Patricia Williams [From The Du Bois Institute's 'A Conversation on Race,' held on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts in late August 1997.]


I am not only middle class, but I match the cultural stereotype of a good white person. It is thus perhaps that the loan officer of this bank, whom I had never met in person, had checked off the box on the Fair Housing Form indicating that I was white. [LAUGHTER]

Race shouldn't matter, I suppose, but it seemed to in this case so I took a deep breath, I crossed out white, I checked the box marked black and sent the contract back to the bank. That will teach them to presume too much, I thought. A done deal, I assumed. Suddenly the deal came screeching to a halt. The bank wanted more money as a down payment. They wanted me to pay more points, as certain charges are called, they wanted to raise the rate of interest. Suddenly I found myself facing great resistance and much more debt.

What was interesting about all of this was that the reason the bank gave for its new found recalcitrance was not race, heaven forbid. Haven't I heard racism doesn't exist any more? [LAUGHTER] No, the reason they gave was that property values in that neighborhood were suddenly falling. They wanted more money to cover the increased risk.

Initially I was surprised, confused.

The houses in the neighborhood was extremely stable. Prices hadn't gone down since World War II. [LAUGHTER] It took my real estate agent to make me see the light. Don't you get it, he sighed, this is what they always do. And even though I work with this sort of thing all the time I really hadn't gotten it, for of course I was the reason the prices were in peril. The bank was proceeding according to demographic data that show anytime black people move into a neighborhood whites are overwhelmingly likely to move out, in droves, in panic, in concert, pulling every imaginable resource with them from school funding to garbage collection to police whose too frequent relation to black communities becomes one of containment rather than protection.

It's called a tipping point, this thing that happens when black people move into white neighborhoods. The imagery is awfully trashy, you have to admit. They were just tipping right on over like a terrible accident. Oops. [LAUGHTER] Like a pitcher, I suppose. All that fresh wholesome milk spilling out, running away [LAUGHTER] leaving the dark [UNINTEL] upended urn of the inner city.

This immense fear of "the Black" is one reason the United States is so densely segregated. Only 2% of white people have a black neighbor even though black people comprise approximately 13%. Whites seemto fear black people in big ways and small ways and in financial ways, in utterly incomprehensible ways. Now, as for my mortgage, using the Fair Housing Act I threatened to sue unless they proferred the loan on the original terms. What was fascinating to me was the way in which this so exemplified the new problem of the new rhetoric of racism. For starters the new rhetoric of racism never mentions race. It wasn't race but risk with which the bank was concerned.

Secondly, since financial risk is all about economics my exclusion got reclassified as just a consideration of class and there's no law again class discrimination after all because that would represent a restraint of one of our most precious liberties, the freedom to contract or not. It's no longer a racial problem if someone who just happens to be white keeps hiking the price for someone who just accidentally purely by the way happens to be black. Black people pay higher prices as a result, for the attempt to integrate even as the integration of oneself is a threat to one's investment by lowering its value. By this measure of one's worthiness the ingredient of blackness is cast not just as a social toll but as an actual tax, a fee, an extra contribution at the door, an admission price, the higher costs of handling my dangerous propensities, my inherently unsavory properties.

Now, I was judged based not on my independent attributes or individual financial worth as a client, nor even was I judged by statistical profiles of what my group actually do. For in fact, anxiety stricken middle class black people make grovingly good cake-baking neighbors when made not to feel defensive by the unfortunate historical welcoming strategies of .......[LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Rather, I was being evaluated based on what an abstraction of white society writ large thinks we or I do, and that imagined doing was treated and thus established as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However rationalized this form of discrimination it's a burden. One's very existence becomes a lonely vacuum when so many in society not only devalue me but devalue themselves and their homes for having me as part of the landscape view from the quiet of their breakfast nook. I know, I know. I exist in the world on my own terms surely. I am an individual and all that. But if I carry the bags of logic out with my individuality rather than my collectively imagined effect on property values as the subject of this type of irrational economic connotation then I, the charming and delightful Patricia J. Williams, because a bit like a car wash in your back yard only much worse in real price terms. I am more than a mere violation of the nice residential comforts in question. My blackness can rezone them altogether by the mere fortuity of my location. [UNINTEL], cringes the nice clean [UNINTEL] family next door. There goes the neighborhood. As whole geographic tracts slide into the chasm [UNINTEL] and disgust. I am the equvalent of a medical waste disposal site, a toxic hole. In my brand new house I hover behind my brand new kitchen curtains wondering whether the very appearance of myself will endanger my collateral even further. Will the presentation of myself disperse the value of my home, my ownership, my property? This is madness I am sure, as I draw the curtain like a veil across my nose. In what order of things is it rational to thus hide and skulk? It's an intolerable logic. An investment in my property compels selling of myself. [APPLAUSE]

 

 

 
home . join the discussion .  are we better off? .  audio excerpts .  charts, graphs & analysis .  interviews
booker t. & w.e.b. .  a glimpse of history .  readings & links
synopsis .  tapes & transcripts .  press reaction
wgbh .  frontline online .  pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
../interviews/ ../economics/ ../audio/ ../etc/gates.html ../talk/ ../ ../