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



WHO HAS A FEEL FOR ownership, a touch for property, an aptitude for owning and valuing ownership? The notion that some have an inherent sense for ownership—an orientation equal parts ability and feeling, marking one’s talents to both own and appreciate owning’s merits—has historically propelled the mutual formation of race and property. The interdependence of these concepts has been most visible in the coevolved philosophical, economic, and legal systems used to legitimate chattel slavery, native dispossession, and real property beginning in the 17th century—projects collectively anchored by an understanding of whiteness as the laudable and superior penchant to own. But the mutual remaking of race and property endured into the twentieth century, if along increasingly more bureaucratic channels in the United States, as homeownership surpassed the ownership of arable land and enslaved people to become Americans’ most prized form of possession. Endorsed by the state and embraced by many of its citizens by the mid-twentieth century as the surest path to wealth creation, homeownership became the lingua franca of the American Dream. Yet, as many histories of homeownership have shown, the materialization of this dream for most white Americans depended upon the exclusion of those deemed racially incapable of cherishing homeownership, performing its idioms and, most importantly, conserving its value on a market built on such presumptions about racialized ownership.

This book recovers how the modern case for mass homeownership wielded the long-standing 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—the embodied habits and learned procedures used to detect, perceive, and orient one’s self in relation to race—to better secure the value of whiteness within the new physical, aesthetic, and actuarial environments comprising the residential.1 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. The Residential Is Racial traces homeownership’s racialized touch to understand the extent of its reach, why its grip has remained so firm upon so many across the color line, and what other forms of residential feeling might be limned from the cultural and bureaucratic archives of the twentieth century.

That the U.S. would become a nation of homeowners in the twentieth century was not preordained. Most Americans did not own their own homes nor necessarily desired to do so for much of the nation’s history. Though aspirations for the U.S. to be populated by property owners originated in Jeffersonian agrarianism, by 1920 less than half of Americans were. As more Americas moved to cities where they worked jobs outside of their homes in the early twentieth century, homeownership did not as readily appeal to their hearts, minds, or pocketbooks as owning land once had. Americans continued to sing out about the comforts of home, sweet, home, but the owned one was not necessarily all that sweeter.2

The case for homeownership required conscious construction in the early twentieth century before it could become naturalized as the base of the American Dream. As the fields of real estate, appraisal, and land economics professionalized in tandem with currents of race science, the specific rationale for homeownership as an economic benefit, civic duty, and racial imperative solidified. The state first partnered with the real estate industry to encourage homeownership as a defensive response to the 1917 Russian Revolution.3 The dispossessions of the Great Depression further set the stage for the state’s more substantial remaking of the housing market through mortgage insurance subsidizing affordable thirty-year mortgages for white Americans while devaluing black space and occupancy. The federal government’s interventions in the mortgage market helped a majority of Americans, mostly white, to own their homes for the first time in 1950, mostly located in all-white neighborhoods. Homeownership rates for minorities also rose in this period but at a far slower clip, helping cement the story—albeit a segregated one—of America as a nation of homeowners.

This achievement of mass homeownership for white Americans in the midcentury is, by now, a well-plumbed story. And each year, through the work of historians and social scientists who have served as this history’s primary investigators, we more deeply understand the extent of the collaboration between the state and the real estate industry in creating and maintaining a discriminatory housing market.4 Yet, even as our knowledge of the racial project of mass homeownership and its attendant mechanisms of redlining, contract-buying, blockbusting, and rental exploitation expands, the core of the story of housing and race in the twentieth century remains largely intact—that the transformation of the U.S. into a majority homeowning nation depended upon the ongoing devaluation of black neighborhoods and residents.5

While housing experts and activists have attended to the foundational role that race played in the creation of mass homeownership, this book most insistently tracks the inverse: the role mass homeownership played in altering the definition, perception, and value of race. As the residential emerged as a distinct spatial typology and, by extension, a way of life, codified through law, custom, academic research, and the economy, visions of the ideal residential subject also took shape. And like most typologies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the emergence of the residential subject was informed by scientific, philosophical, and aesthetic theories of race—most keenly those positing ownership as a racial capacity of both intellect and feeling. Whites were not only more capable of managing ownership’s complexities, these arguments went, but inherently valued ownership more fiercely than other races. As realtors and, eventually, the state built the case for homeownership in the early twentieth century, this older rhetoric about the racial sensibility of property dating back to the Enlightenment shaped maxims of modern homeownership’s feel as well as electing who was most suited to its repertoire. But as the fever for homeownership took hold in the 1920s, aided by state incentives, and the home increasingly became the largest investment most Americans would ever make, imperatives to make race more cleanly legible and easier to appraise grew, too. Whiteness broadened to assimilate those once deemed on its borders. Italian, Eastern European, and Irish homeowners invested in whiteness by purchasing homes requiring the exclusion of those deemed unfit to own—a category increasingly synonymous with blackness as the century marched on. Whiteness was increasingly understood as not merely a trait belonging to specific persons but as a neighborhood’s most valuable amenity, to be preserved at all costs, while blackness was deemed illiquid, presumed to devalue all it touched, neighbored, or possessed. This transposition of race into a quality of space changed what counted as racial evidence as well as the methods for gathering, tallying, and appraising it. The visual apperception of whiteness and the fidelity of one’s performance of it superseded hidden blood and invisible ancestry as useful racial measures within the bureaucratic systems developed to appraise home values via maps, forms, and what one could glimpse while driving through a neighborhood.

Telling this story of homeownership—treating race not as a constant being responded to but as a malleable concept continually recalibrated by residential space and markets—entails reading the practices of realtors and bureaucrats alongside the work of artists and writers as they learned to newly represent the racial sensorium in the age of mass homeownership. Rather than understanding redlining as mere policy—naming the practice of devaluing certain neighborhoods in relation to their racial makeup—this book approaches redlining as a mode of perception altering what it meant to sense race and assign it value. Far from stable documents accurately depicting the racial makeup of neighborhoods, redlining maps are better understood as projections of numerous subjective hypotheses about how race might be read and adjudicated on the scale of the block. Such an approach enables us to denaturalize the countless and often quotidian assumptions, decisions, and interpretations about what race was and how to read and value it to recover the growing importance of neighborhood scale to race’s perception and appraisal. Unsettling weak formulations like “white flight” that flatten the co-constitutive relationship between race and the residential, I track how mass homeownership more fulsomely remade the rubrics of race from the early cases realtors made for its essentialness in the early 1900s through the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

If we consider race not as a fact marked and plotted by bureaucrats and realtors but as a category being actively remade within the public sphere in accordance with the growing civic and financial value of residential investments, both race and the residential appear less stable and more multiply constituted as a result, even as the racism perpetuated by these systems remained largely intact. To observe these changes, the archives for gauging the fluctuating measures of race and its alleged capacities must shift, as well as our ways of reading them. Who had the capacity to be an ideal resident, how to best measure this capacity, and should ownership be the horizon of the good life were inquiries being answered in affective and sensorial terms across a host of cultural, academic, and bureaucratic works: in novels, plays, films, and songs; magazines and newspapers; academic institutes, conferences, and journals of new disciplines like land economics and planning; and professional and trade publications where realtors and appraisers honed and shared their craft. Cases made for and against homeownership relied on prescriptions about how homeownership should feel, what kind of perception appraisers should adopt when assessing a home’s value, and the reliability of one’s racial sensorium in making judgments about the present and future worth of a neighborhood. Determining the value of a home or of homeownership more broadly, despite being draped in the language of the free market, relied on perceptual, aesthetic, and phenomenological evidence of race and its sensations exceeding discourses of empiricism or laws of value. Resituating residential discrimination as a key moment within the history of perception and aesthetics as well as of policy, demography, and democracy, we get an even more expansive picture of both its origins and its impacts. In the twentieth century, neighborhood formation was also a mode of racial formation. These processes together forged new norms for perceiving, marking, and measuring race on the residential scale. This book tracks the racial honing of the residential sensorium—perceiving race like a bureaucrat, an appraiser, and a homeowning neighbor—central to the functioning of the residential itself.

In considering the mutual formation of racial and residential perception, this book also charts a fuller range of ways that black writers and artists in particular weighted the value of property rights and residential integration to projects of equality. A strategic focus on winning full property rights as a means of gaining full citizenship has propelled civil rights projects organized by race from Emancipation forward. Following the increasing urbanization of the black population in the U.S. and the growing movement of economic and symbolic power away from landownership and toward homeownership, civil rights and nondiscriminatory property rights have long been coupled as correlated struggles. Yet, within a broad archive of black property thought—including figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Lorraine Hansberry, but also restless freedmen and rent party hosts, blockbusters, scammers, and the bourgeois-aspirant—we find more erratic, conflicted, and inventive responses to property’s position as the horizon of freedom, rights, or liberation writ large. While considering the ways whiteness has centered conceptions of residential subjectivity, this book also tunes in to the complex ways that black writers and artists imagined a future for blackness untethered from visions of either property lost or gained, reckoning with property’s promises but also its bonds, burdens, and limits. Critical theories about whiteness’s discursive invisibility are best understood in relation to redlining’s success in making whiteness a requirement for optimal housing financing while expunging its vocabulary. At the same time, writers cataloging urban black enclaves, including Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Thomas Pynchon, grappled with what it meant to ask readers to survey black neighborhoods when the origins of urban inequity were located outside the black belt itself. Even as homeownership was becoming synonymous with the American Dream in the twentieth century, the relationship of Americans across the color line with homeownership was far rockier than this revery-oriented shorthand suggests. If “real estate governs,” as Reinhold Martin contends, this book attends to the range of narratives that gave shape to this governance while considering how narrative and perceptual forms themselves facilitate and disrupt the correlated reigns of both property and race in moments of boom, stagnation, and crisis.6

The Racial History of the Propertied Subject of Feeling

Mass homeownership in the twentieth century belongs to the history of property more broadly. And as with property at large, mass homeownership not only shaped racial outcomes, but helped to remake race itself as a concept and category. Mass homeownership could be said to qualify as a racial project, defined by Michael Omi and Howard Winant as “an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.”7 Yet, because property has also helped to produce and give value to the category of race, it seems most apt to consider race and property as mutually constitutive projects: property functions a racial project even as race is also always being produced in and through property. Or, as Brenna Bhandar puts it, “racial subjects and modern property laws are produced through one another.”8 Theories of property, in other words, did not merely develop in reaction to race but shaped how race was itself theorized, defined, and perceived. Modes of feeling, moreover, played an outsize role in how the co-formations of race and property evolved. To position mass homeownership in relation to the ongoing mutual constitution of property and race, some background on the history of this co-formation and the centrality of feeling to its operation is in order.

The definition of property has been contested and continually retheorized since its invention.9 In describing the complex that is property, contemporary legal theory has most regularly conceptualized it as a “bundle of sticks,” an image conjuring property’s status as “not a single unitary thing but rather a group of rights, some of which may be added or removed under appropriate conditions.”10 This constellation of property, moreover, has long anchored theorizations of states, societies, and individuals. As Athena Athanasiou notes, ownership sits squarely “at the heart of the onto-epistemologies of subject formation” in the West. Within this tradition, Athanasiou continues, “being and having are constituted as ontologically imbricated with each other: being is defined as having; having is constructed as an essential prerequisite of proper human being.”11 In England, private property began to garner new and specific legal definition in the seventeenth century and its rights and rules and proved pivotal to the Enlightenment philosophy that followed. From John Locke’s definition of property as including one’s own body and freedom—“every man has a property in his own person”—and his belief that the right to property preexists and supersedes politics itself, to Adam Smith’s insistence on the superiority of societies organized around property’s protection, the idea that political institutions should fundamentally center the rights of property owners was, and is, the cornerstone of liberalism.12

Rationales of property’s sanctity drew heavily from speculations that the desire to own was not learned but innate. While David Hume, like Thomas Hobbes before him, argued that the desire for property was a convention and a product of utility rather than a natural predilection, the most impactful Enlightenment theories of properties naturalized its allure.13 For Adam Smith, the moral justification for property derived from the notion that people inherently experience feelings of loss when deprived of something they believed they possessed. In his outline of the most sacred laws of justice, laws that “guard his property and possessions” follow only after prohibitions against murder in importance.14 Jurist William Blackstone would linger even longer on property sentiment in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765: “There is nothing which so generally strikes the imaginations and engages the affections of mankind as the right to property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”15 Like Adam Smith, Blackstone approached property as a natural driver of desire, linking the power of land to the power of dominion writ large.

Debates over property’s nature, definition, and function took shape at the same as expansions of settler colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. As Brenna Bhandar captures in her description of ownership as a racial regime, “there cannot be a history of private property law as the subject of legal studies and political theory in early modern England that is not at the same time a history of land appropriation.”16 “The evolution of modern property laws and justifications for private property ownership,” she notes, “were articulated through the attribution of value to the lives of those defined as having the capacity, will, and technology to appropriate, which in turn was contingent on prevailing concepts of race and racial difference.”17 Early modern theories about private property as a capacity made it possible for English settlers to conceive of indigenous populations as occupants rather than owners of the land and to render black bodies as property to be dispossessed from their lands, repossessed and exchanged.

The difference between race and indigeneity has most centrally hinged on the distinction between an identity rooted in the body versus one forged from place; or focusing more specifically about the distinction between black and indigenous identities, as resulting from discrete, if always intersecting, processes of enslavement and genocidal dispossession. Such a schema has also dictated how the divergent political agendas of these groups have been glossed, with representation and inclusion being most often attributed to the struggles of racial minorities while demands for sovereignty and decolonization anchor indigenous concerns. But for all their differences, race and indigeneity prove porous categories.18 Enlightenment efforts to codify the characteristics of non-Europeans used their alleged disinterest in or incapacity for property to rationalize their subjugation, be it through enslavement, exploitation, or dispossession. When the capacity for property is treated as a defining trait of a people and used to determine that people’s aptitude for sovereignty over either their own bodies or their land, it is a tool of racialization.19 This is not to collapse the distinctions between race and indigeneity in all contexts, especially since both are not only produced in relation to property but also continually remake definitions of property and determinations of its value. But it is to insist upon the flexibility of property as a tool, used by white settlers to variously create and enforce categories of race and indigeneity depending on which concept best served their interests at a given time. Claiming property feeling as a tool of racialization captures the manifold ways settlers used theories of property to justify the subjugation of others, at times racializing indigenous and other non-white populations alike as similarly unfit for property while creating treaties and laws justifying indigenous dispossession in terms best understood through the lens of sovereignty and colonization.20

John Locke’s labor theory of property was perhaps most influential as a rationale for subjugation. Locke’s notion that “as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property” incentivized European settlers to the Americas to view the land as unimproved and, thus, open to be claimed.21 As governor of Massachusetts James Sullivan wrote in 1801, “as property is defined by Mr. Locke, and other great men, there may be a question, how far the savages had acquired one in the soil of this wilderness.” For Sullivan, the “precarious and transient occupancy” of Indians did not equate to ownership.22 By the early nineteenth century, the idea that Indians only had a right of occupancy and not full ownership of the land dominated settler ideology. Fueling this belief was the faulty assumption that Indians were disinterested farmers who had failed to enclose the land for private use, rendering them inherently incapable of improving the land in Lockean terms. Such justifications undergirded settler imaginaries and legal arguments rationalizing the treaties and wars dispossessing Indians of the land. While some European settlers in the U.S. believed Indians lacked a natural capacity for ownership, others in the nineteenth century insisted that a love for private property was what would ultimately save the Indian by bringing the untethered “savage” into a vision of “civilization” synonymous with the rule of private property. As President James Madison insisted in 1816, “divided and individual ownership” would be “the true foundation for a transit from the habits of the savage to the arts and comforts of social life.”23 Within this “white possessive logic,” to cite Aileen Moreton-Robinson, property was framed as both an inherent capacity fueled by a natural drive to possess as well as a learned convention that could transform one’s capacities and desires.24 Belief in the civilizing power of private property would culminate in the Dawes Act of 1887, legislating the parceling up of tribal lands into individual private plots that ultimately led to further catastrophic loss of land for Native peoples in the U.S.

Justifications for and against slavery also mobilized arguments about property rights. Here, Locke’s theory of self-property—that “every man has a Property in his own Person” that “no Body has any Right to but himself”—often took center stage.25 Abolitionists cited Locke to argue for slavery’s unnaturalness, with Frederick Douglass most prominently invoking the philosopher to insist “every man is the original, natural, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body, and he can only part from his self-ownership, by the commission of a crime.”26 Proslavery arguments, by contrast, anchored themselves in the natural right to property claimed as “the first element of civilization,” as Judge William Harper argued in his 1837 defense of slavery.27 Given that “the coercion of Slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labor,” Harper insisted, “without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no tastes for comfort or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization.”28 Echoing proslavery rhetoric more broadly, Harper’s conviction that Negroes were “incapable of European aspirations” in terms of both their civilizational and emotional capacities extended to their alleged lack of feel for property.29 As sociologist George Fitzhugh maintained of whites in 1854, “no people on earth love property more, will go greater lengths, so far as danger is concerned to obtain it, or take better care of it after it is obtained.”30 What distinguished whites from non-whites, Fitzhugh insists, was not any actual possession of property but rather one’s measurable affection for it and the will to want to possess—a formulation crucial to ensuring that unpropertied whites could continue to claim what W. E. B. Du Bois would call the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness in the absence of any actual land claims.31 It was the thought (and feeling) about property that counted most for the white supremacists doing the counting.

After Emancipation, “the Negro’s capacity as a property gainer and owner” became a focal point for sociologists, economists, politicians, and race scientists.32 Despite Reconstruction’s broken promise to freepersons of forty acres and a mule giving them title to land they had “improved” without wages, social scientists in the early twentieth century insisted on measuring African American progress in terms of the quantity of property they had acquired since being free. As one sociologist warned in 1910, “taking into consideration the corresponding conditions of the whites and the improved opportunities for gaining property, the Negro appears to be going backwards.”33 He attributes this failure not to the social and civic conditions continuing his subjugation but as a failure of feeling: “The average Negro seems to be moved by neither by a desire to accumulate property nor to prepare for a day of need.”34 Another economic study sought to understand whether the Negro’s alleged flagging commitment to property was “attributable to the training and steadying influences of the period of slavery.”35 The characteristics ascribed to the Negro as well as most other non-white races in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—sloth, an inability to save or invest in the future, a lack of self-control, disrespect for others’ property, and an overall low standard of living—were used to insist upon their general unfitness to either purchase or maintain property of their own, a claim that bolstered any number of disenfranchisements, from voting and sharecropping to alien land laws prohibiting those of Chinese and Japanese descent from owning property.

While nineteenth-century arguments about property most often centered on landownership and the ability to make the land produce, these arguments were extended to homeownership in the twentieth. As black educator H. T. Kealing woefully lamented of his own people while making the case for Negro education, the Negro “is loath to buy a house, because he has no taste for responsibility nor faith in himself to manage large concerns.”36 He is willing to spend “large sums on expensive clothing and luxuries,” Kealing continues, “while going without things necessary to a real home.”37 While white supremacists argued that blacks had a natural incapacity for managing property, Kealing and others who considered themselves sympathetic to the Negro cause framed their alleged property failings as a matter of culture, capable of correction, rather than as a biological deficiency. Part of the ongoing project of Emancipation, insisted Kealing and others, involved teaching Negroes to become stewards of property rather than objects of it after centuries of enslavement. Because slavery “did not teach him the meaning of home,” as Kealing put it, “to do this is the burden of freedom.”38 As white supremacist economist Albert Stone would insist in his study of the Negro’s property failures, the owned home was not merely the foundation of the Negro’s prosperity or a marker of racial progress; rather, what most mattered when assessing the Negro’s civilizational progress was “the extent to which these houses possess for their owners the true significance of homes.”39 It was the Negro’s demonstrable feeling for property—not what he owned but his feelings for owning itself—that would most powerfully signal his advancement.

Du Bois would also approach property affect as a racial pathology. But rather than valorizing the drive to own as a marker of a people’s capacity for civilization, Du Bois would flip this formulation to insist instead on the tyranny of ownership embedded within whiteness. Describing what Ella Myers terms “whiteness as dominion,” Du Bois famously defined whiteness in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk” as “the ownership of the Earth forever and ever, Amen.”40 Casting this belief as “this new religion of whiteness,” Du Bois dwells on ownership’s affective and embodied operations.41 Not only does this credence manifest itself in the “strut,” “arrogance,” and “whoop” of the faithful, but Du Bois also notes how such property faith also led to the “chilling of generous enthusiasm” for the freedom of others to occupy and govern their lands without white interference.42 Du Bois’s framing of whiteness as the right to universal ownership sharply diverged from that of his onetime teacher, William James. James’s belief in ownership’s importance to subject formation led him to prioritize its study within the emergent field of psychology. Like “the blind impulse to watch over our body,” as James wrote in 1890, an “equally instinctive impulse drives us to collect property.”43 As James insisted, “between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine is difficult to draw.”44 Du Bois denaturalizes what James treats as impulse and racializes what James universalizes. But both agreed that property’s absorption into identity was a foundational problem for the study of modern life, even as the methods for studying this relation transitioned from Enlightenment fields of philosophy and political economy to the newer disciplines of sociology and psychology. Whether wielded as a compliment or a critique, an asset or a pathology, the notion of whiteness’s privileged relationship to ownership remained alive and well in this period as homeownership came to compete with, and eventually overtake, landownership as the foundational form of property anchoring the American imaginary.

The affective logic of racialized ownership shaped the emerging project of mass homeownership into the twentieth century that was first forwarded by the real estate industry and later embraced by the state. While most studies of residential discrimination focus on the period after the New Deal when the state began to subsidize homeownership for the white masses, I follow historian Paige Glotzer in connecting this story instead to the nineteenth century to bring “the deeper connections between American suburbs, slavery, and colonialism” into view.45 As the platonic ideal of the propertied subject transitioned from the landowner to the homeowner in the twentieth century, ideas of racial capacity and feeling continued to undergird this formation. Recovering mass homeownership’s inheritance of centuries’ worth of theories defining whiteness as ownership allows us to better limn the stakes of maintaining property’s racial pedigree into the twentieth.46 The racial case for homeownership made in real estate trade publications was articulated and resisted in novels, films, and magazines negotiating and reframing the racial logic of homeownership as increasingly synonymous with citizenship, happiness, and security. At some point in the early twentieth century, as David Freund notes, white Americans stopped talking about residential discrimination in terms of personal feeling—as hatred, discomfort, or capacity—and started talking about it more consistently using the seemingly impersonal rubric of value—framing segregation as the protection of one’s financial investment in property rather than as a matter of personal amity. And yet, what is value but the enshrinement of feeling into the collectivity ascribed to the free market? As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, while “people talk about the free market as this racially neutral, color-blind space within which the invisible hand of supply and demand dictates what does and doesn’t happen,” such descriptions conveniently overlook the fact that “the market is us.”47 “The American housing market,” she writes, “was an expression of the prevailing racial consciousness of the society in which it operated.”48 Older racial theories of property capacity did not dissipate but were transformed and absorbed into the financial truisms about blackness’s devaluing function that residents, realtors, lenders, and state agencies were quick to accept as fact, no matter how distasteful they claimed to find them.

If racial feeling is the cornerstone of property rights, and property rights are the cornerstone of liberalism, the changing strictures of liberalism at midcentury transformed and, by extension, further codified the racial dimensions of property if in more systemic and depersonalized ways. Of course, many midcentury realtors and landlords still openly described their reticence to lend or sell to blacks using the language of diminished capacity to properly care for property. A survey of white Chicago realtors from 1955 showed that many believed Negro tenants to be noisier, less tidy, and more destructive than white tenants. A common sentiment among these realtors was that the Negro “should develop a sense of concern for property, in particular, other people’s property” before “making demands for acceptance.”49 While many realtors in the survey insisted that “the Negro homeowner cares for his home as well as or better than the white homeowners,” others claimed that “the Negro tenant is not as good as the white.”50 But as this framework of capacity became more and more unwieldy and impolitic at midcentury, it became easier to embrace the consequences of this centuries-held belief—namely the devaluation of black residents and black neighborhoods—as an inherent economic truth attributable to the free market itself. As the author of a 1963 appraisal manual laments, “despite educational and legal efforts to bring about the acceptance of true democratic doctrines,” the “mixing of residents with diverse historical backgrounds within a neighborhood has immediate and depressing influences on value.”51 This appraiser presents the free market as an uneducable force to be obeyed, no matter how unjust its mores.

This book uses a broad cultural and bureaucratic archive to trace the transition from the white subject of property feeling—integral to conceptions of both whiteness and property before the twentieth century—to the modern residential subject structured by the racial truisms of the conveniently disembodied and unfeeling free market. As this book argues, the housing market rationalized and institutionalized the much older idea that whites felt most deeply for property in circulation since the Enlightenment. Moreover, the property that blacks did acquire failed to “accrue in value the same way or at the same rate,” as Taylor observes. No matter its condition, “property in white hands is valued more than property in black hands.”52 The changing racial alchemy inherent to the property form in the age of mass homeownership, as well as the forms of feeling and perception used to secure its contours, is my focus. Even as older housing stock became modernized and marketed to the masses in the twentieth century, the modern housing market’s creation via philosophies about hierarchies of racial feeling persisted even as these ideas were newly packaged as an economic rule rather than a biological fact.


1. For more on the racial sensorium and racial perception, see Adrienne Brown, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

2. See Chasing the American Dream: New Perspectives on Affordable Homeownership, William M. Rohe and Harry L. Watson, eds. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), and Thomas Sugrue, “The Right to a Decent Home,” in To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, Steven Conn, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

3. For more on the impact of 1917 on the real estate industry, see LeeAnn Lands, The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 117.

4. It’s also worth noting the role of academic research—particularly in regards to land economics—in helping to create and shore up arguments for homeownership as a specific vehicle for white sovereignty that would help ensure its survival. For more on the academic support for residential segregation, see David Freund, Colored Property: State Policy & White Racial Politics in Suburban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Elaine Lewinnek, The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Margaret Garb, City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871–1919 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Benjamin Wiggins, Calculating Race: Racial Discrimination in Risk Assessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

5. The story of American homeownership would also not have been possible without the ongoing dispossession of native land. This framework has so far not been central to how mass homeownership in the twentieth century has been studied by housing scholars and it’s one I only begin to plumb here. For a more policy-oriented study of contemporary Native housing in the U.S., see David Listokin, Housing and Economic Development in Indian Country: Challenge and Opportunity (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2018), funded by the Fannie Mae Foundation.

6. Reinhold Martin, “Real Estate Agency,” in The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate: A Provisional Report, Reinhold Martin, Jacob Moore, and Susanne Schindler, eds. (New York: Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, 2015), 92.

7. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 125. I seek to slightly modify George Lipsitz’s insistence that “the racial projects of U.S. society have always been spatial projects” to insist more specifically that racial projects are always projects of property. See George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 52.

8. Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 8. I forward Bhandar’s more muscular articulation of the mutual reliance of these concepts on one another, building from Cheryl Harris’s articulation of the “interaction” of “conceptions of race and property” as playing “a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination.” Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1716.

9. See, for instance, Michael Heller, “Three Faces of Property,” Oregon Law Review 79, no. 2 (2000): 417–34.

10. Carol Rose, Persuasion Revisited: Vision and Property (New York: Routledge, 1995), 278.

11. Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 13.

12. See John Locke, A Second Treatise on Government (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 19, and Adam Smith, “Moral Sentiments,” in The Essays of Adam Smith (London: Alex, Murray & Son, 1869). As Tyler Stovall puts it, “The issue of property was central to the emergence of white freedom, so the fact that protecting individual property rights became a major issue for the construction of liberal democracy in the 19th century underscored its centrality to modern ideas of liberty.” Tyler Stovall, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 140.

13. Debates about whether property was a natural right would be invoked in arguments as to whether suffrage should be limited to property owners in the U.S. See Jacob Katz Cogan, “The Look Within: Property, Capacity, and Suffrage in Nineteenth-Century America,” Yale Law Review 107, no. 473 (1997): 473–98.

14. Smith, “Moral Sentiments,” 77.

15. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Volume 2: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765–1769 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 2.

16. Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property, 3.

17. Ibid., 4.

18. As Maximillian C. Forte writes, “both race and place are ways of making the Indigenous visible and, paradoxically, are also ways to minimize indigeneity when they are used as objectified markers of authenticity” (24). Who Is an Indian? Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

19. As Joanne Barker notes, “the erasure of the sovereign is the racialization of the ‘Indian.’” Barker, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” in Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination, Joanne Barker, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005) 17.

20. I am also indebted to Cheryl Harris’s articulation of this relationship: “Although the systems of oppression of Blacks and Native Americans differed in form—the former involving the seizure and appropriation of labor, the latter entailing the seizure and appropriation of land—undergirding both was a racialized conception of property implemented by force and ratified by law.” “Whiteness as Property,” 1715.

21. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 213.

22. Cited in Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 152.

23. Messages of the Presidents of the United States (Columbus, OH: Jonathan Phillips, 1841), 92.

24. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). See also Robert Nichols, Theft Is Property: Dispossession and Critical Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), for more on the relationship between dispossession, sovereignty, and the creation of property.

25. Locke, A Second Treatise on Government, 19. For more on Locke’s own financial and managerial connections to slavery as they informed his philosophical work, see David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government,” Political Theory 32, no. 5 (October 2004): 602–27.

26. Nicholas Buccola, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 29.

27. William Harper, On Slavery, Read Before the Society for the Advancement of Learning of South Carolina, at Its Annual Meeting at Columbia (Charleston, SC: James S. Burges, 1838), 14. For more on the centrality of property rights to the defense of slavery, see Simon J. Gilhooley, The Antebellum Origins of the Modern Constitution: Slavery and the Spirit of the American Founding (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

28. Ibid., 5.

29. Ibid., 38.

30. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: Or, The Failure of Free Society (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854), 267. Fitzhugh’s disdain for Locke’s concept of natural rights informed his description of the philosopher as a “presumptuous charlatan.”

31. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 (New York: Free Press, 1935), 700. See also David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).

32. Howard Odum, Social and Mental Traits of the Negro: Research into the Conditions of the Negro Race in Southern Towns (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910), 225.

33. Ibid., 224.

34. Ibid.

35. Alfred Holt Stone, “The Economic Future of the Negro: The Factor of White Competition,” Publications of the American Economic Association 7 no. 1 (February 1906): 246.

36. H. T. Kealing, “The Characteristics of the Negro People,” in The Negro Problem, Booker T. Washington, ed. (New York: James Pott, 1903), 176.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid., 174. In the same volume, W. E. B. Du Bois and Charles Chesnutt positively focus on the “three hundred million dollars worth of real and personal property” accumulated by Negroes in the U.S. to date (81, 47).

39. Stone, “The Economic Future of the Negro,” 294.

40. Ella Myers, “Beyond the Psychological Wage: Du Bois on White Dominion,” Political Theory 47, no. 1 (2019): 6–31; W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folks,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within in the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920), 30.

41. Ibid., 31.

42. Ibid.

43. William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 293–94.

44. Ibid., 291.

45. Paige Glotzer, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 5.

46. This is in explicit conversation with David Freund’s focus on the more general arguments made in the 1910s and 1920s citing biological hierarchies of race to resist residential integration. Colored Property: State Policy & White Racial Politics in Suburban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

47. Sean Illing, “The Sordid History of Housing Discrimination in America,” Vox, May 5, 2020,

48. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 7.

49. Rose Helper, Racial Policies and Practices of Real Estate Broker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), 65. Realtors singled out recent Southern migrants in particular, accusing them of not knowing “how to use modern buildings, plumbing” and lacking the know-how to “look after property” (64).

50. Ibid., 96.

51. Alfred A. Ring, The Valuation of Real Estate (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 71.

52. Illing, “The Sordid History of Housing Discrimination in America.”