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Racial justice advocate Heather McGhee talks racism and housing policy in Utah

NBC News political analyst urges Utah housing advocates to educate Utah lawmakers on racism, push for change

SHARE Racial justice advocate Heather McGhee talks racism and housing policy in Utah

Sheryl Anderson holds a sign as members of Black Lives Matter Utah protest at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A renowned advocate for racial justice told Utah housing advocates on Thursday they have a unique opportunity amid the Black Lives Matter movement to educate state lawmakers on how racism has shaped and continues to shape housing inequities nationwide.

“It’s an important moment,” said Heather McGhee, an NBC News political analyst and a senior fellow and former president of Demos, a nonprofit progressive U.S. think tank, during the Utah Housing Coalition’s annual conference when she appeared on the digital conference as the keynote speaker.

“The movement ... even as the backlash is growing, has opened up some political space to where it’s not a conversation killer to talk about the racist impacts of things,” McGhee said. “That’s big. Because I have many memories of trying to have conversations in Washington about tax policy or lending policy and knowing that it would be harder for me to be successful if I talked about race. And that is a shame.”

McGhee, throughout her speech, spoke about how America’s history has teemed with racist housing policies that have resulted in generational disadvantages for Black Americans and minorities, including the past’s more “explicit” segregation policies and now more more “implicit” racism in policies that disadvantage renters, allow predatory lending practices, exclusionary zoning and the placement of low-income neighborhoods in areas that have more health threats.

In predominantly white Utah, poorer neighborhoods and cities also have the most racial diversity, including West Valley City or west-side Salt lake City neighborhoods like Jordan Meadows, Rose Park, Poplar Grove or Glendale. Those areas have also been harder hit by COVID-19.

“There is simply no way to accurately describe our housing in America without talking about racism,” she said. “Racism shapes where you can live, the finances of your home and your quality of life.”

McGhee said it’s often “more comfortable” to discuss affordable housing only in terms of class issues — and that’s likely a more familiar conversation in mostly white Utah. But she said throughout her career, it’s become clear to her racism comes “at a cost to us all,” with policies that have embedded disadvantages for the poor.

“The way that racism shapes where we live, the finances of our living and the quality of our life is a moral stain,” she said. “And we can’t think we can replace four centuries of using race to determine every aspect of housing and land use policy and then plug our ears and close our eyes and keep walking down that same path and say, ‘Because we aren’t saying race and we aren’t seeing race that we’re making progress in a different direction.’ We’re not making progress in a different direction than the paths that racism has already set out before us.”

McGhee talked about how the U.S. continues on the same trajectory, from “the loss of Black wealth from the financial crisis, the racial expulsion of Black communities from booming cities, the segregation of our schools, the way that — surprise, surprise — a global pandemic (infection and death) would be more concentrated” in minority communities.

“We have been explicitly racist for the vast majority of our history. So the new disfavoring of mentioning race while we’re still walking down that racist path is leading us in the exact same direction,” McGhee said.

She said mortgage lenders can profit off the poor with predatory high interest rates, and how Black and brown homebuyers with good credit have been steered toward high-cost loans. She pointed to homeownership rates, which showed in 2018 the gap between white and Black homeownership was 30 percentage points in the wake of the Great Recession. She also pointed to a recent New York Times article that detailed how Black homeowners have been discriminated against in home appraisals.

“This is such common knowledge for me,” she said. “I have always known before, if I’m renting out a house or selling a house, in my community, you take down your pictures and your art that looks like you’re a Black person. That’s just sort of a given, that you’re going to pay a tax in the appraisal of your house or in the ability to rent it if it seems like the house is owned by a Black person.”

She urged Utah housing advocates to be supportive of movements like Black Lives Matter and the national conversation around systemic racism, while also pushing for “structural change” in housing policies at all levels.

“We can’t continue to nibble around the edges,” McGhee said. “We’ve got to take down the house and build a new one.”

Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, in thanking McGhee for speaking, said right now, with the full impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, “eviction is on all of our minds.”

Racism, Rollins said, needs to be a part of policy conversations around evictions and more.

“You know, all lives won’t matter until Black lives matter,” Rollins said.