for Whites: The Houses that Racism Built
By Larry Adelman
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, June 29, 2003
Thirteen years ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in.
It was one of those suburban tract homes that sprouted across
the nation after World War II. Our home was pleasant if undistinguished.
It wasn't one of Malvina Reynolds' "little boxes made of ticky
tacky" - based on a drive the singer took past Daly City, CA in
the '50s. It was a ranch house on a curving, leafy street in Merrick,
Long Island, 25 miles east of Manhattan, about five miles from
its more famous suburban neighbor, Levittown.
turning 65, my father wasted no time retiring. He'd purchased
our house back in 1952 for $20,000 thanks to a 4 percent mortgage
made possible by the Veterans Administration. Now he was considering
an offer of $300,000. With the money they'd get a place in the
Berkshires and winter in Florida.
Ten years later, my colleague
here at California Newsreel, Cornelius, sold the house he grew
up in. Cornelius' folks had also purchased a place in the early
'50s in Chester, just outside Philadelphia. A few years ago, after
Cornelius' father passed away, his mother wanted to move back
to Virginia. Cornelius sold the home in 2000 - for $29,500.
$270,500 gap reveals a microcosm of race in America. My family
is white and Cornelius' is black.
On Monday, the Supreme
Court finally issued its ruling on whether the University of Michigan
should jettison its affirmative action program. The court upheld
the law school program that sought a "critical mass" of minorities
but struck down a "point system" used to increase affirmative
action for undergraduates. While the decisions didn't fully satisfy
advocates on either side, on balance they were less "anti-affirmative
action" than feared. I wonder how many justices had experiences
Cornelius and I have worked together for 20 years, always making
an identical salary, yet my net worth is several times his. My
two brothers and I enjoyed good schools, parks and libraries because
of rising property values. My parents' growing home equity not
only provided for their retirement but sent the three of us to
private colleges - and even helped with the down-payments on our
own homes. Today, thanks to them, my house is paid off and my
21-year-old daughter is about to graduate college with a nest
egg of her own. When my parents pass away, we stand to inherit
a tidy sum.
Cornelius had no such help. As American
manufacturing declined, Chester became increasingly black and
populated by people on fixed incomes, who faced higher taxes to
maintain public services and schools. Cornelius' parents' expenses
climbed as their city deteriorated. Cornelius attended college
on scholarship, but worked his way through school. Today, rather
than look to his mother for financial help, Cornelius helps support
What's this got to with race? It goes back to the postwar
suburbs and the government policies and subsidies that made them
possible -- and guaranteed they'd be segregated.
A set of
New Deal programs led by the Federal Housing Administration allowed
millions of average white Americans to own a home for the first
time. Down payment requirements were reduced from as much as 50
percent to 10 or 20 percent and the time to pay off the remaining
mortgage was extended from five years to 30 years.
Federal investigators evaluated 239 regions for risk. Communities
with a mere one or two black families were deemed ipso facto
financial risks ineligible for low cost home loans. Government
appraisal maps colored those communities red -- hence the origin
of the term "redlining."
Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government
backed $120 billion of home loans; more than 98 percent went to
whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support here
in Northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went
to African Americans.
Barred from purchasing a home in the
new post-War suburbs, Cornelius' parents had to buy in one of
the few communities where black people could live.
Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical white
family has ten times the net worth of the typical black family
(nine times the net worth of the typical Latino family). Even
when they make the same income, white families have over twice
the wealth. Much of that gap is due to home equity and family
Many whites who grew up middle class
in the suburbs like to think we got where we are today on merit
- hard work, intelligence, pluck and maybe a little luck. We wonder
why non-white parents didn't just work hard, buy a home and pass
on the appreciated value like our parents did. We tend to be blind
to how the playing field has been - and continues to be - tilted
to our advantage.
Racism doesn't just come dressed in white
sheets or voiced by skinheads, but lies in institutions that,
like the FHA, have quietly and often invisibly channeled America's
wealth, power, and status disproportionately to white people.
Those advantages are passed on and accumulate, generation to generation,
giving us a head start in life. As Ohio State University law professor
john a. powell observes: "The slick thing about whiteness is that
whites are getting the spoils of a racist system without themselves
being personally racist."
I sit on my back deck today, enjoying the blooms of the wisteria
and reading an e-mail from my daughter about her post-college
plans. My daughter certainly had nothing to do with slavery or
Jim Crow. But the past still helps shape her future thanks to
the many advantages my parents, me, and now she have accrued thanks
to generations of racial preferences -- for white people.
Larry Adelman is the executive producer of RACE - The Power
of an Illusion.
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