When Your Ethics Are Unethical – A Lesson From History (“Restrictive Covenants,” Including from Right Here in the Heart of Wealthy Dallas)

following accepted rules of behavior : morally right and good


So, here’s a question. What happens when your ethics are unethical? What happens when “following accepted rules of behavior” actually means following utterly unacceptable rules of behavior?

Try this line of thought:

Property values must be protected
Anything that threatens property values must be opposed
It is unethical to do business in a way that threatens property values

Sounds reasonable, “right,” doesn’t it?

But what if it is wrong?

Colby-Some_Of_My_Best_Friends_horizSomething I heard recently sent me combing back through my handout on the book Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America by Tanner Colby. (I presented my synopsis of this book at the Urban Engagement Book Club). I remembered the passage about Hugh Prather, who developed part of Highland Park (that’s the “Wealthy Dallas” I referred to in the title of this post) early in the last century. It was modeled after other developments across the country. So, If I lived in a different city, it would be a different developer and a different development I would have thought of. Across the country, developments put “restrictive covenants” front and center in their legal language. From the book:

Self-perpetuating restrictive covenants soon found their way into… Highland Park north of Dallas,… and many other high-end subdivisions.

The people behind these developments considered the increase of, or at least the protection of, property values to be a major ethical obligation. Nothing was to threaten the value of the property. Nothing! Which led to a code of ethics, developed by the “National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), one of the most powerful trade associations in the country.”

A code of ethics. That is a good thing to have, right? That is a good practice, to establish a code of ethics, for all professionals to follow. Professionals would proudly let it be known that they abided by such a code of ethics. They were safe and reliable, good folks to do business with.

So, here is what was included in their code of ethics (again, from the book):

In 1924 NAREB made racial discrimination official policy, updating its code of ethics to say, “A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood… members of any race or nationality… whose presence will clearly be detrimental to the property values of that neighborhood. Like termites, they undermine the structure of any neighborhood in which they creep.” All of which was legal.

So, it was ethical to practice discrimination; it was unethical to not discriminate.

cover._American_Nations-576x860I am currently reading American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. Here’s a key passage:

Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University formulated the key theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. “Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,” Zelinsky wrote. “Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.”

So, let’s recap.

Property values are to be protected – it is ethical to protect property values; it is unethical to lower, or even threaten, property values.

“Initial colonizers” carry a lot of weight, no matter how many different kinds of people come into a place later…

So, here’s what I ‘m saying. Racism was basically placed in the very ethical DNA in many parts of the country. To allow people from the “wrong race or nationality” to purchase property and move into the neighborhood was potentially “detrimental to the property values.” Thus, it was an unethical practice of any real estate professional to do business with such people. Because the protection of property values provides a higher ethical standard than acceptance of fellow human beings.

And, make no mistake. This had nothing to do with “meritocracy.” If a black person had the means to buy a house in a given neighborhood, they were prohibited from doing so – legally prohibited. It would threaten the property values. (Read the book Some of My Best Friends Are Black. It is a sobering read).

I would call this unethical ethics. Wouldn’t you?

(And, yes, sadly, racism is still present in too many ways in too many places).

Now, here’s the issue for today. Do you think this ethical stance, this “restrictive covenant” practice was wrong? I do. And it has certainly been outlawed. Restrictive covenants are no longer legally allowed (though some have “stayed on the books.”)

But we’re still not to the point. Here’s the point. If those who came before us – people who were smart, well-educated, “pillars of the community” – called such practices “ethical,” and were so wrong (and, they were in fact so very wrong), is it possible that some of our own stances today that we consider “acceptable rules of behavior; ethical” are equally wrong?

My bet is yes. And the pursuit of ethics is all about that quest – identifying our own unethical behavior, even behavior we have not yet realized is unethical.

Here’s my bet. The horror I feel while reading about practices in the early 1900s (practices which lingered well into my own lifetime) will be similar to the horror others feel 100 years from now as they read about some of the practices we follow today.

3 thoughts on “When Your Ethics Are Unethical – A Lesson From History (“Restrictive Covenants,” Including from Right Here in the Heart of Wealthy Dallas)

  1. At Creative Communication Network, we have a very strong 2-hour program on Ethics that is available for your company. It will help you avoid costly lawsuits stemming from unethical practices in the workplace. The cost is only $800 for an unlimited number of participants, and a per-person fee for materials. It is called “Ethical Undergirding in a World of Intentional, even Willful, Blindness.” Send me an e-Mail for an informative flier: info@creativecommnet.com.

  2. Cathy,
    Thanks for your comment. (And, I look forward to seeing you next Friday).

    Here’s a sad reality — many of the very people who supported “restrictive covenants” would quote scripture to back up their view. So, they would have also argued that they followed the “consistent ethical code” of the Bible.
    Needless to say, I’m convinced that they were wrong in how they read scripture.
    I wonder how people misread script today?
    Thanks for reading.

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