Sambos in the shadows

George W. Bush's restrictive deed covenant provides an audit trail to our racist past.

By Debra Dickerson
July 15, 1999 3:00PM (UTC)
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Typically, white visitors to my home are visibly upset by my Mammy memorabilia. Disgusted, riveted and confused, they stand before my big-lipped, bug-eyed, watermelon-eating, sassy Sambos and try to think of something to say that won't get them in trouble. There are dish-towel holders, cookie jars, salt-and-pepper shakers, doorstops, figurines, paper fans shaped like fat mammies in kerchiefs -- the dregs of the trade. In high-priced antique shops and auctions, the good stuff -- voluminous plantation records, original minstrel-show sheet music, etc. -- are known as "black collectibles," and folks like Oprah Winfrey, Julian Bond and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have driven the prices into the stratosphere. Still, I do the best I can at yard sales and the like.

My personal favorite is a heavy iron bank circa 1920 that I went into debt for and carted all the way home from Florence, Italy. It's the head, arms and shoulders of a uniformed Uncle Ben's Rice-type lackey, white gloves and all. He looks like the missing link between a bellboy and an orangutan. You put a coin on its hand and depress the lever on the back to make it feed itself the money: Its pop-eyes roll back in its nappy head with orgasmic gluttony. If I ever manage to buy a home, I hope the deed has a "whites only" clause like George W. Bush's so I can enlarge it to poster size and expand my collection, my evidence that today's racial realities have an audit trail.

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The leading Republican presidential contender has now officially joined the rogues' gallery of American leaders forced to confront, however temporarily, our nation's racist substructure and their own complicity in it. When he bought his Dallas home in 1988, the deed stipulated that it could be occupied "by white persons only, excluding bona fide servants of any race." When he sold it just after being elected governor of Texas in 1996, the clause was still there. He claims not to have known about it and, now that he knows, not to be concerned because such restrictions have long been unenforceable thanks to a 1948 Supreme Court decision, the 1968 Fair Housing Act and many subsequent state statutes.

He must never have seen "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece, starring the youngsters Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, about a black Chicago family's attempt to live in their dream house in a white neighborhood -- a dream deferred, of course, despite the Supreme Court's decision on racial covenants.

The broker who handled Bush's sale told the Associated Press that to excise the restriction, the multi-millionaire Bush would have had to collect signatures from three-fourths of the residents and "go through a lengthy, cumbersome and potentially expensive process." So far, it's a non-issue. Since Matt Drudge broke the story on Monday, only CNN, AP, Slate and a tiny scattering of publications have even mentioned it. Perhaps that's because Bush is in such good company.

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John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, Joseph Biden, Michael Huffington, Dianne Feinstein, Daddy Bush -- they've all had to face the cameras and distance themselves from their lily-white, Gentile enclaves and the documents they "never read." Very likely they didn't, but did they really need to in order to make sure their nice, exclusive neighborhoods stayed that way? "Privilege" is environmental; it means never having to do your own dirty work.

On the other hand, the Bush campaign points out that blacks buy and sell homes with these same deed restrictions every day. "Sure, my attorney pointed out the clause when we bought in 1990. My wife and I just laughed," says Alphonso Jackson, president of Central South West Corporation, a former Bush neighbor and an African-American. He confirms that most of the homes in the area have restrictive covenants.

My hometown, St. Louis, has loomed large in the development of civil rights law and racial politics in America. The 1857 Dred Scott case arose there -- ultimately, the Supreme Court held that blacks, free or slave, were not citizens and had no rights that whites were bound to respect. Next stop: Civil War. With black emancipation came, among other things, racially restrictive covenants to keep the races separate and unequal. They were so commonplace throughout the United States that there's no way to count them all; the Federal Housing Administration actually required them. Then, in 1948, came Shelley vs. Kraemer, the (eventual) Supreme Court case that rendered racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. Looks like progress, doesn't it?

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Yet 24 years later, when I was 12 in 1972, sans discussion, my mother and I refused to get out of the car when the realtor tried to show us a house in one of St. Louis' many unintegrated neighborhoods. My chest still constricts just remembering those white faces as the residents straggled out of doors to see the niggers look at the empty house next door. The realtor begged but we wouldn't budge. Grimly, my mother would only say, "I don't want to be a pioneer" as she pulled the car door from the woman's hand. She'd already survived 18 years sharecropping in Mississippi and 25 as a manual laborer up North. We knew what the law books said, and we knew what the reality was. We confined our search to the black part of town. No, nobody made us. We just were neither stupid enough nor brave enough to put American justice to the test.

In 1991, on "PrimeTime Live," hidden cameras would record a black tester facing discrimination at every turn, from employment to housing to shopping. Throughout America, the process of buying a home remains fraught with redlining, steering and segregation for minorities, illegal though it may technically be.

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So why isn't Bush's whites-only contract an issue? "This is not meaty terrain," says Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy. "It's perfectly plausible that he didn't know and that, even if he did, he knew it was unenforceable. I wouldn't hold that against him."

Glenn Loury, professor of economics and director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, agrees. "I don't see it as an issue. It's a very indirect way of getting a purchase on relevant questions like 'What are the racial attitudes of this guy?' You can't expect him to exert himself to take a stand against a void contract clause if there are other instances of his stand on matters of importance. What is his minority appointment record, is he responsive to his black constituents?"

Neither scholar believed that, given Bush's governorship of a state as diverse as Texas, and his desire to lead this diverse, racially divided nation, he should have taken the symbolic step of at least trying to amend his deed or entering an official denunciation into the file. "What people should be asking George W. for is his thoughts on race questions now," Kennedy argues. Both men, however, see value in the underlying discussion, as long as it leads to productive discussion of racial politics as they currently exist.

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"Certainly, I think it's a good thing that America understand what racially restrictive covenants are and how pervasive they were," says Kennedy. Loury compares the covenants to "land mines left behind after a war. They're the buried racial debris from the era of state-enforced segregation that anyone could trip over. It doesn't seem fair to blame him for it.

"Now, there's an undeniable pedagogic value in uncovering these artifacts and using them to teach our children. That's why people keep those Amos 'n Andy records and play them every so often and make the kids listen. As we move farther away from those days, its increasingly difficult to get this history through to them and how it affects us today. These clauses, while legally innocuous, are so powerful, we have to talk about them." That's why blacks collect Mammy-abilia: to prove that we're not crazy, to force us all to confront the past that haunts the present from just inches away.

This is the reason blacks are fascinated by what whites once intended to excuse, to humiliate and safely contain in shame. It's aversion therapy: We know that we have to own Mammy, to look our cultural selves in the mirror and understand that we have been trained to see ourselves through the eyes of those who hated and exploited us. Whites have the harder task, to accept the great evil that they have perpetrated and continue to benefit from, no matter how sincerely they might want to undo the past.

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"All the houses in that neighborhood have [a racially restrictive covenant]," a Bush spokesperson helpfully explains. "Why would someone volunteer for that [removal of the clause] when they don't need to? You don't gain anything. They don't mean anything."

Maybe not to the Bush campaign. But there are some who disagree about the validity of ignoring these odious clauses, even though they preserve the artifacts of racism. "Not if you think they have any effect in the marketplace, not if you think this social reality contributes to discrimination and apartheid in the housing market," says professor Frank Michelman, also of Harvard Law School. If Bush cared as much about racial reconciliation as he claims, he might either have made the gesture of excising the clause or preemptively acknowledging it as a way of highlighting the past. It may be pragmatism to have made the (correct) calculation that he could ride this one out, but it isn't statesmanship.

It's just burying the land mines deeper.


Debra Dickerson

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George W. Bush Joe Biden Republican Party Ronald Reagan