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Restrictive covenants

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Description: Private agreements or contracts meant to deny a privilege, usually housing, on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity.


Significance: The Supreme Court limited, then banned, restrictive covenants, helping reduce housing discrimination.


A common practice in Northern and Western cities, restrictive covenants were a prime example of de facto segregation practices. Typically the covenants required buyers not to resell their homes to African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jews, or other ethnic/racial groups not wanted in the neighborhood or community, allowing builders to create all-white suburbs and schools. Initially, the Supreme Court permitted restrictive covenants on the grounds that the court had no jurisdiction over private property transfers. The Court took its first step toward limiting restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), in which it ruled that states that enforced restrictive covenants were liable to be prosecuted for civil rights violations even if the individual homeowners were not. In Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), the Court rejected the legality of restrictive covenants under the provisions against discrimination in sale or rental of property to African Americans found in the Civil Rights Act of 1866. In banning covenants, Mayer also cited the enforcement clause of the Thirteenth Amendment, which gave Congress the authority to determine and eliminate the “badges and incidents of slavery.” The case also legitimized the Title VIII provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which guaranteed housing rights regardless of race or ethnicity.