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Racial Preferences for Whites: The Houses That Racism Built

Thirteen years ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in. It was one of those suburban tract homes that sprouted across the nation after World War II. Our home was pleasant if undistinguished. It wasn't one of Malvina Reynolds' "little boxes made of ticky tacky" - based on a drive the singer took past Daly City, CA in the '50s. It was a ranch house on a curving, leafy street in Merrick, Long Island, 25 miles east of Manhattan, about five miles from its more famous suburban neighbor, Levittown.

After turning 65, my father wasted no time retiring. He'd purchased our house back in 1952 for $20,000 thanks to a 4 percent mortgage made possible by the Veterans Administration. Now he was considering an offer of $300,000. With the money they'd get a place in the Berkshires and winter in Florida.

Ten years later, my colleague here at California Newsreel, Cornelius, sold the house he grew up in. Cornelius' folks had also purchased a place in the early '50s in Chester, just outside Philadelphia. A few years ago, after Cornelius' father passed away, his mother wanted to move back to Virginia. Cornelius sold the home in 2000 - for $29,500.

That $270,500 gap reveals a microcosm of race in America. My family is white and Cornelius' is black.

On Monday, the Supreme Court finally issued its ruling on whether the University of Michigan should jettison its affirmative action program. The court upheld the law school program that sought a "critical mass" of minorities but struck down a "point system" used to increase affirmative action for undergraduates. While the decisions didn't fully satisfy advocates on either side, on balance they were less "anti-affirmative action" than feared. I wonder how many justices had experiences like mine.

Cornelius and I have worked together for 20 years, always making an identical salary, yet my net worth is several times his. My two brothers and I enjoyed good schools, parks and libraries because of rising property values. My parents' growing home equity not only provided for their retirement but sent the three of us to private colleges - and even helped with the down-payments on our own homes. Today, thanks to them, my house is paid off and my 21-year-old daughter is about to graduate college with a nest egg of her own. When my parents pass away, we stand to inherit a tidy sum.

Cornelius had no such help. As American manufacturing declined, Chester became increasingly black and populated by people on fixed incomes, who faced higher taxes to maintain public services and schools. Cornelius' parents' expenses climbed as their city deteriorated. Cornelius attended college on scholarship, but worked his way through school. Today, rather than look to his mother for financial help, Cornelius helps support her.

What's this got to with race? It goes back to the postwar suburbs and the government policies and subsidies that made them possible -- and guaranteed they'd be segregated.

A set of New Deal programs led by the Federal Housing Administration allowed millions of average white Americans to own a home for the first time. Down payment requirements were reduced from as much as 50 percent to 10 or 20 percent and the time to pay off the remaining mortgage was extended from five years to 30 years.

Federal investigators evaluated 239 regions for risk. Communities with a mere one or two black families were deemed ipso facto financial risks ineligible for low cost home loans. Government appraisal maps colored those communities red -- hence the origin of the term "redlining."

Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans; more than 98 percent went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support here in Northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.

Barred from purchasing a home in the new post-War suburbs, Cornelius' parents had to buy in one of the few communities where black people could live.

Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical white family has ten times the net worth of the typical black family (nine times the net worth of the typical Latino family). Even when they make the same income, white families have over twice the wealth. Much of that gap is due to home equity and family inheritance.

Many whites who grew up middle class in the suburbs like to think we got where we are today on merit - hard work, intelligence, pluck and maybe a little luck. We wonder why non-white parents didn't just work hard, buy a home and pass on the appreciated value like our parents did. We tend to be blind to how the playing field has been - and continues to be - tilted to our advantage.

Racism doesn't just come dressed in white sheets or voiced by skinheads, but lies in institutions that, like the FHA, have quietly and often invisibly channeled America's wealth, power, and status disproportionately to white people. Those advantages are passed on and accumulate, generation to generation, giving us a head start in life. As Ohio State University law professor john a. powell observes: "The slick thing about whiteness is that whites are getting the spoils of a racist system without themselves being personally racist."

I sit on my back deck today, enjoying the blooms of the wisteria and reading an e-mail from my daughter about her post-college plans. My daughter certainly had nothing to do with slavery or Jim Crow. But the past still helps shape her future thanks to the many advantages my parents, me, and now she have accrued thanks to generations of racial preferences -- for white people.

© San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 2003