Starting conversations about inequality in finding a home

March 23 | diezyn

"This is a book about home," begins Professor Anita Hill's Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. She examines home "as a place and a state of being by interweaving discussions of law, literature, and culture with stories of individuals, focusing on women, and African Americans, in search of equality."

In the recent foreclosure crisis in the United States, a disproportionate amount of women and racial minorities were the victims of subprime loans and mortgages with adjustable interest rates — statistics that speak to inequality in housing. For Hill, there is a "sense of belonging that comes from being at home" – so what happens when one is without a home? Reimagining Equality reveals that these biases are historic in the American construction of what "home" means.

Reimagining home and the struggles with these iterations are so important because "home" is an inherent part of the American dream. Freed slaves like Hill's relatives went from being property to owning it; Herbert Hoover defined homeownership as a sentiment in the heart of American life; Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" describes a family's dream and struggle to move into a predominantly white neighbourhood. In fact, Hansberry's play was based on her own family's move to a white neighbourhood in Chicago – a move that was met with fierce opposition from the white inhabitants. Hill goes on to cite other examples of "home" in the American cultural and historical identity, underscoring how the current housing crisis is part of a century-long struggle for equality with "home" being the keystone: the Jeffersons moved on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky when they finally got a piece of the pie; the Obamas are the first black family in the White House.

Anita Hill, professor of social policy, women's studies, and law at Brandeis University, grew up in rural Oklahoma. Her book is part historical, part autobiographical, and part sociological. She recounts her family's story: her great-grandparents' were born into slavery in Arkansas, and after slavery was abolished, they were able to own a farm of their own — until "a combination of violence, threats, and the economy" drove them to Oklahoma. Hill uses her family's story as a backdrop for painfully similar stories from families across the United States over the past century. Reimagining home is nothing new for American families, and marginalized peoples have struggled to own every iteration of the American home.

In the closing chapters of the book, Hill looks at today's housing crisis through the lens she established in earlier chapters. In the final pages, she asks, among other questions, the following:

Within our cities, what are our plans to build community and put an end to the notion that individualism and neighborhood isolation will protect us from violence and crime in economically distressed areas?
Will we challenge the undemocratic exclusivity of an American Dream that can be achieved only by families with two incomes buying large suburban homes?
Can we imagine an American Dream founded on the idea that one's gender or race will not predestine where one finds home – both the place and the state of being?

Reimagining Equality aims to raise these questions for discussion with the understanding that the issues discussed aren't in a historical or cultural vacuum. By Hill's own admission, "structuring a conversation about these and many other issues won't be easy." It is her hope (and mine) that the conversation begins — and I recommend this book as a point of entry.

  1. Thank you so much for bringing up this important aspect of "home." I actually work at a housing/homelessness nonprofit and I do a lot of presentations about our work. I always try to emphasize that some people work just as hard as others but just don't get as far ahead. One of the statistics I shared just yesterday:

    Between 1934 and 1962, the American government subsidized $120 billion of new housing. Over 98% went to white families due to redlining, racial covenants, and other racist policies (endorsed by the government, no less). When we think about the opportunities our parents or grandparents had for the wealth and stability of home ownership, the color of their skin may well have been a significant factor. And as you pointed out, these issues continue today.

    PBS produced an excellent documentary called Race: The Power of an Illusion that has an extensive discussion of housing issues. The entire video is difficult to find, but the transcript is available at http://newsreel.org/transcripts/race3.htm and you can watch a clip at http://bit.ly/RaceandHousing.

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  2. I'd love to see the stigma of renting disappear, which I feel it does for many people (though not all obviously). In my college Social Inequality class our professor was making a point about home ownership at our affluent, mainly white campus. He asked how many people's parents owned their home. Everyone but me raised their hands. My professor couldn't even see that my hand wasn't up. I felt for a second ashamed and happy that I was in the back where no one could see me, but you know what? My family is awesome and I've had a happy life, so who cares?

    It IS interesting that in the apartment complexes in our area there is overwhelming diversity. People from all over the world, while the single homes in our area are owned by mostly white families. I feel lucky to live in the apartments though because it's an enriching experience to live alongside so many cultures.

    And also, I have to say that I am SO happy that it's getting warmer so we can meet some of our neighbors who have adorable children!

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    • Totally this. Renting is the norm in most of Europe, and while home ownership is the aim of most people in the UK, rental here is much more common than in the US.

      Does social/government-owned housing exist in the US? Over here there has been a huge decline in it since our government encouraged those living in council (government owned) properties to buy those properties off the government. Social housing is mostly run by housing associations here now.

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  3. Renting it much more normal in Europe. My parents didn't buy a house until they were in their 50s,a friend from germany told me that it's the minority that own their own. After the huge property crash in Ireland I think people feel liberated by renting and actually trapped by having homes that they will never be able to sell.

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  4. I don't have much to say on the topic, but I just want to say that I love how Offbeat Home has these serious, thoughtful posts as well as more superficial (in the best way!) posts about decorating and stuff. :)

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  5. This is something I think about a lot. I work with people of color who are often living in poverty, and it has made me keenly aware of my own white privilege. Two years ago my now-husband and I bought a house. My coworker, who is Africa American and lives with her mother, sister, and daughter, also applied for but was not approved for FHA lending. It really makes me think.

    I agree with the above poster about having a mix of frilly and thoughtful, more social-issue type posts. You guys rock!

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