Wilt Chamberlain SF Warriors

Those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area often like to think of this region as a bastion of enlightenment, a place where bigotry and intolerance have been largely banished. It’s easy to forget that, to the extent that this enlightened self-image is true, it’s a relatively new development.

I’m reminded of this because of an item in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle (behind a paywall, alas, so no link) about basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, who played for the San Francisco Warriors in the early ‘60s. Chamberlain dominated the game like no player had done before and very few have done since, setting scoring records by the barrelful. On the court, it seemed he could do nearly anything.

What he couldn’t do was buy a home in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Heights neighborhood. The developer who refused to sell Chamberlain the house told the Chronicle, “I feel interracial mixing of neighborhoods devalues property. Negroes tend not to have enough money… Frankly, as a group, I can’t say I like them very much. But individually I like them.” Yikes.

That was in 1963, before fair housing laws began to reduce (but certainly didn’t eliminate) discrimination in home sales.

So what does this ugly incident from 50 years ago have to do with today? Two thoughts:

First, historically speaking, 50 years is nothing. This was America within the lifetimes of many of us, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Second, the damage lingers. While the financial harm to a wealthy and prominent athlete may not have been huge, nearly all of the millions of Americans of color who routinely suffered this sort of discrimination weren’t wealthy or famous. By systematically being kept out of the most desirable neighborhoods, they were denied one of the most fundamental avenues for building wealth that could be passed on to their kids. The legacy lives on in today’s continuing (and appalling) racial wealth gap, which seems only to be getting worse.

The past may be gone, but its effects are not.