Monday, September 8, 2014

Dr. Beryl Satter And Darnell L. Moore On the Insidious Racial Politics of Real Estate, Segregation, National Housing Policy, And Gentrification on Urban Spaces And Their Direct Impact On the Violent Oppression and Exploitation Of African Americans in the U.S.

“This is what happens when you have massive racial change in a community and the power structure remains in the hands of whites and the police force acts as this sort of mediating force between the white power structure and what is now a black community and has very little empathy or knowledge about that community.”
--Dr. Beryl Satter 

The Price of Blackness: From Ferguson to Bed-Stuy
Friday, 05 September 2014
By Darnell L. Moore,
The Feminist Wire | Op-Ed
The unsettling image of the lifeless body of 18-year old Mike Brown, the unarmed teen shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson, which laid prostrate before family and neighbors for hours in a pool of blood in the sweltering summer heat in Ferguson, MO, will surely haunt the collective conscious of the US for years to come.

Mike Brown’s murder, and the brutalizing way his killing was turned into a public spectacle, has much to do with the ways Black lives are literally and symbolically devalued in neighborhoods throughout the US The image of his lifeless body publicly displayed on the street is a heartrending reminder that Black bodies in the US are rendered valueless—so much so that even in death, particularly the kind sanctioned by the state, Black people, like Mike Brown and his family, are not afforded the right to humane treatment.
When commenting on the demographic changes in Ferguson for CNN, Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America, noted, “This is what happens when you have massive racial change in a community and the power structure remains in the hands of whites and the police force acts as this sort of mediating force between the white power structure and what is now a black community and has very little empathy or knowledge about that community.”
Ferguson, like many municipalities across the US, has experienced a dramatic shift in its racial composition. The municipality of roughly 21,000, which, according to the US Census, was comprised of a majority White populace (73.8%) in 1990, is now home to a majority Black populace (67.4%). Ferguson, thus, is more than the subject of a black teen’s death. It is the product of over five decades of “white flight.”

Changes in the racial composition of towns precipitate changes in the ways Black bodies are policed and valued in many neighborhoods. Anti-blackness—as evidenced through the enactment of inequitable laws, discriminatory policing practices, and economic exploitation disproportionately impacting Black people—is one of the threads that connects an individual tragedy, like Mike Brown’s death, to the broader structural issues of White racial supremacy, global capitalism, and gentrification impacting Black people and the working poor to middle class communities they hail from across the US Black lives and White lives are differently valued and are, therefore, differently impacted under the conditions of White racial supremacy across the country.

My brief time in Ferguson prompted me to consider the many ways Mike Brown’s death, and life, was warped by the structural conditions mentioned above—all emanating from what scholar George Lipsitz aptly calls the “possessive investment in whiteness.” Such investments in whiteness, which impacts everything from access to housing markets to points of educational access for Black people within communities across the country, must also be considered alongside the mundane incidents of police violence and hyper criminalization in the US.

Black death at the hands of the state is a consequence of the precarious structural conditions restricting Black life from Ferguson to Flatbush, Brooklyn. Flatbush is the neighborhood where 16-year old Kimani Gray was shot and killed by NYPD in March 2013. I live a short distance from Flatbush, in neighboring Bed-Stuy. Unlike Ferguson, which was a predominantly White space that experienced a decrease in its White populace, traditional black neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy are now experiencing an increase in its White populace.

Bed-Stuy is evidence that the investment in whiteness and divestment in blackness shapes the conditions in which Black bodies engage, and are engaged in, geographical spaces. White bodies in Bed-Stuy now seemingly signals safety and welcome, which is to say: White folk who would not otherwise perceive “Do or Die BedStuy” as safe and welcoming begin to finally perceive it as such because of the presence of other White people. Race shapes perceptions of space.

The problem with this misperception has less to do with the brutal truth that Black spaces like BedStuy or Ferguson are typically deemed “the hood,” as spaces that lack or are wholly violent until White folk increasingly begin trekking into, or back into, the very communities many people, white/black/brown/otherwise, imagined as terrifying. The more insidious problem is the belief that whiteness at all times and in all places signifies safety and bounty and, therefore, represents a site of investment: new stores selling expensive items begin emerging; the same stores stay open (the doors and not just side windows) twenty-four hours; realtors finally begin to take an interest in property sales; nameless and faceless “investors” begin leaving cheap flyers on stoops or in mailboxes promising cash for homes. Safety becomes a relative experience when gentrification occurs. The presence of White people almost always guarantees the increased presence of resources, like police, which does not always guarantee safety for Black people in those same spaces.

And here is what distinguishes the movement of White people into Black and Brown spaces from the movement of Black gentrifiers into those same spaces. Those Black folk, like me, who are afforded the privilege of choosing some of the locations we live are still considered valueless bodies in the same spaces we gentrify. Our presence does not always bring healthy food stores, cute eateries, and hospitable police; on the contrary, we are embattled by the very structural forces of White racial supremacy and capitalism that actually benefit White gentrifiers. And some of us might easily be stopped by police, harassed, or even shot whether we appear respectable or not in those same spaces.

So, if we are to ensure the end of state-sanctioned violence against Black people, we must be ready to think through and redress the socioeconomic and class underpinnings of anti-blackness and White racial supremacy. Until we do, whether we are bodies left to die without compassion in the streets or bodies read as deficits in communities across the US, Black people will continue to be treated as something other than human as whiteness continues to function as a sign for possession and asset.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
by Beryl Satter
Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company)


How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America

“Gripping . . . This painstaking portrayal of the human costs of financial racism is the most important book yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban North.”
 —David Garrow, The Washington Post

The “promised land” for thousands of Southern blacks, postwar Chicago quickly became the most segregated city in the North, the site of the nation’s worst ghettos. In this powerful book, Beryl Satter identifies the true cause of the city’s black slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country: a widespread institutionalized system of legal and financial exploitation.
(b. 1959)

Part family story and part urban history, Family Properties is the riveting account of a city in crisis, involving unscrupulous slumlords and speculators pitched against religious reformers, community organizers, and an impassioned attorney—the author’s father— who launched a crusade against the profiteers. Satter shows the interlocking forces at work: the discriminatory practices of the banking industry; the federal policies that created the country’s shameful “dual housing market”; the economic anxieties that fueled white violence; and the tempting profits to be made by preying on the city’s most vulnerable population.

A monumental work, this tale of racism and real estate, politics and finance will forever change our understanding of the forces that transformed urban America.


Beryl Satter is the author of Each Mind a Kingdom and the chair of the Department of History at Rutgers University in Newark. She was raised in Chicago, Skokie, and Evanston, Illinois, and is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and the Yale American Studies program. For her work in progress on Family Properties, Satter received a J. Anthony Lukas citation. She lives in New York City.

Race, Family, and Real Estate: Beryl Satter's Family Properties -

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In her new book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (2009), historian Beryl Satter puts a human face on the often told story of racial discrimination in urban housing by following the career of her father, Chicago attorney Mark J. Satter, who was both an ardent defender of his mostly black clients who had been severely exploited by real estate speculators, and a property owner in an increasingly black neighborhood who some later accused of being a slumlord himself. Her account is a cautionary tale that reminds us that the ghettos of America's largest cities are the consequence of large impersonal economic forces and of hundreds of individual decisions driven by self-interest and, on occasion, by selfless motives as well.

Family Properties deals with one of the most contentious questions of recent American history –- why so many urban neighborhoods changed so rapidly from white to black, and then decayed into slums. Yet the book originated in something very personal -- my curiosity about my father, Mark J. Satter.

He was a Jewish Chicago attorney with a largely black, working-class clientele. He was 49 years old when he died from a heart ailment in 1965; I, the youngest of his five children, was six. As I grew older, I picked up oddly mixed messages about him from my relatives. They told me he had been a well-known crusader for the oppressed. But they also spoke in more whispered tones about properties he had owned in what was now a black ghetto. He’d hoped that they would provide for his family. Instead, they had become worthless. They were sold shortly after his death. By then they were worth so little that their sale hadn’t even covered that winter’s coal bills -- and I understood that somehow, my relatives felt that he was to blame.

There was a mystery here, and so, a decade ago, I finally decided to investigate my father’s story. I began by reading my father’s papers, which had been saved by one of my brothers.

I was shocked by the stories they contained.

I learned that my father had represented scores of African-Americans who had been unconscionably mislead and grossly overcharged by the real estate agents they’d turned to for help in buying homes. A typical example: in 1957 a white real estate agent, Jay Goran, bought a building for $4300. Soon after, Goran sold it to a black couple, Albert and Sallie Bolton -- for $13,900.

Goran never told the Boltons that he was actually the building’s owner. The Boltons signed some complicated documents that said that the building would remain the legal property of its current owner until they paid off the property in full. They made their high monthly payments for a year; they also spent a considerable sum for repairs. Then they missed a payment, and were evicted. Goran was now free to resell the property, keeping all that the Boltons had invested in it.

In part, the Boltons lost their home and their savings because of the policies of the Federal Housing Administration, which redlined -- that is, refused to insure mortgages -- in neighborhoods that contained even a few black residents. As urban historians have shown, FHA redlining made it impossible for most African Americans to buy homes with a mortgage. Instead, they were forced to deal with speculators, who bought low from whites and sold high to blacks. But these historians missed a critical point. Given that blacks could not get mortgages, how were they able to buy high-priced properties?

The trap that caught my father’s clients provides the answer. Unable to get a mortgage, the Boltons bought their building “on contract,” that is, on an installment plan. They made a down payment. They were also responsible for taxes, insurance, maintenance, and interest. However, they couldn’t get title to the building until the purchase price had been entirely paid off. With just one missed payment, the speculator could reclaim the building. If housing prices were inflated, a missed payment and subsequent quick eviction was practically guaranteed. And prices were wildly inflated. Speculators routinely sold to African Americans at double their properties’ values, but sale prices of triple to quadruple the properties’ values were not uncommon. The fact that approximately 85% of the properties sold to black Chicagoans were sold on contract – and that there were close to a million black people in Chicago by the mid-1960s – gives a sense of the scale of the exploitation.

Why were black Chicagoans willing to buy overpriced properties on contract? Consider the fact that between 1940 and 1960, Chicago’s black population almost tripled, from approximately 278,000 to 813,000. Most were squeezed into the South Side Black Belt -- a neighborhood that had been severely overcrowded even before World War II. Essentially, they were trapped. While homes were for sale at decent prices in nearby white areas, black people could not get mortgages to purchase property there. Landlords in surrounding white neighborhoods usually refused to rent to them as well. Those few black families who did escape the South Side ghetto and move to a less crowded white area were often attacked by their white neighbors, who would mass in front of their home, breaking windows and shouting death threats.

At the same time, black incomes rose nationally in the 1950s; the rise was particularly pronounced in Chicago, where tens of thousands of middle-income black people were paying high rents for inadequate spaces in the South Side Black Belt. Given this context, when a contract seller offered them housing outside of the ghetto, it made sense for them to grab it. Although the prices that the contract sellers charged were high, monthly payments often weren’t much higher than the rents that black families were already paying. Given the redlining policies of the FHA, buying on contract was one of the only means of escape from the high-rent, overcrowded ghetto.

But that didn’t mean that contract sellers weren’t wreaking havoc, fomenting racial division, and exploiting their black customers. “Blockbusting” contract sellers terrorized whites by going door to door, telling homeowners that “the blacks are coming.” If a white person’s house was worth, say, $8,000, they’d offer $7000 – adding that if the homeowner didn’t want to sell, the speculator would be back in month, but this time would offer $6500 – and if that wasn’t adequate, he’d offer the homeowner $6000 shortly after that. Facing this kind of pressure, the white homeowner would sell to the contract seller at $7000 – and the contract seller would then sell that property, on contract of course, to a black buyer – often a person of middle-class income – for, say, $15,000.

But even for a middle-income person, being forced to pay double or more than a property was worth hurt. In addition to being grossly overpriced, the buildings that contract sellers sold were often riddled with code violations. Some black buyers managed the payments and the high repair costs – others did not. And remember, if a contract buyer fell behind on even a single payment, he or she was out – the property reverted to the contract seller, who would resell it to another victim.

What happened to “racially changing” areas where contract sellers were active? While contract sellers became millionaires, their harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities. Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make their inflated monthly payments. Husband and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided their apartments, crammed in extra tenants, and, when possible, charged their tenants hefty rents. Indeed, the genius of this system was that it forced black contract buyers be their own exploiters.

The resulting decline of racially changing areas fed white racism. White people observed that their new black neighbors overcrowded and neglected 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 terrorized shop owners and residents alike. Ultimately whites fled these neighborhoods not only because of the influx of black families, but also 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.

My father’s immersion in the heartbreaking details of his clients’ lives led him to embark on an impassioned crusade against Chicago’s real estate speculators – and against the white professionals, mortgage bankers, and politicians who enabled those speculators to thrive. He tried numerous cases against the city’s worst contract sellers, and gave countless speeches to any group that would listen denouncing their practices. At the same time he was also managing his own properties, four buildings that he had purchased in the 1940s and 1950s. All were located in Lawndale, a formerly Jewish neighborhood (my father was born and raised there) which was rapidly becoming black, and which also contained a high concentration of overpriced contract sales.

It was ironic but not surprising, then, that as my father urged others to protect their investments, his own deteriorated. He poured his money into maintaining the properties, but eventually it became nearly impossible to find either honest building managers or responsible tenants. His building managers stole from him. Some of the tenants they let in severely vandalized the property. The repair bills grew higher until they wiped him out financially.

Indeed, as my brother David later told me, that my father was “caught in his own trap.” When he rented to black tenants, he was called a “blockbuster.” If he were to refuse to rent to them, he would be a racist. Given his public posture, my father could not sell his buildings as blacks were beginning to move in; that would make him a hypocrite. If he sold after the neighborhood had become all black, he’d find no buyers except the speculators he was denouncing. Of course he would not participate in the plunder engaged in by these men and women. He decided to hold on, and try his hardest to maintain his properties while the surrounding area crumbled. But if his efforts to maintain them failed, then he was a slumlord. If tenants damaged the buildings, he would be called a slumlord as well.

Although the ironies were greater, my father’s situation differed little from that of any other white landlord in a “changing” urban neighborhood. Their choices were 1) to become contract sellers themselves; 2) to sell their property to a real estate speculator; or 3) try to “do the right thing” – that is, do what the liberals were preaching and stay in the neighborhood. But more often than not that meant to watch as one’s neighborhood became overcrowded, neglected, and crime-ridden, and to watch in horror as one’s property decline dramatically in value – until, defeated at last, the remaining whites exercised the one option that many of their black neighbors did not have – the option to leave.

My father died before he had to face the final indignity of selling his properties for nothing, but in the final months of his life, he suffered because of his powerlessness. There are lines from Herman Melville’s novel Pierre that perfectly express the tragedy of my father’s final year. Melville wrote that “in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;--nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”

I had thought that my father’s untimely death in 1965 was also the tragic end of the battle against exploitative contract selling in Chicago. I would learn, however, that the battle he’d tried to ignite did finally take off -- but only after his death, when a black-led community organization called the Contract Buyers League arose to battle that practice. The struggles, losses, and ultimate triumphs of Chicago’s black contract buyers was a gripping drama that my father’s story led me to uncover, and one that would grant a measure of closure to what I had initially believed to be the tragedy of my father’s lonely battle.


The above material is adopted from “Race and Real Estate,” a précis of Family Properties that was published in the July/August 2009 issue of Poverty & Race, the bimonthly publication of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington D.C. ( and from the book Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America by Beryl Satter. Copyright © 2009 by Beryl Satter. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.


Satter, Beryl
Rutgers University, Newark

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