Lesson Overview (I)

Marguerite Mills

Lesson Snapshot:

Grade Levels: 9 – Undergraduate

Suggested Time: 2-3 class periods

One period for class activity. One period for discussion/debrief and follow-up.


Learning Objectives

This lesson combines traditional presentation and hands-on primary source reading to give students an understanding of the role that discriminatory housing played in shaping the urban and suburban areas. Students learn about the historical practice of racial covenanting and how this legal mechanism was deployed to keep people of color from buying, owning, or occupying property. They also learn how this practice was linked to other practices like redlining that created segregation, deepened the divide between black and white home-ownership, and entrenched racial inequality.

Core Themes

    • Why American cities look the way they do today.
    • Understand the background of the contemporary debate over reparations.
    • Understand the racial contours of the affordable housing crisis.
    • Develop historical fluency of racist housing policy over the last century.
    • Minneapolis was not always segregated. Segregation was not a natural process nor the result of forces outside of an individual’s control. Segregation arose from deliberate policies designed to benefit white people.
    • Segregation was accompanied by economic, educational, environmental and emotional inequality. Teachers are encouraged to build out this discussion for students to understand that the

Critical Questions

    • How have racial covenants influenced where people live?
    • What factors contributed to segregation between 1910-1968?
    • How are racial covenants relevant today?
    • How does the ability to own a home affect other areas of life? What is the difference between renting and owning a home?
    • Why are cities, suburbs, neighborhoods, and blocks divided along racial lines? How did we end up with this thing called segregation?
    • What are the roots of the contemporary racial wealth gap?


As researchers excavating the history of racial covenants and the impact of racist housing practices, bringing that history to our community is a foundational piece of our process. We bring the story of covenants to any group of adults willing to hear it. And one of the most frequent questions we receive is “how do we get this history taught in our schools?”

We developed this lesson to demonstrate to students that racism shaped the urban landscape. That the patterns of inequality we see today are not accidental, organic, or preordained. They are the result of deliberate actions, through policy and practice, engineered to exclude people of color from the table and concentrate material wealth and power in the hands of white people.

And we developed this lesson to give students a way into thinking about structural racism. Anyone can be implicated in racism because of their participation in racist structures, regardless of their personal beliefs. This lesson offers students the opportunity to not only understand more of the black experience but opens a critical lens through which to see and examine the construct of whiteness as a vehicle of power. We believe that history allows people to think more imaginatively about race and privilege.

We also know that it is hard for people to talk about race.

And it’s hard for white people to see whiteness.

During the many classroom test runs of this lesson, we heard push-back from students about the nature of structural racism and inequality. Their challenges mirror adults’ misconceptions of race and privilege– views that we hear expressed in our community discussions. it is in these moments of frank confrontation of long-held flawed ways of thinking however, that the work of our project becomes clear. Confronting these belief systems is essential to taking down the unjust systems that they prop up and perpetuate.

But entering a provocative conversation without prior understanding of the terrain leads to the least fruitful collisions. We find it helpful to know the nature of these objections going in. When preparing to deliver this lesson or any racial justice curriculum, it is important to think about the student responses. Below we have compiled a list of the most common questions raised by students:

Birds of a feather argument

  • This idea is pervasive and has staying power. When I ask groups of students why we see segregation today, some variation of the idea that people just naturally want to be with “their kind” invariably comes up. The explanation is given by students of color and white students alike. The content of this lesson directly confronts this notion of inevitable segregation by introducing data that directly upends that prevailing wisdom. In Minneapolis, the evidence does not bear out the theory that individuals simply concentrated themselves. When students signal this narrative in class, it can serve as a useful transition to the demographic realities.

“If covenants have been illegal since 1968— if people could live where they wanted for 50 years–and they haven’t integrated, doesn’t that mean that covenants don’t matter?”

  • This notion betrays a fundamentally flawed understanding of the nature of inter-generational cycles of oppression and inequality. Taken even at face value, the idea that 50 years of inaction toward an active policy of exclusion and displacement would remedy its consequences is wishful thinking at best. In the inimitable words of Malcom X “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
    This lesson attempts to illustrate the lasting impact of racial covenants and related forms of structural racism and systemic inequality. An important student takeaway is the importance of inter generational opportunity versus oppression. We can start by dispensing with the myth that eliminating racial covenants was a panacea for the damage they created. But furthermore, we must ask students (and ourselves) to consider what it means to have generations of doors closed or opened to those who came before us. How can there be any reasonable expectation that these cycles have no effect on outcomes today?

“My grandparents started with nothing. They bought a house and now are doing great. I know people who just don’t work for anything.”

  • Similar to the argument above, this argument relies on unsupported assumptions, passed down narratives, and incomplete understanding of the larger systems at play. The bootstrap narrative fits in the white experience because the system that surrounded whites who “started with nothing” was not stacked against them. Learning about the true history of racial covenants uncovers the reality of the system that allowed so many parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to start with so little and seemingly make so much from nothing. The truth is that for many of these stories, they did start with something — it may not have been the material head start we tend to think of like a big lump of cash handed to them by a wealthy relative — it was the subtle yet powerful support of a system. If this had been a system built to support all, built to make security and autonomy attainable for everyone we might be telling a much different story. The success story of a nation. But this system was built to privilege some at the expense of others. Racially restrictive covenants enforced generations of extraction and precarity on to people of color while enriching their white counterparts. This was not a meritocratic system, but a system of white supremacy.

Stirring the pot

  • “You are just bringing up bad things from the past and making trouble in the present. Let bygones be bygones.” The trouble with this is that although specific forms of exclusion may be bygone, the effects that they bore are not. The scar that racial covenants and their relatives left on the generations born in their wake is visible to this day. This lesson works to make it clear that some pot-stirring is gonna have to happen if we are to deal with this history and truly repair the damage. The harm of racially restrictive covenants, racist housing discrimination, and all forms of structural racism live as injuries on our collective consciousness. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung remarked, “what you resist not only persists but will grow in size.” This holds true on the human as well as the societal scale. The more we resist acknowledging the history of inequality, the more persistent it becomes.


Many more regurgitations of these same basic ideas, come out during these discussions. It is important to remember that students (and adults alike) did not invent these arguments on their own. These are long-held and pervasive beliefs. Most of us are indoctrinated with them in some form at some point in our lives. It is crucial that we show up and do the work of challenging them so that a new generation is equipped with even better tools to address these decades and centuries-old harms.

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The Mapping Prejudice Curriculum Copyright © by Marguerite Mills. All Rights Reserved.

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