True or false?
Property values usually decrease as a neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.
If you’re white like me and you answered with true, you and I are with the vast majority of white respondents. We’re also wrong. The statement, as written, is false. Changes in racial demographics can both decrease and increase property values. In cases where white people are gentrifying traditionally minority neighborhoods, property values usually rise. Of course, if you’re like me, you didn’t read it that way. Your judgement was clouded by certain racist assumptions.
The statement is only true if we, like most white respondents, assume whiteness as normative. Most white people subconsciously read, “White property values usually decrease as a white neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.” This misreading is sadly true. Today, after decades of anti-discriminatory housing policy, the United States still remains highly segregated. This is not difficult to explain. It is not the result of “people wanting to live with their kind.” Rather, it is one of the clearest signs of the continued power of white privilege.
Jane Hill, in her book “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” highlights this and many other linguistic signals of systemic racism. While racial slurs are the most visible manifestations of white dominance, they are hardly the most important. Hill makes a compelling argument for how racism is sustained and re-codified in the seemingly innocent assertions of white culture. Indeed, how white people discuss and justify the places we choose to live abounds with racist assumptions and justifications.
Hill points out that, when it comes to property values, it is always the property values of white people that are of concern and deserving of protection. White flight, though almost always racially motivated, is justified as a wise economic decision rather than a racist act. Most white people ignore the obvious – it is not the color of our neighbor’s skin that reduces our property values, but the latent racism of us and our neighbors. If we were not racist, property values would remain static.
While many of us would find it detestable if someone said, “I’m moving because I dislike black people,” we find it perfectly acceptable to use economic justifications – better schools, more amenities, greater security, and higher property values – for seeking segregated neighborhoods. Most white people ignore the obvious – white neighborhoods have better schools, more amenities, greater security and higher property values because our culture has systematically funneled an unequal amount of resources to predominantly white neighborhoods. While moving to or protecting one of these white enclaves may seem innocent enough, it is one of the most insidious ways for us to sustain white privilege.
Indeed, we have designed a system that rewards whites for living together in newly constructed communities with all of the modern amenities and forces people of color to live in formally white neighborhoods with declining housing stock, obsolete school buildings and crumbling infrastructure. Additionally, we give businesses, factories and football stadiums – that primarily benefit and employ suburban whites – tax exemptions and reductions that inhibit the ability of these older neighborhoods to address these deficiencies.
Adding insult to injury, we negatively compare the quality of these minority neighborhoods with our white enclaves and imply the difference is a matter of white virtue rather than inequity. Our neighborhoods are beautiful and clean because we’re more responsible rather than because we have more resources. We argue people of color don’t take care of their property, even when what they own is what we abandoned. These racist rationalizations perpetuate our justifications for continued segregation. Even when our racist stereotypes are challenged, we resist any change in thinking. When a person of color moves into our neighborhood and keeps their property pristine, they are the exception to our rule.
Sadly, this segregation in housing – which even progressive white people generally obey and tolerate – is one of the primary pillars of systemic racism. It keeps us separate and unequal, removed from the stereotype breaking influence of integration, of living side by side. Our neighbors remain people who look and act like us. People of color are alien. Our judgments of them are based on racist stereotypes rather than lived experience.
Housing segregation also keeps people of color down economically. When people of color attain some level of affluence and buy homes in our neighborhoods, we sabotage this attempt at wealth accumulation by moving away and leaving them financially upside down. When we decide we want to live closer to the center city, we buy up their homes at basement prices and push them out, often into the very suburban neighborhoods we once desired and protected. Whites can live wherever we desire. Our property gains value simply because we’re white.
Unfortunately, deconstructing this mechanism of systemic racism will not be easy. It will require white people to choose to live in integrated neighborhoods, even when this is not economically wise. It will require us to welcome new neighbors of color and intentionally incorporate them into our neighborhoods. It will require us to abandon the coded language of “good neighborhoods, good schools, and good communities” when the subtext is really “white neighborhoods, white schools and white communities.” Finally, it will require us to identify and deconstruct tax policies that continue to funnel unequal resources into white neighborhoods and communities.
This is our responsibility and not theirs. They can never end segregation. Only white people can. Only we can change the system. Only we can abandon the language and the assumptions that under gird that language. And we will know when we have succeeded. The end of systemic racism will come when property values are no longer correlated with the color of our skin. Our homes will no longer testify to our privilege.
Until then, when it comes to racism, where we live will always speak louder than what we say.