As a metro historian, the nexus of racial identity and property (expressed by legal and extralegal forms of segregation) is very important to the work that I and other scholars in my field do. We’ve built on pioneering work by Kenneth Jackson on the federal support for suburbanization and single-family housing since 1934, which laid groundwork for a vast, mostly white, homeowning middle class after World War II. George Lipsitz’s pioneering work on the material basis of white identification and anti-anti-racism among whites relied on a “possessive investment in whiteness” that was, in part, though not in entirety, based on maintaining the material advantages of property that accompanied living in all-white neighborhoods, transmitting those advantages from white-identifying parents to their white-identifying children, and describing the inequalities sustained by this social system as the result of innate deficiencies, generally of the “cultural” sort, on the part of people and families of color. Notable works to adapt this line of inquiry to historical research include David M.P. Freund’s Colored Property, which very effectively argues that the Federal government created a heavily subsidized and purposefully segregated market in residential property. Freund makes a somewhat less successful argument that the social fact of property value supplanted racial prejudice in the minds of suburban whites; in the post-war suburban metropolis, the desire to exclude, Freund contends, came from the desire of white suburbanites to defend the value of their property, independent of their affective disposition toward racial minorities
A problem with this is that one can never really tell how honest the white suburbanites who Freund studies were, even in contemporary documents. A 1957 documentary on the integration of Levittown, PA shows white Levittowners of many dispositions toward the Myerses, the lone Black family that has integrated the community. Some openly express bigotry, others claim to worry about their freedom to associate, others argue that their purchase of a home in a “white” neighborhood constitutes a perpetual contract, and others claim no personal prejudice but fear for the safety of their investment. And others claim they welcome the Myers family without reservation. Among the respondents whose words express “liberal” points of view, or at least deference to an anti-fascist spirit of fair play as a “civic nationalist” American Way, these declarations are often paired with visible verbal and mental gymnastics to conform speech to a set of values perceived to be appropriate, but in fact at odds with both affective and economic interests (SEE BELOW).
This ambiguity, or the polyvalent nature of opposition to integration, is something that we as historians should pay closer attention to. It’s tempting and certainly consistent with the economistic tendency in contemporary academe to focus on the significance of property and the state’s role in maintaining the value of white property. Both in history and in recent months we’ve seen enough evidence that this nexus is hugely significant in maintaining white advantage and disadvantage for people of color.
But I’m less convinced that property is the whole game. In my research on Fulton County, Georgia, I’ve been struck by the significance many affluent suburban whites have seemed to attach to to creating local units of government. In Fulton and neighboring DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties, this move does not always facilitate “good government,” but locally significant narratives about the corruption of county government, which is elected by significant Black constituencies, endure despite the reality that many smaller and recently created governments are, by any objective measure, quite corrupt.
In trying to understand this, we need to supplement the material focus on taxes and property value with attention to what critical race scholar Paula Ioanide in The Emotional Politics of Racism calls an “affective economy” of racism. In other words, white Americans’ responses to increased power that people of color exercise in government, to the increased volume of demands for racial justice, or to increased scrutiny on the unearned privileges of institutionalized whiteness, are guided by emotional investments in whiteness. Regardless of the manifest facts of white advantage, real or symbolic gains for people of color may cause whites (or other persons who identify with hegemonic whiteness) to believe that
if they don’t do something, they will soon lose all the signposts by which they have constituted the value of their properties and personhoods. (28)
Do these emotional investments help to answer the question
How can people who possess so much believe themselves to be victims? (28)
These are questions that Ioanide addresses through a set of social and mediated spectacles involving law and order, police violence, and terrorism, in which white privilege at the scale of the body and the nation is implicated. I’m interested to think a bit more on how these kinds of investments are reflected in the history of metropolitics.
I recently heard from David Freund by email, and he expressed some disagreement with the way that I summarized his argument about the relationship between the political economy of property and white racial consciousness. I think that he was right, and that I flattened what is a considerably more complex argument in the course of summarizing it. In the spirit of clearing up any misunderstanding, I’m posting some of David’s words here, because I think they are (unsurprisingly) the most apt summary of the second argument.
I argue that a racially-specific concept of property value–institutionalized and widely embraced by a range of public and private actors–allows whites to participate in a racist culture and political economy while convincing themselves that they are not “racist.” In other words, whites’ racial “dispositions” are clearly racist, but collapsed in and obscured by a political economy that claims to be about property, not race. Property value is racially constructed.
Point taken. Colored Property is worth a read because it so thoroughly documents how post-WWII racism grew from and was dependent on this foundation of a state-created political economy of property and housing finance, rather than atavistic group conflicts or affinities. And, in light of David’s critique, I’d like to state that part of the power of this analysis is it shows that the political economy of property (which includes the material and affective rewards many whites realized through property) contained multitudes, including committed racial bigots who found property value a useful rhetorical device to justify exclusion or hostility, sincere racial liberals who might recognize in general terms the injustice represented by the exclusion of nonwhites from the new suburban prosperity, but nonetheless eagerly took their piece of the suburban dream and frequently balked at legal or political demands for fair housing that intruded on their economic privilege, and many with material and affective attachments to their property that are more difficult to peg and might be known only to themselves.
Indeed, the Levittown documentary I referred to above is powerful because, although its producers intended it as a rebuke of the suburb’s overt bigots, the story it tells subverts its own human-relations perspective (familiarity can ease tension by revealing how middle-class Black families are similar to middle-class white families, children will learn to coexist without prejudice, intermarriage will be rare) by exposing how the deeply institutionalized political economy of property influences the rhetoric and action of all members of a community in the direction of exclusion even when overt expressions of bigotry are relatively rare.
In other words, the key marker of “racism” is not what whites say, but the combination of words, actions, and institutionalized policies that make it more difficult for non-whites to obtain and enjoy federally subsidized home ownership, social status as homeowners, and home equity as a financial asset.