Building For Race How housing trumped racism's discrediting to narrate identities and fortify barriers

How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces

Clarissa Rile Hayward (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 212 pages, with index and appendix

In “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” James Baldwin addressed his 15-year old nephew, James, in the pages of The New Yorker. As the nation was roiled by civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham and many other cities during 1963, Baldwin urged his namesake, born into the Harlem ghetto, to refuse to be destroyed by an American society that “intended that you should perish.” As overt racists unleashed police dogs on demonstrators and terrorized blacks in Mississippi and Alabama, Baldwin’s public airing of this intimate communication indicted the complacency of many Northern white liberals. These “innocent and well-meaning people,” were unknowingly complicit in a society that was destroying the lives of multitudes “because [they] were black and for no other reason.” Baldwin urged his nephew to reject the offensive notion that he had to make himself acceptable to such people. To the contrary, he had to accept them with love, “[f]or these innocent people … are still trapped in a history which they do not understand.” Baldwin’s advice to his nephew mirrored his larger purpose of trying to redeem American democracy with languages of familial intimacy and Christian agape, hoping to “force our (white) brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

More than 50 years later, the flight from reality by many continues. The twenty-something marketers of “Sketch Factor” hope the smartphone app’s crowd-sourced information will help users avoid “sketchy” (read: nonwhite) neighborhoods during their nocturnal urban revels. We all want to be safe. But the real danger, it seems, at least to the ideal of an integrated society, is encouraging young whites to engage in clannishness, naively thinking they can only be safe among people like themselves. Here, in the absurdly adolescent need to privatize public space, coping with uncertainty by avoiding exposure to persons of unfamiliar race and class backgrounds, is an evasion of the root of the problem: the cancer of residential segregation and its attendant racial and social ills. Amidst our society’s cold war of misunderstanding on race that too often escalates into incidents of deadly force by police and white civilians against African Americans, Clarissa Rile Hayward’s elegant and impassioned book, How Americans Make Race, offers a glimmer of hope. [Editor’s note: Hayward is a contributing editor for The Common Reader.] In showing how racial inequality was not “natural,” but the outcome of human actions, choices, and policies, Hayward helps us to understand how “innocent” yet polarizing dominant collective racial identities continue to prevent the realization of the nation’s egalitarian ideals.

Hayward begins by asking us to consider the means by which we construct our identities. Although we choose from a range of potential social identities and narratives to construct our personal identities, Hayward’s main concern is with the construction of collective racial identities in the United States. Drawing on an extensive literature among political theorists on identity construction, Hayward argues that storytelling is an important part of the process by which we define our identities. But storytelling is not the only way identities are reproduced. People reproduce identities by institutionalizing the stories they tell, by turning those stories into rules, laws, and social norms that give social actors an incentive to perform those identities, and teach them to others.

The real-estate industry tirelessly promoted the narrative of home ownership as a civic duty, paving the way for public investment while excluding blacks from the imagined (white) homeowners’ republic. 

Hayward’s account of the creation of collective white identities during the making of black ghettoes and white suburbs will be a revelation for those who unquestioningly accept residential segregation as natural. Much of Hayward’s discussion focuses on Columbus, Ohio, though she assesses the national impact of the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans from the South to the cities and towns of the North and Midwest over the middle decades of the 20th century. Before the wave of urban migration, the black ghetto did not exist. During the early 20th century in Columbus, blacks and whites lived alongside each other, and African-Americans held elective office. Columbus was typical in this regard, as, on average, blacks lived in relatively integrated conditions in American cities in 1890, living in wards only 27 percent black. As Southern blacks flocked to the North, the sharp increase in the black population accelerated the construction of segregated black ghettoes in America’s cities and towns, neighborhoods with little exposure to other groups. This did not happen by accident, as landlords, real estate agents, and home sellers refused to sell to black migrants, forcing blacks into overcrowded, overpriced and often dilapidated residential areas. Discrimination in employment and lending made it impossible for blacks to acquire capital to purchase homes or make repairs. In a typical expression of racism, whites conveniently ignored discrimination and poverty, and viewed blacks as innately unfit for home ownership. Prominent whites in the media and the for-profit real estate industry told self-serving, anti-black stories about race and housing. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1917 that African Americans had “a childlike helplessness in the matter of sanitation and housing.” These stories spread like a virus: “Negroes are filthy and drive white people away,” complained one of the whites who rioted in Detroit in 1942 in an attempt to keep African-Americans out of federal public housing.

Racially charged battles over access to urban housing were occurring at a moment when 19th-century ideas of white racism were being discredited by academic social science and further delegitimized by World War II. In effect, Hayward argues that the institutionalization of collective white identity narratives by decades of discrimination in the real estate industry and public policy on residential housing trumped the discrediting of racism. Stories of collective white racial identity were reinforced, indeed, institutionalized, by restrictive covenants and exclusionary zoning laws and rules that led to the formation of black urban ghettoes and white suburban high-status enclaves.   Public and private investment by the Federal Housing Administration and real estate interests in white suburban developments after World War II gave many whites the incentive to adopt and perform their new racial identities as homeowners.

A crucial context for the collective white racial identity enacted through homeownership in all-white neighborhoods was the systemic disinvestment and neglect of black ghettoes where collective problems of joblessness, poverty, and other social ills festered. Whites viewed those collective problems, caused by discrimination, as racial traits of blacks. Such anti-black prejudices became intrinsic to the self-image of many whites, the necessary counterpart to their self-image as respectable home-owners. For many, home-ownership became a central attribute of American freedom (the right to live in an all-white neighborhood) and of what it meant to be white.

Hayward would consider the persistence of such white identity narratives despite contrary scientific evidence “bad” stories. But the power, privilege, and profit built into these “bad” identity stories enhanced their appeal and longevity. Private real estate interests and public policymakers promoted and institutionalized such stories through their actions. They espoused the narrative of the ownership of single-family, privately owned suburban homes as a white birthright, a narrative based on ideas of black inferiority, and one that excluded black people from conceptions of the public interest, which was purportedly served by home ownership. In an influential 1923 real estate industry text, the authors portrayed black migration as a threat to property values in white neighborhoods. Almost as if anticipating a future in which public knowledge of the making of segregated black ghettoes would be lost to collective amnesia, “Naturally” was a mantra of these real estate executives, who claimed blacks desired segregation: “There is a natural inclination of the colored people to live together in their own communities.” Unfortunately, the flood of black migrants was bursting the boundaries of the ghetto. “With the increase in colored people coming to so many Northern cities, they have overrun their old districts and swept into adjoining ones….This naturally has had a decidedly detrimental effect on land values, for few white people … care to live near them.” They were candid about the solution. “Frankly, rigid segregation seems to be the only manner in which the difficulty can be controlled.”

A major theme that emerges from Hayward’s book, written in part during the Occupy movement of 2011-12 as she divulges in a footnote, is the use of public resources for the enrichment of private interests, in this case, private, profit-oriented residential development. As part of the professionalization of their industry, real estate developers specializing in upscale residential districts minimized investment risk during the Depression by obtaining state support for private, for- profit developments, in the form of tax exemptions, low-interest loans, and mortgage subsidies. These “community builders” supplemented private deed restrictions that excluded blacks and other stigmatized groups, with public support in the form of land use and zoning restrictions to maintain the “character and value” of high-end residential districts. In order to legitimize their bid for state support for private investment (viewed by many in laissez faire 1930s America as suspect), real estate professionals spun a narrative enshrining home ownership—mainly of detached single-family suburban homes—as essential to American identity, as patriotic and essential to the public good.

The real-estate industry tirelessly promoted the narrative of home ownership as a civic duty, paving the way for public investment while excluding blacks from the imagined (white) homeowners’ republic. New Deal agencies such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), institutionalized racial segregation, the former with infamous maps of major cities and towns with a four-grade, color-coded system for assessing property values. Under that system, the highest grades went to areas with a stable, predominantly white population, and attributing the highest investment risk to predominantly African-American areas, which were colored red—hence the practice of banks refusing to provide home loans to African-Americans as “redlining.” The FHA reinforced residential segregation by refusing to insure home mortgages in black ghettoes, and its underwriters systematically denied loan insurance to those living in mostly black or integrated neighborhoods. The FHA, the Veterans Administration (which administered home loans to war veterans as part of the GI Bill), and the HOLC institutionalized narratives of racial difference and reinforced segregation. These agencies and the real estate industry commodified racial exclusion to create black urban ghettoes and white suburban developments. These agencies made stories linking the value of residential property to racial exclusivity a reality.

Affluent and mostly white, New Albany was not the product of state-sanctioned racially discriminatory laws and policies but rather the protection of local autonomy over taxation, land use, and public service provision. As Hayward points out, that outcome makes “the reproduction of place-based racial hierarchy compatible with the explicit disavowal of a racist past.”

Having detailed the policies and narratives that created the segregated world we live in, Hayward explains why “race”—the making of black ghettoes and white suburbs—has become invisible to many Americans, particularly affluent whites. Hayward concludes her book with an account of the creation, to the northeast of Columbus, of the exclusive, high-priced community New Albany, by the billionaire Leslie Wexner. Hayward argues that prospective home buyers remained unaware of the political actions and collective choices that created New Albany, the wealthiest suburb of Columbus. Instead, they drew on narratives of Americans as a home-owning people, viewing New Albany simply as “nice,” as opposed to “not-nice” areas across the tracks. Analyzing the “ordinary life stories” told by informants residing in New Albany, Hayward writes, when home buyers describe moving “to a ‘lovely’ place in a ‘good school community,’ … to a place that is ‘new and so pretty and nice’… each sees that place (as Marx might put it) through a mist that disguises both its social origin and its political structure….” For the whites Hayward interviewed, whose identities are unmarked and normative, it is difficult to acknowledge that what is so “nice” about New Albany is the fact that most of the people who live there are like themselves.

Throughout, Hayward provides ample evidence of the role of racism in shaping so-called private residential housing markets.   Based on that evidence, we have only partially abandoned the overt racism of the past. Affluent and mostly white, New Albany was not the product of state-sanctioned racially discriminatory laws and policies but rather the protection of local autonomy over taxation, land use, and public service provision. As Hayward points out, that outcome makes “the reproduction of place-based racial hierarchy compatible with the explicit disavowal of a racist past.” But she reminds us that New Albany’s residents and other home owners in similar “white places” over decades amassed substantial wealth in equity from homes purchased in racially discriminatory markets as housing prices rose significantly during the latter half of the twentieth century. Contrast that with the sub-prime mortgage and foreclosure crisis, in which past discrimination made it easy for lenders to target many blacks for bad loans. When the housing bubble burst in 2007, black and Latino borrowers disproportionately suffered devastating losses in intergenerational wealth and foreclosures.

What can be done? How does one change a history in which narratives of racial difference are institutionalized and absorbed corporeally, as city dwellers walk the streets and learn constructed identities—and his or her place? Hayward recommends shifting political authority away from local communities where powerful private interests exert control over zoning decisions to regional or metropolitan levels of governance, which could facilitate coalition-building and more inclusive urban planning initiatives. Above all, we need to tell new and “extraordinary” personal identity stories that challenge the common sense of racial identities gained through moving and interacting in racialized space. Extraordinary stories, Hayward hopes, affirm integration as an ideal, and target institutions that encourage the desegregation of America’s cities and suburbs, and the creation of open, inclusive urban and suburban public spaces.

Hayward’s book was written in the shadow of the Great Recession, but it is quite illuminating for the recent epidemic of police shootings of young black men that has sparked street protests, and has occupied the center of the nation’s politics. Following Baldwin, albeit in the measured, careful tones of the scholar, Hayward’s main focus is on challenging and demystifying dominant white identities. In the end, Hayward asks privileged whites with a normative commitment to racial equality “to confront the tension between that commitment and the racial practices in which they (often unconsciously) take part.” Hayward’s important book offers keen historical analysis and compassionate insight into why honest dialogue on the history of racism and its current manifestations remains difficult for many Americans. In giving all Americans a means of understanding themselves as products of the history it recounts, and the critical resources to confront reality and change it, How Americans Make Race deserves the widest possible audience.

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