Beryl Satter is the author of Each Mind a Kingdom and the chair of the Department of History at Rutgers University in Newark. From a Q & A about her new book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America:
In the book you dispel many of our commonly held notions about how the black slums were created and the causes of white flight. Can you talk a little about both of those subjects?Read the complete Q & A.
Conservatives claim that African Americans simply did not know how to maintain their properties. Liberals instead blame white racism—they argue that if white people hadn’t fled racially changing neighborhoods, today we’d have stable, integrated urban neighborhoods instead of segregated black slums. Both views are incorrect. Urban neighborhoods decayed because of discriminatory FHA policies. Mortgage redlining meant that African Americans were forced to buy from white speculators at grossly inflated prices. If they bought on contract—as was typical in Chicago and many other cities—they knew that they could not miss a payment without losing their homes. Therefore they did whatever it took to make those payments. Husbands and wives both worked. They deferred maintenance. They subdivided their properties, crammed them with tenants, and charged their tenants hefty rents.
Black people made huge sacrifices in order hold on to their homes. But their white neighbors didn’t understand this. They observed black people overcrowding and neglecting their properties. Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools; in Chicago, officials responded by "double-shifting" the students (half attending in the morning, and half in the afternoon). Children were deprived of a full day of schooling and left to fend for themselves in the after-school hours. These conditions helped fuel the rise of gangs, which in turn terrorized shop owners and residents alike. In short, whites fled these neighborhoods not because they were irrational racists but because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools, and crime. They also understood that the longer they stayed, the less their property would be worth. But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving before their properties were paid for in full—if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date.
Read an excerpt from Family Properties, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.
The Page 99 Test: Family Properties.