“Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.” – Theodore Roosevelt

The videotaped murder of George Floyd at the hands of those sworn to protect us is the reality of what Black Americans have been up against for generations — systems of racism that are literally taking the lives of Black men, women and children every day.

Our real estate industry that provides for the creation and preservation of wealth through homeownership has regrettably played a role in the systemic repression of minorities, and for too long, the benefits of homeownership have been intentionally denied to Black Americans. 

The origins of this complex issue began over 400 years ago with the arrival of the first enslaved people from Africa and their mistreatment for the next 200 years as the private property of slave owners.

Then Jim Crow laws sought to remove any political and economic clout of newly freed Black Americans and subsequently led to the institution of racist housing policies such as redlining, steering and blockbusting.

Redlining is a decades-old policy pushed by the Federal Housing Administration, which literally outlined minority neighborhoods on a map in red and denied those areas of federally insured housing loans. (An interactive digital tool from “Mapping Inequality” allows you to see the neighborhoods that were redlined throughout history.) 

Steering is when agents try to suggest or direct clients to or away from particular neighborhoods based on protected characteristics, and blockbusting is the particularly shameful practice by real estate agents of stirring up white fears in order to compel a selling spree in a neighborhood.

These issues of inequality still linger in our present times, where the large gap between white and Black homeownership has remained almost unchanged since the enactment of the Fair Housing Act over 50 years ago. 

The inequity in housing is but a sliver of the injustices facing minorities in our country, but it is emblematic of the long-lasting impact of programs that were specifically designed to keep a group of people enslaved.

So, it’s outrageous, and the height of privilege for some in an industry with a long, dirty history of discrimination against Black people, to suggest that now is the time to remain silent or neutral.

A recent Inman Connect panel featured a discussion regarding whether or not to wade into touchy political topics. I understand the goal of wishing to stay above the fray, so to speak, but some issues transcend the day-to-day political bickering we’re used to. This is a human rights issue.

As Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

One wonders if the insistence to stay neutral would be the same if their own son were the one writhing on the ground with his neck compressed by the knee of a police officer for over 8 minutes, crying out for his mother before dying. Actually, strike that — because nobody wonders that for a second. We all know the reaction would be swift, harsh and unambiguous. 

Imagine a real estate leader saying that they were neutral in the fight for civil rights during the 1960s. How would we judge them today? This is the civil rights fight of this generation. History will remember those who did something as well as those who did nothing. 

I implore all leaders in our real estate industry to stand tall in solidarity with Black Americans rather than slouch back in neutrality. Silence is simply not an option.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

John Graff is a CEO of Ashby & Graff Real Estate in Los Angeles, California. 

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