Make America Grate Again

Donald Trump and the truth about race and real estate in America

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Watching Donald Trump sputter and free associate through Monday’s “debate” with Hillary Clinton, I was reminded of the two leading theories about his rise.

One is that the engine of Trump’s campaign is racism, which is why white supremacists like him so much and his campaign has refused to disavow them.

The other is that his campaign is entirely dependent on white people, but that their support for him is not based on his racist appeals. No, their economic anxieties are the reason for their support (even if they aren’t experiencing greater financial stress than other people). His supporters aren’t racist, this theory holds, but are just worried about their kids’ futures in this economy.

But why choose? For white people in America, “economic anxiety” has always had a racial component. White worry about black and brown people has always been a mix of the social and the economic, all the way back to slavery, which was a system of production after all.

Even the original sin of American race relations, hereditary chattel slavery—the creation of a permanent enslaved group, based on skin color, whose children would also be born slaves—was (among many other terrible things) economic. It turned enslaved people having babies into a profitable enterprise for their owners. Recent scholarship by Ed Baptist and Ned and Constance Sublette has shown that the sale of enslaved people became a primary business for slaveholders in the colonial states of the South. In ways large and small, racism and the economic system of the time were bound inextricably.

Neither the end of slavery in the nation’s bloodiest war nor the passage of a century unbind these issues. Take real estate, our country’s primary means of holding wealth. History has shown time and again that white people don’t like it when black or brown people move into their neighborhoods. And yeah, that’s probably because some of those people are the kind of obviously deplorable racists who use the n-word and call Mexicans wetbacks while eating taco bowls from Applebee’s.

But there’s more to it. The whole mechanism that underpins the real estate market was built by racists to the benefit of white Anglo people. As early 20th century American real estate appraisers “professionalized” their methods, they built a discriminatory system that literally ranked homes in white northern European neighborhoods as more valuable than homes in neighborhoods where black people (or Mexicans) lived. This is the actual ranking from a foundational text in the industry by Homer Hoyt, a University of Chicago-trained economist:

ranking

The other seminal text of real estate appraisal is a 1932 book by Frederick Babcock, The Valuation of Real Estate. I have a copy here in my hand, first edition, tenth printing. It’s heavy and written in dry, technical language. His methods of valuation were widely studied and adopted. Local realtors had study groups to learn the new way of appraising homes. Eventually, he was asked to create the Federal Housing Administration’s lending handbook.

And his techniques were, among other things, openly racist.

The fundamental premise of real estate appraisal in the early 20th century was that there was a natural rise and fall in property values, largely dependent on the constitutions of the people living there.

The central districts of a city were built first and were highly valuable, but then prices would fall as the upper classes moved to new housing further and further from the downtown core. At the same time, the closer-in neighborhoods would be successively “infiltrated” by lower and lower classes. “In American cities it can be readily observed that residential districts pass through periods of successive occupation by one class or type of people after another,” Babcock wrote. “In general the effect of the successive occupations is the gradual decline in the value of the land.”

For Babcock, this degradation of neighborhoods by successive waves of lower-class people could not be stopped. “The process can be described as inevitable in all residential districts,” he wrote. “Given time, all such areas become decadent districts or slums occupied by the poorest, most incompetent, and least desirable groups in the city.” And who might he describe as falling into this category of “least desirable groups?”

Well, who do you think? “Most of the variations and differences between people are slight and value declines are, as a result, gradual,” he wrote, lest he be considered an elitist. “But there is one difference in people, namely race, which can result in a very rapid decline.”

And by race, his readers were meant to understand that he was talking primarily about black people. He concludes the section with a call for straight-up segregation: “Usually such declines can be partially avoided by segregation and this device has always been in common usage in the South were white and negro populations have been separated.”

Think about what this meant for black and white people.

When black people moved into a neighborhood, prices would fall. Or, often, they would plummet as speculators scared white folks into selling, then shoot up as these folks sold homes on awful terms to black people, before finally cratering. It was this kind of story that Ta-Nehisi Coates recounted in his case for reparations, and it was repeated in cities across the country.

But white people built that system and white people had to live within it, too. So if a black family bought a house on a white family’s block, they were effectively costing the white family money. (Why couldn’t all these white people see that the racist system was hurting them all, only to enrich the wealthiest who could afford to ensure that their all-white enclaves would never be infiltrated? Well, racism. That’s why.)

Given these conditions, white people—even the kindly kind who knit sweaters and bake pies and cheer for their kids at little league—lost their goddamn minds when black people moved into the neighborhood. Isabele Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns lays all this out in a series of devastating examples that are both wildly fucking racist and also tied directly to white people’s economic anxiety.

The one that’s stuck with me the most comes from the formerly all-white town of Cicero, Illinois (now largely Mexican). The Clarks were a nice family. College educated, piano playing, upwardly mobile Americans. They were also black. But they managed to get a hold of a house in Cicero. Their first attempt to move in failed, but they tried again on July 11, 1951. Here’s what happened:

This time, a hundred Cicero housewives and grandmothers in swing coats and Mamie Eisenhower hats showed up to heckle them. The couple managed to get their furniture in, but as the day wore on, the crowds grew larger and more agitated. A man from a white supremacy group called the White Circle League handed out flyers that said, KEEP CICERO WHITE. The Clarks fled. A mob stormed the apartment and threw the family’s furniture out of a third-floor window as the crowds cheered below. The neighbors burned the couple’s marriage license and the children’s baby pictures. They overturned the refrigerator and tore the stove and plumbing fixtures out of the wall. They tore up the carpet. They shattered the mirrors. They bashed in the toilet bowl. They ripped out the radiators. They smashed the piano Clark had worked overtime to buy for his daughter. And when they were done, they set the whole pile of the family’s belongings, now strewn on the ground below, on fire.

This is racism at its ugliest, no? And it was also partially motivated by economic anxiety that if black people moved in, the city’s property values would go down, as decreed by the home appraisal infrastructure that white people themselves had built.

And that’s why Donald Trump left me with a chemical burn Monday night after he glibly dismissed the fact that the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against him and his family company for racial discrimination. Sitting on top of the legacies of this country, the way he shrugged off the complaints just kept burning and burning me all the way through even as I wrote this story.

“When I was very young, I went to my father’s company. Had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens,” Trump said, referring to Fred Trump, his father, who was the biggest apartment builder in Brooklyn. “And we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country, a federal lawsuit, were sued. We settled the suit with zero—with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.”

What was the nature of the allegations that he dismissed? “Trump employees had secretly marked the applications of minorities with codes, such as ‘No. 9’ and ‘C’ for ‘colored,’ according to government interview accounts filed in federal court,” the Washington Post summarized. They steered black people away from white buildings or lied and told them that there were no apartments available.

And Trump’s defense? Many, many other companies throughout the country were also sued! Why? Because a few years before in April 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. This provided the legal basis for going after racist landlords and—look at that!—there were a lot of them.

At the time of the government’s settlement with Trump, he couched his comments in the language of economics, not race. He was happy, he said, that the agreement didn’t have “any requirement that would compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant.”

You see, Trump and his organization were just anxious about the economic status of all these people they were marking “C.”

You can look at labor unions’ historical exclusion of black people. You can look at affirmative action and its opponents. You can look at immigration. You can look at gentrification. Look anywhere where there is racism and there is economic anxiety mixed right in.

They are not the same thing, course. They are not even co-extensive. But they flow together in the country’s veins. There is no way to build a wall between racism and “economic anxiety” in America.

Because of course! Because capitalism! Because the explosion of middle-class wealth based on real estate holdings was predicated on the exclusion of black people! Because a deeply racist system of production birthed the country! The old colonial southern states sold enslaved people to the cotton growers, who were financed by New York and European bankers, who handed the fiber to the New England industrialists for making into textiles. The need for more cotton land drove us west until we swallowed up half of Mexico and a good deal besides. There’s no escaping this history. It’s long since spilled into the soil. No one should be surprised about what Trump’s campaign is harvesting.