The Residential Is Racial
A Perceptual History of Mass Homeownership
Adrienne Brown


chapter abstract

This chapter establishes the book's commitment to charting how the modern case for mass homeownership wielded the longstanding belief that caring for property was an inherent racial capacity even as homeownership was remaking how Americans sensed and defined race and valued racial evidence. More than deepening established grooves of racial inequity or recalibrating a few of its categories, mass homeownership reconstructed the American racial sensorium to better secure the value of whiteness within the new physical, aesthetic, and actuarial environments comprising the residential. Becoming residential—a spatial category catalyzing new modes of sensing, moving, and being organized around the superiority of homeownership—involved reshaping where and how Americans looked for race, the methods and forms they used to perceive, experience, and describe it, and the shifting stakes of its interpretation.

1Empire Builders: The Racial Longings of Modern Real Estate
chapter abstract

This chapter establishes how a shared belief in property as a principally white capacity helped unite the real estate industry as a modern profession and paved the way for the state's eventual uptake of its theories. Focusing on the first two decades of the National Real Estate Journal, the house publication of the country's most prominent real estate guild, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, this chapter's recovers the foundational function of race within the affective, social, and scientific arguments realtors constructed to insist upon homeownership's role in maintaining American white-settler identity into the residential age. The chapter then turns to two of the era's most iconic novels—Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925)—as they chart the changing racial sensorium produced through homeownership.

2Scoring Housing's Modern Jazzy Sound at the Rent Party
chapter abstract

This chapter second chapter turns to the raucous archive of rental sounds and songs to recover black theories of dwelling in excess of ownership emerging from the early 20th century rent party. Peaking in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, rent parties helped working class black residents in Northern cities afford the inflated rents in crowded enclaves. Rent parties have left their traces in calling cards, jazz memoirs, sociological sketches, popular plays, and Duke Ellington's inventive portraits of urban utopia. Mining this archive, we find rent party documentarians and their protagonists—most notably black women—approaching housing not as a moral or civic duty but as a necessity around which social relations beyond ownership could emerge. The rent party appears in this chapter as a site where black Americans conceived of an alternative logic of dispossessive placemaking in direct contrast to the racialized arguments for homeownership.

3Making Ownership Feel Good Again: Rewriting the Land Man after the Great Depression
chapter abstract

This chapter seeks to understand how Americans across the color line came to reconcile with property following the devastating foreclosures of the Depression, insisting we must turn to the cultural archives of the 1930's to understand how Americans regained the ability to feel good about property and, by extension, its enduring racialization. It begins with a focus on John Steinbeck's longstanding investment in the idea of the white "land man," defined not by the fact of owning but rather by this figure's undying desire for ownership. It concludes by turning to the work of black writers W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright debating in the Depression's aftermath whether it was better to fight for the Negro's right to "land man" status or to cede this construct in favor of adopting other orientations towards dwelling.

4Appraisal Manuals: Looking at Residential Looking on the Midcentury Block
chapter abstract

This chapter begins with a focus on a professional field developing the racial logic of mass homeownership: property appraisal. Appraisers approached the work of valuation as an empirical science. And yet, like most empirical practices, the science alleged to anchor this field in the 20th century proves far more fungible, subjective, and aesthetic in practice. This chapter identifies several sub-genres of 'appraisal narratives' variously describing and obscuring procedures for perceiving and assessing race and property together. It begins by tracing the emergence of professional appraisal, paying particular attention to how manuals and textbooks designed to train burgeoning property valuators described the work of racial appraisal from the 1920's to the 1960's. It then turns to mid-century texts by Jane Jacobs, Gwendolyn Brooks and Thomas Pynchon that at times reify and at others revise tactics for racial appraisal circulating within real estate and planning fields.

5Feeling Racial Attachments to Property with John Cheever and Lorraine Hansberry
chapter abstract

John Cheever and Lorraine Hansberry shared a commitment to representing the emerging norms of American residential life. In his Shady Hill stories, Cheever foregrounds neighborhood formation at midcentury as a process of racial formation. His insistence on attending to whiteness as something requiring new descriptive attention following the expansion of homeownership distinguishes his fiction from his peers often more willing to take whiteness for granted. Although Hansberry chaffed at dismissive attempts to read Raisin as merely "about real estate," embracing this frame as a dynamic rather than a deadening descriptor allows us to better see her complex treatment of black attachment to property. Focusing on her depiction of George Murchison, a character often read flatly by critics as an indictment of the black bourgeoisie, allows us to consider the varying forms black attachment to property takes in Raisin.

6What Does Institutional Racism Look Like? The Investigative Aesthetics of Fair Housing
chapter abstract

This chapter tracks how activists and artists alike learned—or failed to learn—to bring the institutional racism associated with the housing market into representation. This chapter first examines how activists from Martin Luther King Jr. to grassroot collectives in New York attempted to find a visual grammar for housing discrimination before turning to two works released on either side of the Fair Housing Act's 1968 passage—Kristin Hunter's 1966 novel The Landlord and its 1970 film adaptation written by Bill Gunn and directed by Hal Ashby—to consider how these works narrated the deindividualized forms of racism organizing the American housing market before and after this legal intervention. These representations falling on either end of the Fair Housing Act help us better see race and racism as evolving constructs differently calibrated across historical periods but also in relation to shifting physical and financial spaces.

Epilogue: Resurrection City and Beverly Hills, Chicago
chapter abstract

A brief epilogue considers the changing aesthetics of homeownership after the 1960's. While the ownership bug continues to persist within American culture and its representations, the stalwart setting of the single-family home at the center of a good deal of 20th century American literature is increasingly being usurped within the contemporary literary imagination by tent cities, refugee camps, military encampments, and reservations. The literature of dispossession—which this book argues has always historically shadowed the residential literature in the 20th century U.S.— now seemingly occupies the center of 21st American fiction. I also read two closing cases—the 1969 erection of Resurrection City on the National Mall as part of the Poor People's Campaign and Gwendolyn Brooks' 1949 poem, "Beverly Hills, Chicago"—as offering some lasting lessons and questions about ownership's place as the natural horizon of citizenship, security, or investment.