An ugly, racial stain exposed

Hidden too long, the sad fact is that racial covenants exist in many Seattle neighborhoods.

The restrictions are not binding. They were ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. The 1968 Fair Housing Act and Washington state law also forbid them.

Nonetheless, their existence — however benign — is a stain that recalls uglier periods in our history.

Racial restrictions were written into community bylaws to keep African Americans, Asians, Jews and other minorities out of certain neighborhoods. They ensured white neighborhoods remained white. Exceptions were made, however, for domestic workers.

A recent Seattle Times report found covenants in Seattle communities such as Innis Arden, a wealthy enclave overlooking Puget Sound, where residents are trying to revoke the written restriction.

But the residents have run up against the knotty ropes of the legal system. An original document can be amended, but it can never be repealed. Racial covenants, despite their odious wording and nuisance value, can and will remain on the deed of many properties throughout the nation.

Pockets of Seattle remain stubbornly segregated. It is not beyond reason to speculate that the lack of diversity is a holdover from the days of legal segregation.

University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor makes a compelling argument about the residual effect of racial covenants. In an interview with Times reporter Lornet Turnbull, Taylor said a lack of diversity signals exclusivity to some homebuyers and actually makes a neighborhood more desirable.

"What some social scientists point out is that the very price of a home is in some ways determined by the absence of diversity," Taylor said.

What should be done about racial restrictions, documented in cities and towns across the nation? Homebuyers could sue, objecting to the offensiveness and illegality of the covenants. They could even raise the question of whether it is legal to be forced to sign documents that include outlawed language.

But that isn't the way to go. It is unrealistic to expect property owners to go through such legal and monetary expense.

Congress is considering a resolution condemning the covenants as psychologically damaging. But that would carry little enforcement weight.

A better solution lies with the state Legislature. Lawmakers should authorize the courts to expunge racial covenants from all properties covered by homeowner associations. This would not cover every home in the state but it would be an encouraging start.