The Burning House: How Federal Housing Programs Failed Black America (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: racism, housing, urban history, wealth gap, Department of Housing and Urban Development

Marcia Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America and South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. She teaches history at Georgetown University.



The reenergized movement against anti-Black violence ignited by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others, has inspired the reading public to turn to texts that can explain exactly how we got here. Reading lists abound with everything from histories of slavery to self-help guides on white privilege and allyship. Yet few engage with the histories of urban inequality and policing that shed light on how reporting someone using a possibly counterfeit $20 bill at an urban corner store set in motion the public execution of a Black man or how a series of alleged suburban break-ins emboldened neighborhood vigilantes to murder a jogger or why a deadly police raid authorized by a controversial no-knock warrant is entwined with a city’s rapacious gentrification plans.

The nation’s rootedness in slavery and the way white Americans have galvanized the privileges afforded them are critical to understanding the problem of race in America, but so too is the history of housing and racism in American cities. Property and racial inequality have been bound up together so tightly and for so long that we often miss the relationship, and yet we cannot understand police brutality in the United States without it. When the king of a gentrified castle doesn’t care to take up arms to protect his home, he can turn to the police, to private security, and to real estate agents to keep undesired neighbors and groups away. This form of white supremacist violence is often indirect and receives less attention, but it is violence nonetheless and keeps communities of color—in particular, Black communities—economically depressed and segregated.

Recent books like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and journalistic examinations like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” have helped raise awareness about the racist history of real estate in the United States by reminding us of the intimate relationships among housing, racial inequality, and today’s racial wealth gap. But some parts of the story are still neglected. We are just beginning to confront, for example, how fixtures of the inner city—the fast-food restaurants, the payday lenders, the cash-for-homes fliers—are all outward signs of the physical and financial exploitation that was routinized in the post-civil-rights years and has undermined Black advancement, despite the passage of laws that were supposed to ensure equal treatment in housing. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shows in Race for Profit, we are also only beginning to reckon with the complex network of bankers, real estate agents, and federal agencies that used the rhetoric of equality to obscure a set of race-to-the-bottom schemes that sought to extract as much wealth as possible from poor Black Americans.

In Race for Profit, Taylor provides new insight into many of these processes, examining one of the most exploitative attempts to bring the Black urban poor and working class into the fold of homeownership. Histories of Black urban life have focused on public housing, housing discrimination, redlining, and the rise and fall of tenants’ rights movements, but Taylor’s book shows us how tens of thousands of Black people were manipulated by the federal government and unscrupulous bankers and real estate agents through a program of predatory lending that claimed to empower Black homeowners but ultimately pushed them into greater financial insecurity. Agencies like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may have been founded “to transform low-income renters into low-income homeowners,” Taylor writes, but they ended up squeezing poor Black homeowners while creating lucrative financial instruments for lenders and real estate interests.

Rather than create a nation of homeowners, the housing programs of the Great Society, which relied on public-private ventures that almost always benefited the private interests, only helped to intensify racial disparities. Taylor’s book offers us a warning about the dangers of these public-private programs, which have become ever more common in our neoliberal age. It also reminds us of just how deep the roots of inequality and violence in our cities are—that even the efforts to create more black homeowners were stymied by racist stereotypes and a federal government determined to shrink its presence in the life of the poor.

Read entire article at The Nation

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