Who Is Our Neighbor?

Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor and researcher at Morgan State University, recently came across a letter from a group of churches in Baltimore. It was written to the Real Estate Board of Baltimore City in 1924, addressing their concerns about the “... recent invasion by the negro race on Madison Avenue.” Among other things, the letter stated:

Whereas, the said invasion by the negro race, if allowed to continue on said Madison Avenue, will unquestionably, within a short period, destroy both the financial value of said Church properties, and the religious usefulness of said Churches in said communities.

These churches clearly knew who they did not want their neighbors to be: African-Americans. From their perspective, they were concerned that their church’s property values would go down, and that they would not be able to serve these new residents. If black people moved into Baltimore, their neighborhood would be tainted and impure, and the churches would suffer as a result. These five churches needed to be protected from the possibility of an “invasion” by people who were not like them.

They were not alone. Over the course of the 20th century, cities, states, and even the federal government came up with ways to make sure that these invasions would not extend into certain communities. Restrictive covenants placed on leases made it impossible to sell homes to prospective buyers of a certain race. Redlining was a banking practice that defined neighborhoods (largely based on race) as “high-risk,” and then, on that basis, denied financing for buying homes in those communities. Real estate practices like steering (only showing people certain communities) and blockbusting (using racial fear to convince people to sell their homes at a discounted price) directed people away from places where they did not share the race of either the current, or incoming, residents. These are the tools that created a racially segregated society - a society where you could be confident that your neighbors would be people just like you.

We can see, in these churches and in these practices, the same impulse that led the legal expert to ask Jesus in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” If they could limit who their neighbors were to people who were like them, and who shared their culture and their values, then it would be much easier to love their neighbors as themselves. But for that audience, Jesus may very well have responded with the story of “The Good Negro,” who assists the wounded man while the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal ministers all walk on by. Segregation did not absolve them of the responsibility to love those who, legally, could not live near them. In fact, that separation only made it harder for them to recognize that these were not ‘invaders,’ but rather, human beings whom they were called to love.

While it is easier to look back and see how the people of earlier eras failed to live up to that responsibility to love, we have to ask the more difficult question: who is our neighbor? For the most part, the answer is the same. We continue to live in a society divided by race, split into neighborhoods based on race and ethnicity. We are the heirs of the legacy created by practices like restrictive covenants, redlining, and blockbusting, and our communities continue to show that. The vast majority of our neighborhood demographics show areas that are still tightly defined as being white, black, Latino, or Asian.

Even in more racially and ethnically diverse areas, we have to recognize the role that housing plays in creating economic segregation. Most people live in the type of neighborhood that they are able to afford, and are surrounded by other people who can afford that community. If you have enough money to pay for a suburban single-family home, most of your neighbors can also afford suburban single-family homes. If the only housing you can rent is in a low-income community that offers limited opportunities, most of your neighbors will be in the exact same economic circumstances.

...what makes someone a neighbor is their basic humanity.

The temptation then, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously, is to say that we can love our neighbors, because they are like us. We acknowledge, and treat seriously, the problems of the people that we see around us - the people who share our race, our ethnicity, our class, even our culture. However, if we see something happening in a community that is not like ours, like an ‘urban’ or ‘low-income’ neighborhood, we can emotionally distance ourselves from the problem because there is an actual physical distance. If you never have to walk along the Jericho Road, you never have to worry about the people who are being attacked along that path.

As Christians, though, we are not given the option to say that certain people are not our neighbors. The way Jesus responds to the legal expert’s question does not allow us to exclude people from that calling to love. The Samaritan in the story, unlike the various religious figures, recognizes that what makes someone a neighbor is their basic humanity. The man lying on the side of the road is another person, who needs someone to step up and take care of them. While the priest and Levite tried to maintain their distance, the Samaritan goes across those dividing lines in order to respect the dignity of the wounded person. Truly “being a neighbor” goes beyond the usual ways in which we are divided from each other.

Segregation is a challenge that we must address. Part of our public witness as Christians is to recognize that this separation makes it more difficult for our society to function in a just way. Racially, ethnically, and economically segregated communities will not act as neighbors to one another. Our separation creates an environment of competition, where taking care of “your own” is more important than taking care of the needs of all our neighbors. It encourages us to keep walking past the downtrodden - or just find a different way of getting where we are going, without going through those communities.

The process of ending segregation, however, requires going beyond our individual decisions. Many organizations stress the importance of relocation, moving into communities where people do not have the same racial and economic background. That can be a valuable step for many people to take. Ultimately, though, segregation is the product of structural forces - the value of real estate, the ability to access financing for housing, the availability and location of affordable housing. Without addressing these decisions about policies and investment, even well-intentioned efforts can turn into gentrification that pushes residents out of what had previously been their neighborhood, and exchanges one form of segregation for another.

If we are going to take care of all of our neighbors, we have to advocate for policies that can undo the legacies created by racial and economic segregation. As citizens in a political community, we are called to pursue the wellbeing of our entire community, and not just secure our own interests. There are tools to accomplish this, but unfortunately, they are too often underutilized. One of the most important is the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed as a landmark piece of legislation for the Civil Rights Movement. Under the Fair Housing Act, various forms of discrimination, including on the basis of race and ethnicity, were made officially illegal. This was a huge step forward in a society where, only a few decades earlier, many cities made it illegal not to discriminate on the basis of race, and required sellers to consider the race of the buyer when selling.

However, even if we were able to fully enforce the prohibitions of the Fair Housing Act, we would not be able to undo the damage that has already been done. That is why the Act also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to make sure that federal investments would start reversing those effects, and look for ways to be proactive in encouraging more economically and racially diverse communities. This resulted in the issuance of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule - but only in July of 2015.

Less than two years in, it has become clear that the AFFH rule, like other provisions of the Fair Housing Act, relies heavily on local support in order to be put into practice. Everything from zoning decisions to economic development packages is decided by local counties and cities, and directly affects whether or not these policies are implemented in communities. This is where churches can be vital - well-organized congregations can make a huge difference by being vocal with zoning boards and other local entities.

More than 90 years ago, five local churches in Baltimore recognized that their voice was important, and so they submitted a letter showing their support for racial segregation. To undo that legacy, and similar decisions that were made throughout the country, churches today need to be just as vocal in their support of de-segregation. As Christians, we know that all people are our neighbors, and we should be vocal about our desire to have people of all races, ethnicities, and classes living next door to us.

-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, a project manager in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and an advocate for great neighborhoods.