime” messaging that especially criminalized Black people, appealing to voters by capitalizing on fear and anxiety against “the other.”

Fear and anxiety-based messaging that is used to divide communities also applies to those experiencing homelessness. The criminalization of behaviors often associated with homelessness further contributes to mass incarceration. 13th discredits the perception of personal failures as the cause of incarceration and homelessness, instead laying out the deliberate actions of governments to oppress Black Americans.

Additionally, the stain of a criminal record inhibits people coming out of prison looking for a second chance, who are often barred from access to jobs, voting, food stamps and housing. For example, people with a felony record may be prohibited from public housing. DuVernay points to the hypocrisy of disproportionately jailing Black people on drug charges. Through the federal “war on drugs” campaign started by President Nixon, the criminalization of drugs that were more likely to be used by Black people resulted in them experiencing higher imprisonment rates. For example, policies that required longer sentencing times for crack charges targeted Black Americans even though the same drug used by white people, cocaine, did not have similar laws. Because many housing opportunities discriminate against tenants who have a criminal record, it becomes harder for those to find housing, and often leads to homelessness.

Gov Inslee Signs Fair Chance Act
Washington Gov. Inslee signs the Fair Chance Act in 2018. Image by AFL-CIO.

Washington state has been a leader in fighting discrimination based on criminal records through a “ban the box” campaign in efforts to support those with criminal records in finding employment. In 2018, the Washington legislature passed the Fair Chance Act to protect those with criminal records for equal opportunity on job applications. Additionally, Seattle’s Fair Chance Housing ordinance limits landlords from asking potential tenants about a criminal record on a housing application. These laws are meant to address racial disparities in the legal, employment, and housing sector.

Power and privilege

To achieve racial justice, positions of power must be led by the communities affected. In Project Homeless’ discussion on racism in homelessness, panelists urged for culturally appropriate and individualized services in housing and homelessness to combat its racist practices.

Marc Dones, executive director of National Innovation Service, highlighted the importance of moving power from white people to affected communities in order to change the status quo within the housing sector. LaMont Green, co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition, exposed the “white non-profit industrial complex” in which he says white people uphold and profit from racism through their work in the non-profit sector.

Project Homeless Racism and Housing Zoom
Derrick Belgarde, Marc Dones, LaMont Green, and Michelle Merriweather talk with the Seattle Times’ Sydney Brownstone and Anna Patrick on racism and housing in Seattle.

As someone who works in the communications field in housing and homelessness, I realize the importance of recognizing the whiteness within the field. Dones said that white people working in these spaces must give up their power and privilege to communities of color if we really want to see the end to housing insecurity and homelessness.

Justice through compassion and re-humanization

Near the end of the film 13th, as the names of those who lost their lives to police violence stream across the screen, author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander says, “[p]olice violence is a reflection of a much larger and brutal system of mass incarceration which authorizes this kind of police violence.” Alexander urges us to educate ourselves on institutional racism to understand where we are now with racism in America.

The film ends with an important message about the “re-humanization” of those who are incarcerated. It emphasizes valuing the human dignity of every person by recognizing their right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” as stated in the U.S. Constitution. The film calls on us to treat problems of society with a compassionate and solutions-based approach to end the mass incarceration of Black people. The re-humanization of those incarcerated includes the need to re-humanize those experiencing homelessness, in order to implement solutions that will keep people housed.

By seeing housing and homelessness as racial justice issues, we can be better advocates for positive social change and effective solutions.

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn. Continue to learn about systematic racism. Here are books, TV and films, podcasts, and other helpful resources.
  2. Start a conversation. It can be hard to talk to loved ones about racism, but it’s absolutely necessary. Read tips from best-selling author of the book So You Want to Talk About Race, Seattle’s Ijeoma Oluo, here.
  3. Donate to non-profits fighting racism, and to other organizations that need your help. Support Black-owned businesses.
  4. Contact your lawmakers about laws that address racism. If you haven’t gotten to know your local and federal representatives find out here.
  5. Vote for candidates who prioritize combating institutional racism through housing, legal reform, climate change, transportation, and understanding the intersection of these social issues in legislation.
  6. Fill out the census. The census is just as important as voting, as it counts every person in the U.S., determining voting districts and allocation of resources. Further, it contributes to gathering effective data about the communities that make up this country.
  7. Watch free webinars and panels with experts on racism in housing. Start with How to Be an Anti-Racist author Dr. Ibram Kendi’s conversation with National Low Income Housing Coalition’s President Diane Yentel. Then watch the Seattle Times’ Project Homeless conversation about racism and homelessness in Seattle.
  8. Make anti-racism a priority in your life. It doesn’t end with checking off all the “to-do” tasks on this list. Reflect on your privilege and racist tendencies. Actively be anti-racist in your work, home and community.

One thought on “Unlearning the False Narrative: The Film “13th,” Racist Housing Policies and Being an Anti-Racist

  1. Pingback: Hard Goodbyes 2020 – Final Edition

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