If race doesn't exist biologically, what is it? And why should it matter? Our final episode, "The House We Live In," is the first film about race to focus not on individual attitudes and behavior but on the ways our institutions and policies advantage some groups at the expense of others. Its subject is the "unmarked" race: white people. We see how benefits quietly and often invisibly accrue to white people, not necessarily because of merit or hard work, but because of the racialized nature of our laws, courts, customs, and perhaps most pertinently, housing.
The film begins by looking at the massive immigration from eastern and southern Europe early in the 20th century. Italians, Hebrews, Greeks and other ethnics were considered by many to be separate races. Their "whiteness" had to be won. But who was white? The 1790 Naturalization Act had limited naturalized citizenship to "free, white persons." Many new arrivals petitioned the courts to be legally designated white in order to gain citizenship. Armenians, known as "Asiatic Turks," succeeded with the help of anthropologist Franz Boas, who testified on their behalf as an expert scientific witness.
In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who had attended the University of California, also appealed the rejection of his citizenship application. He argued that his skin was physically white and that race shouldn't matter for citizenship. The Supreme Court, however, decided that the Japanese were not legally white based on science, which classified them as Mongoloid rather than Caucasian. Less than a year later, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the court contradicted itself by concluding that Asian Indians were not legally white, even though science classified them as Caucasian. Refuting its own reasoning in Ozawa, the justices declared that whiteness should be based not on science, but on "the common understanding of the white man."
Next we see how Italians, Jews and other European ethnics fared better, especially after World War II, when segregated suburbs like Levittown popped up around the country, built with the help of new federal policies and funding. Real estate practices and federal government policies like redlining directed government-guaranteed loans to white homeowners and kept non-whites out, allowing those once previously considered "not quite white" to blend together and reap the advantages of whiteness, including the accumulation of equity and wealth as their homes increased in value. Those on the other side of the color line were denied the same opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility.
Today (2003), the net worth of the average Black family is about 1/8 that of the average white family. Much of that difference derives from the value of the family's residence. Houses in predominantly white areas sell for much more than those in Black, Hispanic or integrated neighborhoods, and so power, wealth, and advantage - or the lack of it - are passed down from parent to child. Wealth isn't just luxury or profit; it's the starting point for the next generation.
How does the wealth gap translate into performance differences? New studies reveal that when the "family wealth gap" between African Americans and whites is taken into account, there is no difference in test scores, graduation rates, welfare usage and other measures. It's a lack of opportunities, not natural differences, that's responsible for continuing inequality. Wealth, more than any other measure, shows the accumulated impact of past discrimination, and shapes your life chances.
"Colorblind" policies which ignore race only perpetuate these inequities. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "To get beyond racism we must first take account of race. There is no other way." As The House We Live In shows us, until we address the legacy of past discrimination and confront the historical meanings of race, the dream of equality will remain out of reach.