PD Editorial: Cleansing stains of racism from property deeds

Sonoma County is working to cleanse the vestigial racism that lingers in property records.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Sonoma County is working to cleanse the vestigial racism that lingers in property records. It’s part of an overdue statewide push to remove racial covenants from deeds. Officials should carefully track this work so that future generations do not forget this shameful part of our history and just how widespread it was.

California wasn’t always a shining beacon of equality. It still isn’t, if we’re being completely honest. Racism continues in both subtle and overt acts that discriminate against people of color. But the difference today is that many residents and elected leaders recognize the evil of bigotry and are committed to fighting against it.

Back in the early days of the state — and well into the 20th century — racism was widespread and accepted. Many white Californians didn’t want nonwhite neighbors. They tried to exclude people with racist covenants in deeds that limited property ownership and renting to whites. One Santa Rosa deed highlighted in a revealing article by Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez included this language:

“No person of African, Japanese, Chinese or of any Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase, own, lease or occupy said real property or any part thereof; except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a race or nationality restricted hereby when employed by the owner or tenant.”

No one knows how many property records still have these sorts of racist language. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such provisions are unenforceable, but that didn’t stop people from putting them into deeds. In 1963, California finally outlawed them, followed by the federal government a few years later.

But those laws only prevented new racist clauses. Old ones persist, a reminder of how recently such bigotry was commonplace, and an example of the systemic racism that still must be overcome.

Even if not enforceable, that kind of language and those ideas have no place in official documents. Imagine being a Black or Asian family who buys a home and then discovers the deed contains language explicitly forbidding them from living there. Outrage, pain, anger all would be appropriate responses.

A state law that took effect in July requires county officials to remove racial covenants from documents. Historically, a property owner could ask for the removal, but now counties can act on their own to clean up the records. The law also requires estate agents, brokers, escrow companies and others involved in home buying to notify buyers that they can contact county officials to have the language removed.

Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder Deva Marie Proto is taking this mission seriously and plan to deploy computer software that can identify potentially racist covenants in old, typed records. Reviewing handwritten files will be more difficult and time consuming.

Yet there’s a risk in this important project. Removing racism from legal records must not become purging the historical record. Repudiating the past isn’t justification to forget it.

When officials remove racist covenants from records, they should maintain an indexed record of what was cut from which documents related to which properties. Researchers already struggle with identifying where these covenants occurred and in what form. Doing the right thing today shouldn’t prevent future generations and historians from studying and reflecting on a reprehensible part of California’s past.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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