In “A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home,” Laura Gottesdiener provides a vivid and historical account of the decimating impact of the loss of houses, property and community caused by the foreclosure crisis.
In her introduction to A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, about the racism embedded in an economic system that defines personal value as equivalent to money and property – and how it manifests itself in the looting of many Black families of their homes, Laura Gottesdiener provides a vivid and historical account of the decimating impact of the loss of houses, property and community.
The ravaging of Detroit and the destruction of families and neighborhoods is no accident, for example. There are economic forces that have gained a great deal in doling out financial misery to minority (and white) homeowners.
Gottesdiener, however, is not one who is drawn to victimization. She is inspired by the infectious power of resistance against exploitation.
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Introduction to A Dream Foreclosed:
The police were at the door.
Running footsteps on the stairs, and then –
“Martha Biggs! Ms. Biggs! Open up!” a man shouted. Nine-year-old Jimmya Biggs remembers the pounding of fists followed by the deliberate thud of a battering ram. She and her seven-year-old sister Justice had just finished eating cereal, and they were playing Barbie in the living room of their two-family home on the West Side of Chicago. It was the weekend. Later that afternoon, Jimmya and her two sisters planned to pick up their progress report cards from Salazar Elementary. Jimmya was a smart and well-behaved student, and she was excited to read her teachers’ comments.
The pounding grew louder. The girls’ older sister Jajuanna was still asleep on the middle level of the triple-layer bunk bed that the sisters shared. Jimmya peered out the window. Nearly a half dozen police cars were parked below. Their lights were flashing. The girls’ mother, Martha Biggs, woke to the commotion and rushed to the door. She opened it, only to see seven police officers, a blinding flashlight, and her dreams exploding once again. It was 2010 – the year that, for the first time in U.S. history, banks seized more than one million homes, evicting nearly three thousand families every single day.
Martha yelled at the girls to get dressed. Jimmya and Justice flew into the bathroom together (“I was so scared – so, so, so, so scared!” Jimmya confided later). Martha and Jajuanna grabbed bags of clothes and ran down the stairs, shoving them into the family minivan. Martha had suspected that her landlord was in foreclosure when he’d stopped making repairs, and she’d already packed up some of their things. The girls emerged from the bathroom; a female police officer knelt down to remind Jimmya to put on a coat and shoes. Martha roused her only son, three-year-old Davion, and coaxed him into the car. The family fit, but it was tight: Martha and Jajuanna in the front seat, Jimmya, Justice, and Davion crowded between clothes and coats in the back. As Martha drove away from the house that had been their home and headed to Salazar Elementary School (the girls’ report cards were good, as they’d hoped), Martha knew that this eviction was not only part of the 2008 housing crisis. It was part of a much longer story, one that stretched back to Martha’s own childhood and even further, all the way back to the founding of the United States – a story of housing, race and freedom that weaves through the nation’s history like the crisscross stitches on the fabric of a quilt.
Home. A place to live. The importance of this universal human need reverberates and ripples across the physical landscape of the United States and across the imagination of American society. To nineteenth-century author Anna Julia Cooper, who had been enslaved as a child and became one of the nation’s leading intellectuals, a place to live is “not merely a house to shelter the body, but a home to sustain and freshen the mind.”
Home is an emotional place of promise and dreams. Getting there has been the subject of song, literature and myth dating back to the dawn of civilization. In the United States, the significance of a home has been central to notions of who we are and who we want to be. The living embodiment of the American Dream is to own a simple house with a white picket fence. “It’s just a plain little old house – but it’s made good and solid – and it will be ours,” is how Mama explains the dream home in A Raisin in the Sun.
An indecent place to live is a crowded space where dreams wither. As Gwendolyn Brooks writes in “Kitchenette Building,” a poem about the subdivided apartments in 1960s African American neighborhoods:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
And being without a place to live is one of the most traumatizing experiences in contemporary American society. As Jimmya explained two years after her family’s eviction from her home on the West Side of Chicago: “When I was homeless, it wasn’t like I was dirty, because my mom made sure I wasn’t. But then I was going to school with everything on my mind of what happened the other night – that yesterday I got a house, but what about today? I might have to sleep in the car today. I might get a good meal today. But will I get a meal? Will something go wrong? What will happen? How will I get home today?“
The word home originates from the Anglo-Saxon word ham, which means “a village or town, an estate or possession.” Home continues to carry this dual meaning, signifying both community (village) and commodity (estate). The word house, often used as synonym for home, also carries these multiple definitions. “A house is, in all its figurings, always thing, domain, and meaning – home, dwelling, and property; shelter, lodging, and equity; roof, protection, and aspiration,” write scholars Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva. While it is a small, humble word, the power of home is nearly unrivaled. It is the prize of epic heroes. It is where children are born and adults die. It is nearly synonymous with the idea of equality, upward mobility, and freedom. But it is also a word that, when misused, can unleash great destruction – including the worst financial collapse since the 1930s. As law professor Anita Hill writes in her book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home, “At the heart of the crisis is the ideological disconnect between home as a basic element of the American Dream and pathway to equality, and home as a market product.”
The definition of home has legal, political, and economic consequences. Property (the estate) and personhood (the individual and her rights) have been interconnected since the dawn of the Western tradition. According to John Locke – called by one scholar the “ultimate Founding Father” – even a person’s connection to her or his own body is defined by property relations. “[E]very man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote in The Second Treatise on Civil Government. This relation between property ownership and full personhood served as the legal foundation for the early U.S. Constitution, which granted only white, male property-holding individuals the right to political participation. Home and landownership gave one access to the original American Dream: democracy. As nineteenth-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wrote, “Property is the first embodiment of freedom.”
Property has also embodied the very opposite of freedom for a large number of people throughout the history of the United States. In the early United States, many communities suffered at the hands of the United States’ particular version of property law, which hinged on rights of exclusion – I own this; therefore, you have no right to it – that were recognized only when the owner was a white man. This selective right to exclude was used by whites to control and disenfranchise Native Americans, African Americans and Mexicans, who were rendered immigrants in their own lands by U.S. expansion. But the racism in U.S. property law did more than prohibit many from being owners. It determined who, in the eyes of the law and society, was considered a person. As law professor Margalynne J. Armstrong writes, “African Americans have a historical relationship to property that differs from that of other Americans. Our introduction to this country was as a form of property [and] contemporary relationships between African Americans and property are still impaired” (emphasis mine).
The collapse of home – and home ownership – that began surfacing in late 2007 has created not only an economic disaster but a crisis in national identity. On the surface, this catastrophe is about the price of our houses. But more fundamentally, this ongoing crisis challenges the very foundation of American democracy. It is prompting us to question what it means to live in a society in which ownership is not only the dream but the underlying basis of full personhood. And it is forcing millions of Americans to experience for the first time how it feels to be on the wrong side of the property line.
The true scale of the crisis, which is still far from over, has not yet been fully understood. In human terms, an estimated ten million people have been forced out of their homes through foreclosure and bank eviction from 2007 to 2013. Ten million people. That is more than thirty times the number of people who rushed to California in pursuit of gold in the 1850s. It is four times the number of people who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Even the Great Migration – the eighty-year march of Southern-born African Americans to Northern and Western cities during the twentieth century – involved only six million people. As a contemporary comparison, ten million is more than the number of people who currently live in all of Michigan, one of the most highly populated states in the union. In other words, it’s as if bankers have evicted and repossessed the homes of every man, woman and child in the Great Lakes state.
In purely financial terms, the ongoing crisis and subsequent economic restructuring have cost unknown trillions of dollars. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, it has destroyed $19.2 trillion in U.S. household wealth, dragging millions deeper into debt and poverty. The nation’s primary economic engine of the last half century – the housing market – simply imploded. Multiple cities have declared bankruptcy. Homelessness among children under the age of seventeen in Florida has nearly doubled. And, according to a Center for Responsible Lending report in 2011, “We are not even halfway through the foreclosure crisis.”
In the spring and summer of 2012, I drove across the country to study families and neighborhoods that were trying to stop foreclosure and displacement. As I witnessed inspiring stories and actions, I began observing something that took the project in an entirely unexpected direction. Through hundreds of interviews with families experiencing housing instability, I noticed that perceptions of the crisis were often influenced by race. White Americans often spoke about foreclosure as a singular, shocking event. Many blamed relatively recent changes in the U.S. economic structure, such as lending deregulation, the stagnation of middle-class wages or the development of the securitization process, which mortgage-pushing companies and Wall Street used to cash in on predatory, often unpayable loans.
In contrast, African Americans rarely spoke about foreclosure as if it were something new and unprecedented, or even something that only affected mortgage-holding families. Instead, they tied today’s housing crisis to a longer fight for home – one that encompasses hundreds of years and includes everyone from families who pay mortgages to people who live in public housing. Most strikingly, they often proposed far more visionary economic and social solutions, sometimes even questioning the very fundamental structure of housing in America. When I mentioned my observations to Max Rameau, cofounder of the national housing network Take Back the Land, he agreed. “White people see this as a foreclosure problem. Black communities see this as part of a historic pattern of disenfranchisement,” he said.
The ongoing foreclosure crisis has displaced and evicted families of every race and ethnicity. In fact, more white Americans have been forced from their homes since 2007 than people of any other racial or ethnic group. Yet the nation hasn’t evolved beyond the long legacy of racism in property relations. Black families and neighborhoods have been disproportionately victimized by bankers’ predatory loans and illegal mortgage servicing practices. Compared to white Americans, African Americans are twice as likely to be forced from their homes through bank-pursued eviction. Bankers’ eviction and repossession of people’s homes have already decimated some Black communities; more than one-third of African American families in Detroit – a city that once had one of the highest Black homeownership rates in the nation – have already been forced out. These statistics hold true across class lines. Lower-, middle-, and upper-class African American families have all been evicted from their homes at roughly the same rate. Nor can the higher rates of foreclosure be explained by racial disparities in credit ratings. The truth is that bankers’ predatory targeting of people of color is one of the main reasons that millions of African Americans have lost their homes.
The full significance of these statistics, the reality they represent, has been startlingly unexamined. Because of the deep and enduring connection between property and personhood, today’s ongoing wave of racially tilted displacement is part of a long history of denying full human and citizenship rights to African Americans and other people of color. It’s a history, often suppressed or ignored, that began the moment Europeans set foot on North America and Africa, and continues to the present day. And most silenced of all is the story of the families who are organizing against this displacement, battling bankers, government officials, courts and the police to defend not only the places they live but also their very freedom. As Anita Hill writes, “nothing better represents the twisted path to racial and gender equality in America than the search for home.”
Today, Black America continues to fight for a place to call home. From grassy fields to postindustrial plains, from river-cradled towns to brick-faced cities, a movement is brewing. Block by block, a sense of resistance is taking root in Black communities – one that is informed by this racial history and defined by the growing conviction that there must be a better way to live in America. But don’t be mistaken: This is not a movement to increase African Americans’ access and opportunities in the current housing market. Instead, like past Black-led movements, today’s uprising seeks to change the very economic and social system itself – to replace this model with one that is built on ideals of equality and community.
This book voices some of the life histories of four people who are part of this struggle: Griggs Wimbley in Sanford, North Carolina; Bertha Garrett in Detroit, Michigan; Michael Hutchins in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Martha Biggs in Chicago, Illinois. In the first section, “The Dream,” these four individuals search throughout the 1990s for new homes in a larger pursuit for happiness, familial security, independence or basic survival. In the second section, “The Explosion,” they find themselves and their homes under attack in the 2000s, threatened by bankers, politicians and a society in crisis. Finally, in “The Fight,” all four refuse to abandon their dreams, and they embark on new, seemingly impossible journeys that pit them against the most powerful force in human history: modern capitalism.
Although these stories span only three decades, they are part of a much longer history: the epic quest of African Americans to make a home in a nation that has, for too many centuries, proven an inhospitable land. But in some ways, these stories have nothing to do with race at all. For these individuals are doing what people throughout history have always done when their most sacred dreams are threatened by evil or injustice.
They fight back.
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Copyright of Laura Gottesdiener. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author.