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I was reading the article "Respectful code" on the JavaScript engine V8's website and found it surprising that the term "redline" is an example of terminology to be avoided. Why is this? What disrespectful meanings could "redline" have?

I tried searching online, but I only seem to find references that suggest it refers to the maximum designed operating speed of an engine, which seems like an unlikely reason for its inclusion on this list.

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  • Is your question answered by the dictionary definition (or Wikipedia article) for "redlining"? If not, please edit to say why.
    – Laurel
    Sep 2, 2023 at 14:27
  • @Laurel It is answered by that article. But I didn't ask about "redlining", I asked about "redline". I didn't think to search for the former when I read the latter.
    – Newbyte
    Sep 2, 2023 at 14:29
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    redline is also a legal term in proofing legal texts. Just saying...
    – Lambie
    Sep 2, 2023 at 16:37

4 Answers 4

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Not so much disrespectful, but loaded: redlining is a legal term that comes with some baggage.

As Cornell explains,

Redlining can be defined as a discriminatory practice that consists of the systematic denial of services such as mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to residents of certain areas, based on their race or ethnicity. Redlining disregards individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness to refuse such services, solely based on the residency of those individuals in minority neighborhoods; which were also quite often deemed “hazardous” or “dangerous.”

In 1989, J. Robert Hunter's prepared statement in an insurance-related Congress proceeding included the following:

In your study of this issue, you will hear and see the word "redlining" over and again. I think it behooves each of us to be clear about the meaning of this emotionally laden word when we use it.

My definition of redlining is simple. By redlining I mean unfair discrimination in the availability, price, benefits or quality of insurance for a class of consumers based on factors outside the control of the consumer. Redlining is not only geographic; it includes unfair discrimination based on race, gender, age, income level, value of home, age of home or other characteristics that the consumer cannot change.

So the term has been considered fraught since the '80s, it would seem. Presumably, they are telling you to avoid redline because of its association with systemic racism.

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    we might note it was fraught for those being discriminated against for many decades before that. The 1980s might be when those on the side that benefited started to have a little guilt
    – Mike M
    Sep 3, 2023 at 11:37
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    Is this meaning specific to the USA? Here in the UK, I don't think I've ever come across it before. (The only verb meaning I recall indicates speed — the speedometer needle reaching the red line indicating the vehicle's maximum speed. Noun meanings also include general limits/boundaries that shouldn't be crossed, but nothing as specific as in this answer.)
    – gidds
    Sep 4, 2023 at 18:54
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    Yes I'm pretty sure the red-lined zones mentioned in the answer from Henry are US-centric. I've never heard of something similar in Australia. The equivalent would be using postcodes to determine loan eligibility (rather than risk factors such as income etc) Sep 5, 2023 at 0:53
  • @gidds, yes, in the UK rev counters and negotiating demands are far more likely, because our discriminatory terms are different. It might just about be acceptable to talk about redlining the CPU (e.g. a comment "This loop causes the CPU to redline"), as in running it flat out, however that might be too colloquial to be helpful in an international forum. Something similar is the case with "segregated" infrastructure; in the UK this is the standard term for separate pedestrian/bike/car facilities, but in the US the racial meaning dominates. so internationally there's a move to avoid it
    – Chris H
    Sep 5, 2023 at 8:07
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The term comes originally from residential lending and insurance maps, where different zones would be outlined in different colors, and those deemed highest risk would be outlined in red. People living in red-lined zones might either be charged substantially higher interest or premiums, or not be offered loans or insurance at all.

The red-lined zones were typically those with residents with lowest incomes and, while generally not specifically targeted racially, would inevitably have disproportionately many residents from poorer ethnic groups. Redlining then became associated with systematic discrimination. As such, it became a trigger word.

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    Except that the usage of the word "originally" is inaccurate — that usage is newer by at least several decades than the one of "exceed the maximum safe speed or power".
    – hobbs
    Sep 3, 2023 at 4:22
  • @hobbs - I suspect the first usage may be lining something with red cloth, for example in a 1885 usage of redlining in an advertisement for an invalid chair. But that is not relevant to the original meaning here of drawing a red line (or to the meaning with a rev counter/tachometer of reaching a red line).
    – Henry
    Sep 3, 2023 at 9:12
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It probably refers to the following context:

Redline:

Context: Redlining refers to the discriminatory practices during the Jim Crow era (1877-1964) that sectioned off particular areas within cities based on race and then did not fund those areas nor include them in government-driven programs that helped communities flourish.

University of Arizona

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Redlining often, but not always, means illegal discrimination against Black people in American English. This is something you might want to be aware of as a developer. If, for example, you are evaluating borrowers, you do not want to refer to a risk cutoff as a “redline,” as that could be taken as evidence of illegal racial discrimination. (Similar to how climate scientist Phil Jones became the center of a conspiracy theory when someone hacked his email, found one where he referred to a method of correcting some data as a “trick,” meaning clever method, and quoted it out of context as an admission of scientific fraud.)

The Collins dictionary has separate definitions for redline in American English. It gives a number of meanings in American English:

to treat by redlining (an area or neighborhood)

to establish the recommended safe speed of (an airplane)

to draw a canceling red line through (an item on a list)

to mark or designate for cancellation, rejection, dismissal, or the like

to cause (an airplane) to be grounded

to engage in redlining

(Of automobiles) the maximum rotational speed, or angular velocity, of the engine crankshaft that is considered safe: often measured in rpm

a red line or boundary of a red area that delineates such a value, as on a tachometer

The primary (and also the sixth) definitions refer to the definition of redlining: which quotes several different ones from other dictionaries, including both a more neutral one:

the systematic refusal by some lending institutions or insurance companies to issue mortgage loans or insurance on property in certain neighborhoods regarded by them as deteriorating

and one that, to an American reader, strongly implies racial discrimination:

a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas, esp. inner-city neighborhoods

Merriam-Webster gives two different definitions that have to do with lending:

to withhold home-loan funds or insurance from neighborhoods considered poor economic risks

to discriminate against in housing or insurance

It dates this last usage from the debate over the Fair Housing Act (more formally, Titles VIII–IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1968).

There are other uses of the phrase “red line,” but these are always written as two separate words in Standard English. In spoken American English, “redline” would normally have the stress on red and “red line” on line, so “sewing over the red lining” would sound different from “suing over the redlining” because of the stress pattern, and not only the first syllable.

Encyclopedia Brittanica’s article on “Redlining” is a good example of the strongly pejorative connotation:

redlining, illegal discriminatory practice in which a mortgage lender denies loans or an insurance provider restricts services to certain areas of a community, often because of the racial characteristics of the applicant’s neighbourhood. Redlining practices also include unfair and abusive loan terms for borrowers, outright deception, and penalties for prepaying loans. The term redlining came about in reference to the use of red marks on maps that loan corporations would use to outline mixed-race or African American neighbourhoods.

A good historical example of such a map is this one from Syracuse, NY in 1919. On it, City Engineer Henry C. Allen wrote “NEGRO” across the Black neighborhood on East Water St., and colored those blocks solid red. These red-colored or red-lined maps became even more prevalent and important during the Great Depression, when the federal government began underwriting most mortgages in the United States, as it still does to this day. From the Federal Reserve’s official history page:

The [Federal Housing Administration] was tasked with insuring "economically sound" loans, as part of an overhaul of the system of residential mortgage finance that had been decimated by the Depression. The FHA began redlining at the very beginning of its operations in 1934, as FHA staff concluded that no loan could be economically sound if the property was located in a neighborhood that was or could become populated by Black people, as property values might decline over the life of the 15- to 20-year loans they were attempting to standardize. For example, the FHA's 1938 Underwriting Manual emphasized the negative impact of "infiltration of inharmonious racial groups" on credit risk. To limit that risk, it recommended restrictive covenants that prohibit "the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended," which had become increasingly common in the 1920s. For the next few decades, the FHA generally favored loans on new construction in suburban areas rather than urban areas with older housing stocks or Black residents.

The term is also applied retroactively to private-sector racial exclusion, such as the National Association of Real Estate Boards, whose 1950 code of ethics stated, “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.”

After overt racial discrimination in mortgage lending was outlawed in 1968, the word “redlining” shifted to mean more subtle forms of racial discrimination, such as Bill Dedman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning series of articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1980s, showing that banks gave five times more loans to White neighborhoods than to Black ones, even when the latter had higher incomes, better education and lower turnover. (This article from 1989 uses “Redlining” in the headline as a synonym for illegal housing discrimination, and assumes its audience in the southern U.S. is familiar with it.)

Redlining was also used to refer to all risky neighborhoods—not only the ones that were deemed risky solely because Black people lived there—and so the word has also been used for excluding poor neighborhoods in general. But people who claim that intentional racial discrimination was not a matter of systematic policy, and all that was going on was neutral risk-assessment, are in denial.

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