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"Family Properties" (& Buying the Farm)

By Benj DeMott

The NBA playoffs—from the high drama of the early series to divine low-downs of Charles Barkley—show what happens when African Americans get to compete on equal terms. But the sweetness of their play shouldn't be an excuse for the treacle of that State Farm ad set in the 1920s(?) where Chris Paul’s proprietorial “twin” pitches an umbrella to rain-pure white businessmen in bowler hats. Corporate America has long been locked on fantasies of blacks and whites hanging tight (and slipping the wealth gap, the reality of re-segregation of schools/housing etc.). Such images represent a kind of progress—we’ve moved on from eras when black folks were whited out or spat on in American media. But that State Farm ad’s aspirational upside costs too much. It's not just a bit of wishful fluff about our time; it’s a li'l Big Lie about a past that's not past. At a moment when wind done gone out of soft takes on slavery days, the ad reminds you Americans still tend to be clueless about the centrality of white supremacy in the last American century.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations in The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ is a gift to anyone willing to consider lessons of that century before TV and advertising erase them completely. Coates underscores the consequences of affirmative action for white people in the post-New Deal era. His argument is all about racist continuities in American history but I’m guessing he knows the news that will stay news in his piece are revelations of more recent crimes against African Americans committed by a private/public partnership of white real estate speculators and government officials. Citations for slavery, Jim Crow, and separate but equal get larger fonts on The Atlantic’s cover than the tagline: “35 Years of state-sanctioned redlining,” but that’s where the fire is this time.

Coates has done his own “intellectual autopsy” of his piece at his blog. And over the years he’s been working on it, he’s provided the “horde” who read him with numberless links to works by historians and sociologists whose shoulders he’s standing on. I’ve been struck, lately, by his steer to a graph in a book by an NYU prof that indicates black families earning 100K a year are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods (with “concentrated poverty”) than white families making 30K a year. And then there was that link a couple weeks ago to an article on George Romney’s honorable failure to get the Nixon Administration to promote open housing. Coates’ most galvanizing find (by far), though, was Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. (Coates cites Satter’s work in his piece, and her Chicago trip informs his reporting from that city.) Satter’s amazing book gets to the root of Chicago’s slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country. She explains that devastation was/is due not to “white flight” or a black “culture of poverty” but to a widespread system of legal and financial exploitation. That system was founded on redlining—the refusal to loan money to people in neighborhoods with anything more than a sprinkling of black people. It’s important to underscore, as Satter and Coates do, redlining was not just a matter of business lore or unspoken prejudice. It was Federal policy. At a time when the Federal Housing Administration (created in 1934) was enabling masses of white Americans to buy homes that provided a basis for post-Depression financial security, it was trashing hopes of black people like the couple who came to Satter’s lawyer-father back in 1957...

Albert and Sallie Bolton...were being evicted from their home and they wanted him to delay the proceedings. My father agreed to look into the matter. He asked what they had paid for their property. When they told him, he was astounded. They had paid the enormous sum of $13,900 for a cramped, one-hundred-year-old wood-frame house…[T]he white real estate agent, Jay Goran, who had sold the cottage to the Boltons in the fall of 1955, had himself purchased the building only the week before—for $4,300. Clearly my father’s clients had been given a raw deal. But the scam went deeper than that. Goran never told the Boltons that he was the building’s owner. He convinced them to make their down payment and to sign some complicated documents that stipulated that the building would remain the legal property of its current owner until they had entirely paid off the property’s cost, plus 6 percent interest, through high monthly installments. The contract they signed left the Boltons in a horribly vulnerable position.

Due to redlining, the Boltons couldn’t do what most whites would have done: “obtain a mortgage loan and use it to pay for their property in full...”

Their only option was to buy “on contract.”...If the contract seller happened to be a speculator who charged a wildly inflated price for the building, then a missed payment—and subsequent quick eviction and resale for profit—was practically guaranteed.

This is what happened to the Boltons. After a year of prompt payments, they had missed one installment and were now threatened with the loss of their entire investment—the down payment, plus all that they’d paid in monthly contract payments, and for repairs, insurance, interest and maintenance. And they were not the only ones. My father found that the speculator who sold the Boltons their home had recently filed repossession claims on over twenty properties. Another speculator working nearby had filed for sixty-nine repossessions in 1956 and an additional fifty-nine repossessions in the first half of 1957. And these were only two of at least a dozen major operators pursuing similar activities.

By the 1950s, contract selling was common in many American cities where the black population had skyrocketed as a result of post-World War II migration from the South. In Chicago, my father estimated that 85 percent of the properties purchased by blacks were sold on contract. He calculated that by selling buildings to housing-starved African Americans on such exploitative terms, speculators were robbing Chicago’s black population of one million dollars a day.

I’m sure that line from back in the day helped impel Coates to revisit the case for reparations.

The Chicago cabal that Satter's father took on did more than enrich themselves and rip off individuals and families:

[T]heir harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities. Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make inflated monthly payments. Husbands and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided apartments, crammed in extra tenants...Indeed the genius of this system was that it forced black contract buyers to be their own exploiters. As my father explained it, the black contract buyer was forced to “defraud his own people in order feed the hungry mouth of the speculator.”

Satter is fully alive to the currency of her story: “Contract selling was another version of a condition that has victimized African Americans from the sharecropping era to our current subprime mortgage crisis—namely the lack of equal access to credit.”

Family Properties “is so packed with the horrors visited upon black families in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1970s that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage” as Dwight Garner wrote in his Times review. But, as Garner realized, Satter’s book is not just a catalogue of evils. It’s a profound work of social analysis, a family memoir, and a civil rights history that’s been called “the most important work yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban north.” I’m reminded just now too of Coates’ comment that Family Properties was the best book he’d “ever read about the relationship between blacks and Jews.” The complexities of all that are hinted at in an anecdote from the book that Garner may have tip-toed around. As Satter’s father lay dying in a hospital bed—having given his life in struggle against his white professional colleagues who were impoverishing African-Americans—this Jewish attorney’s spirits got a lift when he was celebrated as “The Clarence Darrow of the Bankrupt.” Garner quotes that line of praise, attributing it to a “Chicago newspaper.” He doesn’t mention that paper was the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks.

In Coates’ account of how he came to write his Atlantic piece, he notes he once assumed the case for reparations was vaguely disreputable—a tale of the Out and Gone that belonged on the margin of intellectual discourse. But, as the proud son of a race man, I bet he’s known what his piece proves somewhere in his head all along: the margin is the center.

From June, 2014

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