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  • Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America by Dianne Harris
  • E. Culpepper Clark (bio)
LITTLE WHITE HOUSES: HOW THE POSTWAR HOME CONSTRUCTED RACE IN AMERICA By Dianne Harris. 2013. Architecture, Landscape, and American Culture Series. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. 392 pages. $120 cloth, ISBN 978-0-8166-5332-4. $39 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-8166-5456-7.

In prose both lucid and limpid, Dianne Harris casts light on the construction of race and privilege through spatial dimensions of culture, house, and garden, and provides a picture window to material culture in mid-twentieth century America. The window opens onto a parade of homes and gardens from 1945 to 1960, as the illustrations accompanying the text feel like a docentled stroll through the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibits on design. The narrator’s voice masters all three of Jürgen Habermas’s “interests” in knowledge: the technical/empirical through a brilliant use of contemporary sociology to explain fifties thinking and behavior; the historical/hermeneutical to give the story context; and critical/point-of-it-all, showing how spatial and material manifestations of architecture and design reify notions of race.

Harris claims not to be an ethnographer, although she uses her grandparents’ house in Van Nuys, California, the San Fernando Valley, as case in point to open each chapter. Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1933, Rudolph and Eva Weingarten secure their post-war future in a house that modeled the era. These introductions of Rudy and Eva’s home connect reader to author in compelling ways. While the author also claims not to be a regionalist, she also sustains that purpose throughout.1 [End Page 197]

Critical theory is a way of knowing that allows Harris to see the material world as persuasive discourse; the designs of both homes and gardens are definite, if hidden persuaders, hiding in open sight. Thus the spatial and material is not only rhetorical, i.e. persuasive, but—as critical race theorists would emphasize—the very “whiteness” they instantiate is beyond the capacity of most whites to see, much less acknowledge. Indeed, it is rare for those who are privileged to see their preferment as other than an earned dividend, not an entitlement of color. Harris also demonstrates that whiteness is defined as much, perhaps even more, by what it is not: the “other” or nonwhites, bringing to mind the virtuous Pharisee in the temple thanking God that he is not like the lowly publican tax collector.

As Harris sees it, the “other” was not exclusively race, religion or ethnicity, important as those indicators are. For example, her grandparents aspired to whiteness and attained it despite their marginal status as German/Hebrew speaking Jews. What made one “nonwhite” was other attributes as much associated with class as with race. People who lived in tenements or public housing or impoverished neighborhoods were more intimately acquainted with dirt, perceived as unclean; their living quarters were cluttered, not neat; they lived on top of each other, lacked privacy, lacked running water, often lacked toilets and most other amenities of a consumer society. In short, they were have-nots. “The little white houses” of Harris’s book would reverse the image for those fortunate enough to own one.

Enter home builders, architects, advertisers and marketers, bureaucrats and bankers. The initial upsurge was tentative. The first little white houses were indeed little—750 square feet—but provided a place for veterans to live. From these “salt boxes,” so necessary for returning veterans, America and its spatial ideals emerged and evolved. By 1950 the square footage leapt to 1000 and would rise with L-shaped houses to 1400, then on to split levels, each move requiring more design and architects. FHA loans—and, after 1948, illegal codes—steered white residents to this cornucopia of housing. So from the beginning, architecture and design was interlarded with policy, promotion and capitalism, the architects and designers taking 60 × 100 lots and squeezing white values into white space, all reinforced by media.2

Media enlarged all the other components of house and garden. NBC’s “Home” was a TV magazine show not much differentiated yet from...