If race doesn't exist biologically, what is it? And why should
it matter? Our final episode, "The House We Live In," is
the first film about race to focus not on individual attitudes
and behavior but on the ways our institutions and policies advantage
some groups at the expense of others. Its subject is the "unmarked"
race: white people. We see how benefits quietly and often invisibly
accrue to white people, not necessarily because of merit or hard
work, but because of the racialized nature of our laws, courts,
customs, and perhaps most pertinently, housing.
The film begins by looking at the massive immigration from eastern
and southern Europe early in the 20th century. Italians, Hebrews,
Greeks and other ethnics were considered by many to be separate
races. Their "whiteness" had to be won. But who was white? The
1790 Naturalization Act had limited naturalized citizenship to
"free, white persons." Many new arrivals petitioned the courts
to be legally designated white in order to gain citizenship. Armenians,
known as "Asiatic Turks," succeeded with the help of anthropologist
Franz Boas, who testified on their behalf as an expert scientific
In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who had attended the
University of California, also appealed the rejection of his citizenship
application. He argued that his skin was physically white and
that race shouldn't matter for citizenship. The Supreme Court,
however, decided that the Japanese were not legally white based
on science, which classified them as Mongoloid rather than Caucasian.
Less than a year later, in the case of United States v. Bhagat
Singh Thind, the court contradicted itself by concluding that
Asian Indians were not legally white, even though science classified
them as Caucasian. Refuting its own reasoning in Ozawa, the justices
declared that whiteness should be based not on science, but on
"the common understanding of the white man."
Next we see how Italians, Jews and other
European ethnics fared better, especially after World War II,
when segregated suburbs like Levittown popped up around the country,
built with the help of new federal policies and funding. Real
estate practices and federal government regulations directed government-guaranteed
loans to white homeowners and kept non-whites out, allowing those
once previously considered "not quite white" to blend together
and reap the advantages of whiteness, including the accumulation
of equity and wealth as their homes increased in value. Those
on the other side of the color line were denied the same opportunities
for asset accumulation and upward mobility.
Today, the net worth
of the average Black family is about 1/8 that of the average white
family. Much of that difference derives from the value of the
family's residence. Houses in predominantly white areas sell for
much more than those in Black, Hispanic or integrated neighborhoods,
and so power, wealth, and advantage - or the lack of it - are
passed down from parent to child. Wealth isn't just luxury or
profit; it's the starting point for the next generation.
does the wealth gap translate into performance differences? New
studies reveal that when the "family wealth gap" between African
Americans and whites is taken into account, there is no difference
in test scores, graduation rates, welfare usage and other measures.
It's a lack of opportunities, not natural differences, that's
responsible for continuing inequality. Wealth, more than any other
measure, shows the accumulated impact of past discrimination,
and shapes your life chances.
"Colorblind" policies which ignore race only perpetuate these
inequities. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "To
get beyond racism we must first take account of race. There is
no other way." As The House We Live In shows us, until
we address the legacy of past discrimination and confront the
historical meanings of race, the dream of equality will remain
out of reach.