Third Act's Working Groups are at the beginning of a racial justice pilot project; below is an excerpt from one of our most recent sessions.

Together, Bill McKibben, founder of Third Act, and Wayne Hare, founder and executive director of The Civil Conversations Project, tell the story of how race, climate, housing, and economic justice are tightly woven together, making clear what kinds of emancipation are still required. 

It’s work, of course, that we’re all engaged in, as we push for a stronger democracy (especially against racialized voter suppression) and a cooler planet (since climate change hurts the most vulnerable humans the hardest).

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


I follow the news around climate change constantly. And so not long ago I was leafing through the latest issue of Current Opinion in Nephrology and Hypertension (a journal for kidney doctors), because cases of kidney disease are going up due to higher temperatures, increased sweating, and dehydration.

But here’s what struck me: They had some interesting data about the temperatures in American cities, and they connected it to something you might be familiar with called redlining. Back in the 1930s, the federal government drew lines around minority neighborhoods, essentially limiting further investments in those areas. 

These were places that just steadily deteriorated as a result of federal policy. Each neighborhood was graded from A to D. When you visit those neighborhoods that were given a D grade a century ago, you’ll notice a significant difference in temperature. Due to the lack of investment, there are fewer parks and trees, which has led to much higher temperatures in those areas. And when I say “way higher,” I mean, way higher.

In comparison, the neighborhoods that received an A grade in the 1930s now have an average temperature that is 8°F lower than the city’s overall mean temperature. On the other hand, the neighborhoods that received a D grade have an average temperature that is 4.8°F hotter.

So, we’re looking at a 12°F temperature difference in these neighborhoods because of the racist policies enacted by the federal government a century ago. But it’s not just history. In my recent book, I dove into the real estate market and how it shapes our economy. Did you know that the total value of real estate in the United States is a staggering $33 trillion? That’s more than the combined GDP of the US and China. It’s mind-boggling.

The connection between race, climate, housing, and economic justice is undeniable, and we need to address these systemic issues head-on.

Wayne actually has a picture of the house that I grew up in, located in the suburbs of Boston. My parents bought it in 1970 for $30,000, which in today’s money is about $200,000. It was as simple and standard a suburban tract home as it was possible to imagine. 

The house that Bill grew up in, Lexington, MA.

That $200,000 investment in 1970, by the time that it was last sold––exactly the same house––over 50 years ago, skyrocketed to a value of $1.2 million in today’s currency. So that staggering $1 million gain came from nothing other than being on the escalator at the beginning. Right place, right time.

And of course, there were lots of people who couldn’t be on the escalator as it began to dramatically rise to the top, either because there were places where segregation kept them from, or in places like the suburbs of Boston, because people lacked the means to participate. People of color. Why? Well, because of things like that red lining all those decades before or the fact that when the federal government adopted Social Security in the 1930s, it exempted domestic workers and farmers: the two largest categories of Black workers at that time.

So people didn’t have retirement income the way that my parents and grandparents did from social security. That’s why the racial wealth gap in our country has continued to widen over these years. So it’s really important that we talk about equal protection under the law.

But it’s equally crucial to seriously address our history and how we got to where we are today and how to begin making amends One small piece of good news is that in this town where I grew up, Lexington, earlier this year became the first of the Boston suburbs to announce that it was rezoning in order to allow fairly substantial multi family homes for the first time. 

But if you think that battle’s won, then you’re wrong. Most of the suburbs in Boston haven’t taken such steps yet. Just last week, in the New York State budget discussions in Albany, a bill was defeated because suburban homeowners in Westchester and Long Island opposed the idea of multi-family housing.

They put up too much political heat and the legislators in Albany couldn’t stand up to it. This fight is ongoing, and it’s why it’s such a pleasure now to turn things over to Wayne, who understands this history in deep powerful detail. And he’s gonna tell us a couple of stories that are incredibly fascinating and important. Over to you brother!


Hey Bill, thanks for kicking us off. Your latest book did a bang up job describing institutional racism. I think that’s a question people have like, well, what is institutional racism? And you brought it right down to housing. 

And I’m so glad that you did, because housing is everything. I’m super pleased you brought up the fact that the formerly redlined areas in cities tend to be much hotter. I only came across that information about six years ago when I read an article in High Country News.  

It’s astonishing how, in this country, when you dig deeper into any issue that seems to go against the best interests of the nation, you often find race. Who would have thought that peeling back the layers and asking, “Why are these places so damn hot?” you would find redlining?

Ferguson, MO

I chose to start with Ferguson because we’re all familiar with it, and it conjures up a particular image in our minds. Several years ago, I had this idea to go on a winter adventure, so I hopped into my pickup truck and drove all the way to Vermont to go ice climbing. It was a lot of driving for not much ice climbing, but during my journey, I made a stop in Ferguson. It was late at night, and in hindsight, asking a cop for directions might not have been the best decision. 

But the next day, there I was, standing in the very spot where Michael Brown was shot. I had always pictured a typical inner city, but in daylight I saw that it was quite attractive. It really took me by surprise. Ferguson, what we all think of as a Black city, is really a suburb. And not very long ago––into the sixties––it was a sundown town. 

Sign from a “Sundown Town” that reads: “Whites only within city limits after dark”

Sundown towns had signs on the edge or actual barriers across the street, oftentimes way cruder than this one, and Blacks could come into town and spend their money, and if you weren’t out by sundown, you didn’t want to pay the consequences.

Lamar Williams, one of Ferguson’s first Black residents.

But they were pretty clear in Ferguson that they didn’t want anybody other than white people. And how that changed is the story of the turmoil that has shaped Ferguson today.

So these housing projects were in Saint Louis. They typically would go into an integrated community, bulldoze it, and  put up these buildings. Interestingly, they were intended for both Black and white residents, with separate buildings made for each group. You can tell the Black side from the white side, because there’s open and green spaces on the white side. 

Housing projects in Saint Louis, MO. You can tell the Black from the white buildings because of the open, green spaces on the white site.

The United States government began building housing projects at exactly the same time as suburbs developed. And so today’s conversation is largely to help us grasp that the segregation of towns and white flight was not solely a result of individual prejudice and bigotry, but rather a systematic creation fueled by conditions and laws at the state, local, and federal levels.

Now let’s look at Grosse Pointe. I’m gonna guess that white people live in this house. Not only do they have large lots and homes due to zoning, but they also employ another strategy on the outskirts of town, specifically in Black communities.

Grosse Pointe, MI

This is a Black Detroit town situated near heavy industries, a sight typically absent in white areas. These industries effectively serve as boundaries for Black neighborhoods, making them less desirable places to live and causing home values to diminish.

Outside of Detroit, MI

Moving on to Interstate 880 in Oakland, CA, not far from there is 580. 880 runs through West Oakland, permitting a significant volume of diesel truck traffic, with around one and a half million trucks passing through every year.

Interstate 880 in Oakland, CA. One and a half million diesel trucks pass through every year.

Just a few miles away, in the town of San Leandro, which is 99% white. And guess what they prohibit in San Leandro? These massive diesel trucks.

This stark contrast serves to increase the value and desirability of the white area while devaluing and making the Black area less desirable. As intentional laws and zoning take their toll on these Black communities, we also witness the departure of businesses that contribute to the local economy and provide employment opportunities. In their place, less desirable businesses are given the green light to establish themselves.

I’m going to propose that when you’re left only with liquor stores, it’s not so conducive to a well functioning community. Pawn shops and payday loan businesses also make their presence known. The average annual interest rate at a pawn shop is 200%, while payday loans come with an average interest rate of 400%, where borrowers commit their next paycheck to pay off the loan. Clearly, this is not beneficial for residents facing financial hardship. These types of businesses are not found in places like Grosse Pointe.

Another thing is the 1956 Federal Highway Act, which was the largest Public Works Act in history. Originally, it was intended to provide easy access for white suburban homeowners to travel into the city for shopping, work, and conducting business. It was proposed to link 42 state capitals in 90% of all cities with populations of  50,000 or more. It’s hard to imagine a country without interstates today, but prior to 1956, there were no such highways.

Interstate highways were deliberately constructed through Black neighborhoods

These interstate highways were deliberately constructed through Black neighborhoods, creating massive concrete barriers that physically separated the white side of town from the Black side. This intentional division made it difficult, if not impossible, for residents to travel between the two areas. As a result, the Black side of town became less desirable and its property values declined.

Let’s talk about this guy, Robert Moses, the infrastructure czar of New York City and the director of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee. Those two positions are contradictory. He gained a great deal of prestige and power all across the city, and he was very clear in his directives: “ram those highways right through the cities, do not go around.” 

Robert Moses, infrastructure czar of New York City and the director of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), informally referred to this program as “getting rid of the local *** town.” Alfred Johnson, pictured here, lobbied to get rid of the Black sections of cities.

Alfred Johnson lobbied to get rid of the Black sections of cities

Over a million Black Americans were displaced, given a 30-day notice to leave as bulldozers arrived. There was no help whatsoever to get them into new housing. What happened is those million black Americans just crowded into existing Black neighborhoods, exacerbating overcrowding and making them even less desirable places to live.

When I was learning about redlining, I used to think that the FHA was a bunch of racist bankers, but after World War II, they launched a major initiative to build the middle class. They financed housing subdivisions across the country, offering programs that brought housing prices down to around double the average annual salary.

For instance, these houses in New York back in the 1950s were sold for $8,000, while the average American salary was $4,000. It’s a dream for many of us to be able to afford a house for twice our annual income, but finding such opportunities is nearly impossible nowadays.

Levittown, NY in the 1950s

The FHA became the mortgage lender and insurer in the 1950s. Subdivisions like Levittowns, named after William Levitt, were constructed all over the country. However, the FHA explicitly stated that these homes were exclusively for “Caucasians.” These white-only suburbs were tools for generating wealth available only to white individuals.

For instance, this home in a 1950s Levittown was priced at $8,000. Fast forward to the 2000s, and these homes in the same area now cost around $400,000. They look a little better. White people ought to be chagrined when the Supreme Court ends affirmative action here in a couple of weeks.

A former 1950s Levittown in the 2000s

Not only were Black people unable to live in these areas due to mortgage restrictions, but the FHA also required restrictive covenants. One covenant explicitly stated that the property could never be sold, leased, or mortgaged to anyone of the Negro race or anyone married to a person of the Negro race. Such agreements were mandated by the federal government and included as part of the closing documents.

Documentation of an historic FHA covenant


Another document that reads: No property in said Addition [a house] shall at any time be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons not of the White or Caucasian race. No person other than one of the White or Caucasian race shall be permitted to occupy any property in said Addition or portion thereof or building thereon except a domestic servant actually employed by a person of the White or Caucasian race where the latter is an occupant of such property.

We ended up with segregated neighborhoods not only because white people desired it, but also because our government actively created these conditions. The map illustrates a typical red line, with red indicating areas where mortgages were unavailable, while green represented areas deemed suitable for loans.

Redlined map


This was not like just some casual thing that someone sat down and did one day. This was all across America at a really granular level of detail, block by block, figuring out what the good parts were that we wanted to support and the bad parts that we wanted to degrade. 

When people talk about systemic racism, this was about as systemic as it was possible to get. And remember they were doing this in the days before you had GPS and computers; the amount of effort involved in doing this was astonishing.


The FHA justified their actions by claiming that Black neighborhoods were poorly maintained, suggesting that the presence of Black people would devalue the area. Richard Nixon even coined a term for it, benign neglect. A ghetto isn’t necessarily a slum, right? They ghettoized Black people by herding them into specific areas, and then they intentionally turned off services. So, garbage collection, pothole repair, emergency services, and so on were nonexistent or slow. Streetlights went to pot.

In 1970, Lyndon Johnson formed a committee to figure out why Black people were so damn pissed off. And this fellow Adele Allen, who had moved into a white town adjacent to Ferguson, testified:

I don’t know if the police were protecting me, protecting someone from me; we have patrols on the hour. Our streets were swept neatly monthly. Our trash pickups were regular and handled with dignity. The street lighting was always up to par. 

But now that Kirkwood is Black, we have the most inadequate lighting in the city. People from other sections of town leave their cars parked on our streets when they want to abandon them. What they are making is a ghetto in the process.

So the federal government looked at the factors victimizing residents of these towns, but instead of addressing the underlying issues, they used them as an excuse to prohibit mortgages in these neighborhoods. 

Furthermore, national, state, and local realtor organizations would revoke a realtor’s license for selling a home in a white area to a Black family.  I would call that institutionalized racism.

Additionally, in those days, many well-paying jobs were unionized. However, unions actively barred Black individuals from joining their ranks, and the federal government sanctioned these unions to speak for workers.

Unions previously barred Black individuals from joining their ranks

Now we’re in Portland, Oregon. This is called the Albina district of Portland. It was white, then it went Black, and the government stopped investing in it. It reached a point where you could buy a home for the same price as a used car.

Albina, OR impacted by divestiture


This is Albina today, after it was gentrified.

Albina, OR after gentrification

The cycle of decline is evident: Inner city services are gradually withdrawn, resulting in a decline in the neighborhood’s quality. The residents are blamed for the deterioration, leading to banks and investors pulling out and divesting from the community. This further exacerbates the downward spiral: established businesses leave and others of lesser quality take their place. As a consequence, crime rates tend to rise, home values plummet and property taxes suffer.


And when property taxes suffer, schools suffer. So now all of this leads to poorer quality schools and educational opportunities. People don’t have the credentials and the knowledge to get into college, so their job prospects suffer.

They stay at lower economic levels, returning to the same neighborhood they were trying to escape, and then it’s wash, rinse, and repeat.

And here we are, back at the beginning of our conversation. That’s why housing is so important

Some actions that came out of our group discussion:

  • Attend local planning meetings to promote fair and affordable housing.
  • Speak up and call out racism when it is recognized.
  • Punch back hard against politicians who use race as a campaign platform.
  • Promote low-income housing instead of affordable housing for middle-class individuals.
  • Consider ways to enable home ownership for lower income families to promote wealth transfer.
  • Connect issues of race and classism to build more powerful and intersectional movements.
  • Support ongoing efforts to allow multifamily housing for affordable housing options.
  • Participate in the Power Up Communities campaign to address racial and environmental justice in local energy commissions.
  • Continue to deepen the conversation and build personal and organizing skills to mobilize collective action.