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Folkways and Stateways: Continuing Dilemmas of Housing, Race, and Place

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 3, 2013
pp. 27-39 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0098

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The collapse of the home mortgage system has left working- and middle-class Americans buried alive in the wreckage, but there may yet be a silver lining. If so, it is that the disaster provides policymakers and scholars an occasion to critically evaluate the inner workings of the private housing market, examine the effects of a deregulated financial services industry, reclaim forgotten social democratic legacies of cooperative housing, and call upon the federal government to rejuvenate its commitment to guaranteeing its citizens affordable, stable, and quality shelter. We potentially also have a teachable moment to again consider the tightly interwoven politics of housing and race. Indeed, the proliferation of subprime mortgages to people of color (which precipitated the larger housing crisis in the first place) illustrated that the issues of economic injustice embedded in predatory housing policies are entirely of a piece with unresolved matters of racial inequality. Housing has served as a powerful pivot for racial exclusion and its concomitant forms, including divergent educational opportunities, health dissimilarities, and a black/white wealth gap.1 If anything, the bursting of the housing market bubble has exacerbated racial wealth disparities, giving white households twenty times the net worth of black households and eighteen times that of Hispanic households.2 “Of all policy areas of civil rights,” argues sociologist Christopher Bonastia, “residential integration has the greatest potential to alter the racial landscape.”3

Conventional wisdom holds that government has no legitimate place “socially engineering” housing markets to pursue racial equality, but casual observers ignore government’s long record of engagement on the opposite end. As scholars such as Bonastia, Arnold R. Hirsch, Thomas J. Sugrue, Robert O. Self, Colin Gordon, Wendell E. Pritchett, and George Lipsitz have documented, national, state, and municipal bureaucracies—from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to the Federal Housing Administration and local public housing agencies—played an active role in sorting neighborhoods by race and class during the early twentieth century.4 Colluding with elected officials and white homeowners’ associations, moreover, they helped protect and reinscribe residential segregation following World War II. As captured in the recent award-winning documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, the consequence was a two-tiered, federally subsidized system of highway construction, suburban homeownership, and entitlements for whites; and urban renewal, public apartment tenancy, and means-tested welfare for African Americans.5 Regardless of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and Jones v. Mayer (1968), the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, antidiscrimination measures by the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the dramatic growth of minority homeownership in recent decades, government has intervened in the housing industry mainly to buttress the “hypersegregation” of residential space.6 Efforts to racially democratize housing, in contrast, have been largely short-lived and piecemeal. Relative to employment and schools, they also remain the least studied as a civil rights topic.7

Thankfully, new civil rights scholarship has brought attention to 1960s-era open housing movements, especially in the North where residential apartheid was an especially violent battlefront of black freedom struggle.8 As this review essay discusses, other recent works have diverged from the focus on restrictive covenants, mortgage redlining, exclusionary zoning, racial steering, blockbusting, and mob action. Specifically, they have challenged the idea that residential discrimination has been uniformly intractable during the postwar period, or that racially integrated communities have been negligible. Some scholars have used historical narrative to redeem the federal government’s record of championing residential integration, while others have looked beyond “white flight” to capture the dynamics of neighborhood transition. Taken together, these projects combine the methods of history, sociological inquiry, and even flashes of memoir. Although these works do not disprove the durability of housing discrimination over time, they do add more texture and nuance to ongoing conversations about the dilemmas of housing, race, and place. Given the exigencies of our contemporary moment, this recent scholarship also presents new possibilities for approaching housing policy—and housing reform—as a means for democratic participation, economic justice, and interracial comity.

As historian Peter Eisenstadt documents in Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City’s...

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