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Know the West

Albuquerque’s racist history haunts its housing market

Policymakers and activists fight to remove pro-segregation, anti-immigrant provisions from property deeds.

 

Five years ago, Albuquerque-born Lan Sena considered purchasing land at the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. She found a property in the Four Hills area, where elegant houses coexist with cholla cactus on rolling hills. A horrifying clause in the property’s covenant nauseated her.

An aerial view of the Northeast Heights community in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1969. Racially restrictive covenants have still been found in the deeds from many properties in this community.
Albuquerque Museum

“When we pulled up the deed of the property, it had that language in there that Asians and African Americans could not live on the land unless they were slaves,” Sena said. She ultimately didn’t buy the land. As the 31-year-old daughter of two Vietnamese refugees who came to the Southwestern city in 1975 and 1981, respectively, through a federal resettlement program, she was deeply offended. In March 2020, Sena was appointed to the city council, the first Asian American ever to hold the position. “We have always been here,” Sena told me. “So when I got into office, I said this (language) was very unacceptable to me and I want it out.”

Racist and restrictive covenants like the one Sena encountered are no longer enforceable owing to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Yet they still appear in the deeds of thousands of households in every part of Albuquerque, according to Stephon L. Scott, senior policy advisor on diversity and inclusion at the National Institutes of Health, whose master’s thesis at the University of New Mexico focused on the city’s racial covenants. Between 1920 and 1960, the town of 15,000 ballooned to become one of the Southwest’s largest metropolises, with around 200,000 people. But as the city grew, its government and early developers introduced racial covenants to scores of the most desirable neighborhoods in order to exclude Asian American, Black and Hispanic American homeowners. These practices, a recent seven-month investigation by local TV station KRQE found, made Albuquerque, like many Western towns, as segregated as the Deep South. 

That discriminatory language persists in property deeds today. After 1968, some Albuquerque title companies omitted restrictions based on race, color or national origin, scrubbing the racist language from their covenants. But many did not. In March, High Country News reviewed 10 property deeds in historically white neighborhoods closings and found that four of them still included racially offensive language from the city’s segregated past.

At the height of the pandemic, Asian Americans who had experienced housing discrimination in historically white neighborhoods were harassed, with strangers telling them to “go back to your country.” Civil rights advocates and state and local policymakers like Sena are now fighting to eliminate the remaining racist covenants, their efforts given new urgency by the recent surge of verbal abuse and violence against Asian people. They worry that the language in the deeds discourages people of color from owning land in the city, reinforcing the bias that Black and Asian Americans don’t belong in the state.

“For New Mexico, we have a long history of these obvious racist practices,” Sena said. “It's dangerous when we single out (a community) or continue these systems of oppression and racism.”

Racially restrictive covenants still exist in the deeds of thousands of households throughout Albuquerque.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, African Americans left the South and journeyed to the territory of New Mexico to homestead on small farms. By the 1880s, over 100 formerly enslaved people had settled in what is now east Albuquerque. Later, the railroad brought Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the sparsely populated land in search of economic opportunity. Many were fleeing California and its anti-Asian racism

By 1920, eight years after statehood, New Mexico was multicultural, home to nearly 6,000 African Americans, about 500 Asian Americans and over 19,000 Indigenous people. Chinese Americans opened laundries, restaurants and grocery stores in downtown Albuquerque, while around 250 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants became successful farmers in southern New Mexico. But white growers resented their increasingly prosperous Japanese American counterparts, and their hatred fueled the agenda of leaders who hoped to make the state racially exclusive and recognizably white, according to a 2013 paper about racial discrimination in the state by Jamie Bronstein, a professor at New Mexico State University. In 1921, voters adopted an “alien landownership” amendment to the New Mexico Constitution. Known as the Alien Land Law, it barred people of Asian descent from owning and leasing real estate.

This Jim Crow-era provision bolstered anti-immigrant hatred in New Mexico. A “whites only” ideology oozed into real estate covenants in New Mexico in the early 1920s as segregated cinemas, hotels, restaurants and residential areas sprang up statewide. Soon, Albuquerque’s downtown Chinese enclave had been erased. During World War II, almost every person of Japanese descent in New Mexico — including those who were brought in from outside of the state to be interned — had been forced into internment camps.

High Country News spoke to three multigeneration Chinese American families who said that from the 1930s to 1960s, real estate agents and neighborhood associations in white-only subdivisions rejected development plans for grocery stores and restaurants that were put forward by people of Asian descent and their “Black brothers and sisters.” “If my great-grandpa were allowed to have land, the Tang family and Chinese Americans could have owned downtown Albuquerque,” said Aimee Tang, a fourth-generation Chinese American resident. Finally, in 1968, the Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination based on race or national origin in real estate sale, rental and financing of housing. But echoes of that racist past lived on.

“Leaving hateful, discriminating, and dehumanizing text in a document — then saying it doesn’t matter because it isn’t relevant anymore — is racist gaslighting.”

It wasn’t until 2002 that a measure to repeal the discriminatory anti-immigrant amendment in the state Constitution went before voters. New Mexicans overwhelmingly voted against it, largely in response to the xenophobia stirred up by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I want to be proud of New Mexico, and this was an insult,” Dora-Linda Wang, a Chinese American psychiatrist who has called New Mexico home for 23 years, told me.

In 2003, Wang decided to do something about it. She coordinated a group of advocates, primarily Asian Americans working in academia and legislative lobbying, to educate policymakers and the public. Beginning in 2004, Wang invited historians, lawyers and then-State Sen. Cisco McSorley, who sponsored the bill for repealing the “alien landownership” amendment, to appear on her TV talk show, Duke City Magazine

In 2006, voters, by a vast margin, approved the second attempt to remove the Alien Land Law from the state Constitution. “Many of us continue to feel it was the most gratifying thing we’ve done in our lives. It was worth it,” Wang told High Country News.

Fifteen years after she helped repeal the Alien Land Law, however, Wang found herself scrolling through threads on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social networking service, in between seeing clients remotely. Several posts caught her attention: Her neighbors were posting their property deeds, which included clauses like “no person of African or Oriental descent shall use or occupy any building or lot for residential purposes.” She realized that her work was not yet finished.

IN 2017, Wang moved to a neat one-story house in Huning Castle, a downtown Albuquerque neighborhood. Every summer, verdant canopies of towering cottonwoods shade her home from the scorching desert sun. She enjoys telling Albuquerque newcomers about the Spanish revival mansion two doors down, which became famous in the popular TV series Breaking Bad as the residence of Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s capricious meth-lab partner.

“I want to be proud of New Mexico, and this was an insult.”

Over 70 years ago, Huning Castle was designated a whites-only neighborhood. Even Wang wasn’t aware of the fact until she read about racially restrictive language in the property deeds shown online. At the closing table, when she purchased her home, the title company removed the racial covenant on her new property. But some of her neighbors weren’t as lucky. One of Wang's neighbors noticed the racist clause, which was still in her deed, and posted about it on Nextdoor, writing, “Leaving hateful, discriminating, and dehumanizing text in a document — then saying it doesn’t matter because it isn’t relevant anymore — is racist gaslighting.”

Tired of watching the news, frustrated by the ongoing police brutalities against African Americans and the rise in violence and “microaggressions” toward people who looked like her, Wang complained about the racial covenants to the Huning Castle Neighborhood Association. “We’ve been trying to make amendments to this relationship since 1964. But, you know, the abuse continues,” Wang told me, speaking from her front porch, where a red chili ristra dangled. “It’s no longer in the laws, but the racial abuse continues to be in the deeds and in the daily attitudes of people.” 

To Wang, the main obstacle to removing the racist language appeared to be the same thing she’d faced when she fought the Alien Land Law: a lack of awareness. At the most recent monthly meeting of her homeowners’ association, Wang brought up the issue, arguing that for her and people who look like her, the issue is not political. “Words matter,” Wang said. The neighborhood association wrote High Country News in an email that it “would support the removal of any and all discriminatory language in property deeds.”

Homes in the Northeast Heights neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1969.
Albuquerque Museum

Currently, New Mexico state Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto and Jerry Ortiz y Pino are drafting a bill that would encourage the removal of all racial covenants. “We need to erase it from who we are,” Ortiz y Pino said. The two senators are reaching out to community leaders like Wang and Sena to learn more about the subject.

“Many call the deeds a dirty little secret. It’s dirty. It’s awful. But for a lot of our Asian Americans, it’s not a secret,” Sena said. “The dangerous language can lead to exactly these policies” — legislation as viciously racist as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. “We’ve learned these lessons in history so that we don’t repeat them.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that among the people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps in New Mexico during World War II, many were brought there from out of state.