Race and homeownership, continued

A few months ago, I recommended Jason Kuznicki’s excellent article on America’s history of state-sanctioned racial discrimination. In it, Kuznicki discusses the relationship between government regulations and social prejudice (emphasis mine):

In a mobile and egalitarian commercial republic influenced by Christianity, practicing racism ought to be difficult. It becomes much easier, however, when there are legally established definitions of race and when outcomes and opportunities are clearly bound to racial identity. Laws to this effect work to fix definitions of race in the public mind, even if these definitions don’t map well onto physiological reality.

Law reifies race. Racialized laws are likely to be enacted by lawmakers who were racists to begin with, but their continued existence also makes racism easier to practice in the future, whether in the public sector, the private sector, or even the confines of one’s own mind.

In a new article from Southern Spaces, we see this dynamic at work in turn-of-the-century Atlanta, where white residents sought to exclude blacks from a desirable neighborhood in the Fourth Ward:

White home-owning residents of the Fourth Ward went to considerable lengths to push through the relocation of Morris Brown, a major African American institution in the hopes that the black populace would follow. They organized meetings between white political leadership and school and African Methodist Episcopal Church officials. They offered cash. They offered land. And black Fourth Warders declined each.

Faced with effective black resistance, Jackson Hill’s white home-owning residents met in October 1910 to delineate a fourteen block area in the neighborhood with a racial boundary line and, as the Atlanta Constitution reported, “put the public and all real estate developers on notice that the sale or renting of property within the white territory [specified] would be considered a reprehensible and unfriendly act.”

Brow-beating realtors and bribing black residents to leave didn’t work, so the neighborhood turned to government-enforced housing discrimination to get rid of the undesirables:

When black families continued renting and purchasing homes within Jackson Hill, whites adopted tactics common throughout the urban South and increasingly utilized in the urban North; in 1913 they proposed a city ordinance outlining racial residential segregation procedures.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I think this scenario raises a few interesting questions about libertarian and conservative thinking on race and discrimination. To a cosmopolitan libertarian, the idea that racism in the United States is the product of state-sanctioned discrimination is no doubt an attractive one: it puts the onus of Jim Crow on the state instead of civil society. In turn-of-the-century Atlanta, however, the chain of causation starts with individuals and private homeowner associations: the 1913 city ordinance segregating residential neighborhoods was preceded by private efforts to eject black residents and was the result of what, in retrospect, could plausibly be described as grassroots pressure. Kuznicki acknowledges that state discrimination doesn’t spring fully-formed from some deracinated political vacuum, but I was surprised by the intensity of racial animosity exhibited by white homeowners before the state officially endorsed housing segregation.

A few further questions: First, what if cash bribes and social pressures had been enough to segregate the Fourth Ward? Does a turn-of-the-century conservative/libertarian simply look the other way, perhaps frowning on Atlantans’ retrograde social habits but nonetheless allowing that they have the right to create lily-white neighborhoods through non-coercive means?

On the other hand, the Southern Spaces article suggests that integrated neighborhoods held up surprisingly well despite (or perhaps because of) social pressures. Black families wouldn’t be bribed into leaving their homes.  “Reprehensible and unfriendly” or not, Atlanta’s real estate developers continued to sell property to black families. You often hear that economic logic trumps the psychology of discrimination – perhaps there’s some truth to this after all.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

6 thoughts on “Race and homeownership, continued

  1. Let’s say that I have a house.

    Let’s say that I want to sell it *ONLY* to an Italian person. Irish need not apply, we have a nice neighborhood without public urination, thank you very much, and we’d like to keep it that way.

    What state-sponsored solution do you propose to my backwards ways? Eminent domain?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. The story Will tells here happened all across the country, not just in Southern locales. And before it was The Blacks, it was (as Jaybird alludes to) the Irish, the Italians, etc. One potential supporting factor was the desire of these minority communities to remain together. If they saw heavy resistance in one area, it was sometimes more desirable to collectively find another one. This is how we get neighborhoods with names like Germantown, Little Italy, Irish Hill, etc.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Free people, property rights and contracts — where people live is their business, not the government’s business. Government should protect individual rights. Society should work the rest.

    But, as a human being I find it morally reprehensible that people of a certain neighborhood would attempt to steer people away or to their neighborhood based on the color of skin. If I was a developer with the means to do so, I’d develop a neighborhood very close by and advertise “For sale to anyone with the money to buy it”. If I was a member of the community, I would reveal the racist mindset every chance I had. Society can deal with these problems without the State and without physical coercion.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Interesting that the government’s proper role, in the minds of the majority today, is now to enforce house with racially random occupants, while it used to be government’s role, in the minds of the majority at the time, to enforce racially segregated housing. In both cases, its government enforcing the majority’s opinion on the minority. In this case, I believe, we are talking about an area where the government should not be telling us how to live our lives. It is the same as the government deciding whether you can live in this state or not, whether you can live in this country or not.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • We are actually selling our house right now. When you get an offer the process is completely blind. You don’t know their name, what they look like, anything. So in that sense, I guess red tape has struck a blow for equality. If you have the capital, you get the house. If we want to talk about erecting some sort of artificial barrier where everyone in a given neighborhood mutually agree to inflate home prices to a point where they believe undesired minorities will no longer be able to afford their homes…well that’s a huge gamble and even if it works it says more about income inequality between races than anything else IMO.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • FWIW about 15 years ago I sold my parents house where I grew up. To make a long story short our real estate agent, who was the dad of one of my best friends as a kid and lived five houses away from us, didn’t show our house to a couple. This certain couple were looking for a house in the exactly the price range and size of the one we were selling. And the Mom worked directly across the street from our house. This house was pretty objectively something like what they were looking for. Did I mention the agent, a white guy, lived a few houses away. He showed them houses in other towns, not bad towns, but with lower property values, a bit more run down, not quite as good schools and bit more crime. Well eventually this couple went to a different agent who said “I have the exact house you are looking for” and took them to our house immediately. They bought it about an hour after seeing it. Anybody want to take a guess what color skin the people who bought our house had. They were a very nice Haitian immigrant couple and were pissed.

        They could have lived a perfectly fine life in one of the other towns but they would have also lost out on some tangible advantages. I’m not even discussing what can or should be done about this kind of thing. The point is, this kind of thing directly hurts people and limits their options. You might even say it can inhibit their ability to pursue happiness and life.

          Quote  Link

        Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *