Spokane racial covenants case heard by Washington Supreme Court

Oct 21, 2021

The Washington State Supreme Court Temple of Justice Building.
Credit Flickr Commons

Some homes in Spokane, and throughout the country have language in their deeds forbidding anyone who isn’t white from buying them.

It’s now illegal to enforce those covenants, but often the language is still there.

Yesterday the Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a homeowner in Spokane is allowed to remove racist language from his deed.

When Alex May moved to the Comstock neighborhood in Spokane and closed on his home, he discovered his house, as well as those around it, had racially restrictive covenants. The builder of his 1953 house forbid non-white people from buying it.

May went to court and tried to have the language struck from his deed. The county argued the county auditor doesn’t have the authority to alter a property’s title.

May appealed his case, all the way up to the state Supreme Court.

Justices, including Justice Mary Yu, questioned whether removing a covenant from a deed could be seen as an attempt to rewrite history.

"In terms of the implications of complete removal," she said, "doesn’t that somehow erase the fact that white supremacy existed?”

Yajaira Lujano, a Gonzaga University law clinic intern who is representing May, argued removing covenants doesn’t erase history, and says leaving them is harmful.

"We posit that these instruments with racially restrictive covenants are the tools that whitewash history," she said, "They're confining spaces to only one race, thereby whitewashing that space. So no we do not believe that eradicating these titled deeds necessarily removes the stain it has had on this country."

John Grasso, an attorney representing Spokane County in the case, says auditors are legally barred from “obliterating” or altering records and says new law that recently went into effect requiring homeowners to be informed if they have racist covenants, doesn’t expand their power.

Washington State Supreme Court opinions on cases are usually published three to six months after the parties argue their case.