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Race, Housing and Privilege, or More Reasons Why Race Still Matters

The United States has a long history of using law and public policy to maintain the dominant power structure and aggregate power in the hands of whites. Much of this has played out in housing; making race and housing intrinsically tied to privilege.

[Image description: An aerial view of a residential neighborhood in a city or first-ring suburb]

Malcolm X stated that segregation and separation had one key difference, “It’s only segregated when it’s controlled by someone from the outside.”

The United States has a long history of using law and public policy to maintain the dominant power structure and aggregate power in the hands of whites. Much of this has played out in housing; making race and housing intrinsically tied to privilege. In this post I will discuss how social structures and individual actions were influential in shaping racial conflict, perpetuating and challenging inequality and establishing boundaries. I will also explore how this influenced our ideas about race, inequality and social justice.

In order to discuss the issues of race and housing I think it must first be established that race is, as James Baldwin stated, not a biological reality, but a political one. Skin color, eye shape and hair texture vary across the globe, but these physical attributes have no meaning in and of themselves, only what we assign to it. We choose which physical attributes are important, organize people according these boundaries and then behave in a way which gives these categories meaning, thus creating races.  Proof of social construction can be found in the fluidity of the meaning we assign to these categories, changing them when it is in the best interest of those in power.

The construction of race as we know it, the institutionalized hierarchy of white over black in the US, began with expansion of European colonialism. As Europeans arrived they brought with them ethnocentric ideals and a hunger for resources which provided the reasoning behind and the motive for deeming indigenous peoples as different and inferior. If they were inferior, then certainly they were justified in wresting control and resources away for their own good.

The European entrance into the Atlantic world, including the U.S., brought slavery. Although slavery had existed in various forms prior to the chattel slavery that came with the Atlantic slave trade, it was chattel slavery’s permanent and transgenerational nature which lead to Africans being identified with slavery. To be black was to be a slave and to be white was to be free, it was the fuel that fed the fire in the already present myth of white superiority in the US.

"Although the idea of slavery seems far removed from the contemporary issue of housing, it is important to note how slavery and the notion of white superiority have influenced our ideas about race and in turn our public policy."

Although the idea of slavery seems far removed from the contemporary issue of housing, it is important to note how slavery and the notion of white superiority have influenced our ideas about race and in turn our public policy. First we must look at the creation and maintenance of racial borders. According to Heather Dalmage, racial boarders are created to protect goods and power and are maintained by “laws, language, cultural norms, images and individual action, as well as by interlocking with other borders, including the nation, religion, politics, sex, gender, race and age (Dalmage, 2006:302).” Racial borders are insidious because they are products of our history and seep into our socialization. They appear to be natural and normal, simply the way things have always been (Dalmage, 2006). Various borders between whiteness and blackness have been established to protect resources and power for whites, such as the legislation of blackness through the one-drop rule, anti-miscegenation laws and the perpetuation of racialized space (established in slavery) through Jim Crow.  Other ways in which the black/white border is maintained is through ideas about success and citizenship.                

In the U.S. homeownership is a sign of success (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Keflas, 2003; Guglielmo, 2004; Maly, 2005). This was especially true for white ethnics in the 1930s. For these white ethnics home ownership was an outward sign of their community, respectability and status in a society which had labeled them as outsiders and “questioned their ability and worth (Hirsch, 1983:188).” It was a way to become American (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996). Here we see the intersection of racial and national borders: to be an American was to be white and middle-class and white middle-class families owned homes. White ethnics did not have complete access to whiteness due to their connection to their ethnicity, such as the language they spoke, their religion and their tight-knit ethnic based communities. Their ability to gain high income jobs was curtailed by language barriers, low education levels, and discrimination on the part of employers.                

White ethnics were largely able to purchase homes due to policy set in place by the government. Following the Great Depression, the Hoover administration identified the housing industry as a way to rebuild the badly bruised economy and went about establishing polices to encourage homeownership (Jackson, 1985).  In 1933 President Roosevelt established the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which introduced the long-term, self amortizing mortgage, which had standardized payments extended over the life of the loan and extended loan life to 20 years (Jackson, 1985). This released the stigma that had been attached to mortgages, in the past middle-class families were expected to purchase a home out-and-out (Jackson, 1985).                

During this time the U.S. was also experiencing the Great Migration, when African Americans arrived in northern cities in droves seeking a new life with more opportunity away from racism in the Jim Crow south (Hirsch, 1983). African Americans would find that segregation and racism was still present in northern cities like Chicago and Detroit.  By 1920 in Chicago 85% of blacks lived in segregated housing in the large ghetto referred to as the South Side Black Belt (Hirsch, 1983).  Blacks also faced barriers to gaining homeownership. In 1939 only 9% of Chicago blacks owned their own home, this is in comparison to 21.7% of whites and 41.3% of foreign born whites who owned homes (Hirsch, 1983). Aside from racist hiring policies which relegated most blacks to low-end service sector positions with little upward mobility, government policy was also largely to blame for the large discrepancy in ownership.                

Home Owner's Lown Corporation (HOLC) created a uniform system of appraising how housing would be eligible for financing. It devised a system where there were four quality categories, labeled with a letter and color: A/green, B/blue, C/yellow and D/red, with A/green being the most favorable.  Housing which was densely populated, racially mixed, non-white racially segregated or aging was devalued under the HOLC system, being labeled D/red. HOLC did not start the practice of considering race and ethnicity in appraisal, real estate agents had a long history of racism, but it did apply notions of racial worth on national scale –influencing various financial and government institutions (Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Maly, 2005).                

The HOLC system was adopted by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which was formed largely to spur home construction as a way to ease unemployment. In 1944 the Veterans Administration (VA) instated the GI Bill,  a program which assisted World War II veterans in purchasing housing after their return to the states by offering federally backed, low interest 30 year mortgages. They also adopted FHA appraisal standards, which included red-lining or labeling racially mixed, or non-white segregated neighborhoods as class D, or red, housing and therefore not eligible for financing or re-financing (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Maly, 2005).                

The adoption of red-lining by the VA and FHA lead to two primary outcomes which created an affirmative action program for whites.

The adoption of red-lining by the VA and FHA lead to two primary outcomes which created an affirmative action program for whites. First, red-lining barred loans in black and mixed neighborhoods--meaning it was essentially useless for black GIs. They could not buy in their current neighborhood, but they also could not move into a white neighborhood because, their presence alone would reclassify the neighborhood. Second, the HOLC, FHA and VA appraisal system devalued older housing stock and only allowed small short-term loans for existing structures, making the purchase of a new home more affordable than the maintenance of an older home. This system resulted in higher purchases in newly developed suburban areas, which due to red-lining and straight-out personal racism on the part of the developers, were overwhelmingly white. As whites began to move into the suburbs, industry moved with them, providing suburban residents with jobs, slowly turning the inner-city into a ghetto (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Maly, 2005).                

This coincided with the Second Great Migration, when a new wave of southern black immigrants arrived in northern cities. The South Side Black Belt was quickly pushed to its limits, as blacks struggled to find housing. Conditions quickly became congested and many middle-class blacks looked to urban white ethnic neighborhoods to purchase homes (Hirsch, 1983). Real estate agents had realized that there was a great deal of money to be made by purchasing houses at low costs from whites and selling them at inflated costs to blacks. Once an African American moved onto a white block, whites would generally flee, selling at lower and lower prices, leaving more profit for agents and speculators. This created the dual housing market (Hirsch, 1983; Maly, 2005).                

For ethnic whites their house was generally their primary investment and core savings, which is why they felt that they had to "protect" their homes from blacks. They knew that property values would drop once an African American moved onto the block and their house would be worth less, but the need to protect their home went beyond money. For these lower-class white ethnics it was their connection to whiteness and “Americaness” through their home ownership that was also being threatened (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Maly, 2005). This lead many whites to act out against blacks with violence, such as the Chicago riots in Fernwood and Englewood (Hirsch, 1983).                 

This era also saw the rise of individual acts aimed at barring blacks from home ownership. One example is restrictive covenants—agreements made by homeowners within a certain neighborhood stating they would not sell to non-whites. Often this included agreeing to not post for sale signs on lawns or advertise in newspapers as an attempt to control who would purchase in the neighborhood. Neighborhood associations often pushed members to police each other and maintain segregation (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Segrue, 1996; Maly, 2005).                 

There also were several neighborhoods which pushed for integration, although this does not mean that they were without prejudice. For example, in integrated Hyde Park (in Chicago, IL) residents used their political clout to bar a housing project from their community because they did not want to live near poor blacks (Hirsch, 1983). Many communities pushed for integration not out of any desire for equal rights, but as a way to stabilize and protect housing prices (Maly, 2005).                

In 1968 congress passed the Fair Housing Act as part of the Civil Rights bill. Unfortunately, this did not lead to the mass integration of housing across the country. Housing remains largely segregated with African Americans having the highest levels of segregation and whites the lowest (Charles, 2003; Maly, 2005). In her 2003 article, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation” Camille Charles discusses that national and local-level studies have found housing discrimination still exists, such as racial steering by real estate agents, and denial of financing based on race. This information is confirmed by Judith DeSenna’s ethnographic study of Greenpoint, where she discusses how the residents set up an informal housing market in order to keep Latinos out of their neighborhood (DeSenna, 1994).                

While organizing this post I made the decision to start with the construction of race so that it would be possible to see how the idea of white superiority (and black inferiority) is the foundation of our institutions and public policy. Throughout our history the U.S. has denied African Americans citizenship, the ability to marry, the ability to learn to read, voting rights and the ability to occupy the same space as whites. Some discount our history and say we must begin our analysis of race and housing after the Civil Rights era, which makes it easy to fall into the trap of colorblind ideology. The problem with this is that it does not take into account the generational accumulation of white wealth and privilege through the denial of equal rights for blacks.                

The creation of the suburbs and FHA loans fashioned an affirmative action program for lower-class whites and white ethnics, allowing them to gain one of the key assets responsible for creating generational wealth: a house. These programs have also maintained segregated black neighborhoods, which have serious restricted the ability of African Americans to gain mobility and improve their life chances (Hirsch, 1983; Jackson, 1985; Charles, 2003). By denying to acknowledge the white privilege that exists because of this, we are perpetuating the myth of white superiority.

We cannot see how our current laws and policy are racist if we refuse to look at how race shaped the past and how a precedent has been created through past legislation, attitudes and beliefs which continue to inform the current moment. This includes our ideas about meritocracy, and the idea that anyone should be able to achieve success. If anyone can achieve the same level of success that most whites have, then for those who do not it is purely their fault—and they alone should bear the stigma attached to failure. This allows whites to maintain power through shaping the hegemonic discourse surround race and success; essentially stating that blacks simply do not work hard enough to gain the same success that whites have. To twist the quote by Baudelaire slightly: the best trick the whiteness ever pulled was convincing the world privilege did not exist.

REFERENCES Charles, Camille Zubrinsky. 2003. “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology. 29:167-207. Dalmage, Heather. 2006. “Finding a Home: Housing the Color Line,” in D. Burnsma (ed), Mixed Messages: Multiracial Identities in the "Color-Blind" Era. Lynne Rienner Publishers. DeSenna, Judith. “Local Gatekeeping Practices and Residential Segregation.” Sociological Inquiry. 64(3): 307-321. Guglielmo, Thomas. 2004. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. Oxford University Press. Hirsch, Arnold. 1983. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. University of Chicago Press. Jackson, Kenneth. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press. Kefalas, Maria. 2003. Working-Class Heroes: Protecting Home, Community, and Nation in a Chicago Neighborhood. University of California Press. Maly, Michael. 2005. Beyond Segregation: Multiracial and Multiethnic Neighborhoods in the U.S. Temple University Press. Sugrue, Thomas. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton University Press.

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