Colored Property

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David M.P. Freund. Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. ISBN 13: 978-0-226-26275-8.


David Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America delivers just what the title states. He explores the belief that after World War II the federal housing policy created a racially biased mortgage market. Further the continued segregation of neighborhoods, provided whites with a self-perpetuating belief that said segregation was market driven rather than race specific as mixed neighborhoods inevitably led to a drop in home prices. Freund believes that whites attitudes toward neighborhood segregation was not static however, and that there was a change in the reasons that whites gave for favoring segregation. Whites convinced themselves that their preference to live in all-white neighborhoods was economic and not racist and the language used came to reflect this change. One response to the growing black population in cities was the move to suburbs, which further drained inner-city resources away from old neighborhoods now open to African-American residents, but most likely as renters and not property owners.

The book is divided into two parts; the first section looks at national economy and housing practices and the second uses Detroit as a representative case study of the national experience. In the first chapters, Freund looks into zoning laws and finds that they had raised racist tendencies tracing back to the city planning movement of the early twentieth century. He states that even liberal reformers blamed economic considerations for excluding blacks under the guise of restricting multi-home dwellings and factories that would have provided them jobs and homes. The next few chapters cover state intervention in the housing market beginning in the 1930s. The involvement aided whites but discriminated against others by privileging single family homes and made a house purchase more difficult for the economically disadvantage.

Freund states that the book asks, “if northern whites views about racial integration changed” over four decades citing specific incidents of black homeowners being attacked after moving into white neighborhoods (p. 4). He believes his research supports this idea and that there was a transformation in the language of race and housing concerns. The rationale changed from notions of a racial hierarchy to economic issues and their rights as citizens to protect their property values. Furthermore, Freund cites the prominence of “recreational racism” wherein citizens of Detroit’s white neighborhoods enjoyed racial parody and shows performed in blackface. In spite of suggesting that race was the major reason for white fears of black integration, Freund suggests in the final section of the book that when the 1967 riots occurred, whites responded by turning to the “familiar political vocabulary and political practice” of the 1940s, which does not indicate a permanent transformation of attitudes (p. 389).

Gwen White, Spring 2010

The second part of Colored Property that studies the city of Detroit does not add much that Thomas Sugrue has not already offered, more succinctly, in The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Neither Sugrue nor Freund completely deal with the question of what was at the root of the desire by whites for racial segregation. If the primary driving factor is not economics, how do we explain Sugrue’s account of Conant Gardens, a neighborhood of relatively affluent blacks who were able to afford home ownership and attempted to retain some control over who could move next door to them by campaigning to block multi-unit homes and boarding houses. In other words, they were attempting to keep their neighborhood free of economically disadvantaged blacks.

Freund seems to be saying that the racial politics worked both ways – it was supported by the state through the Federal Housing Administration and other housing initiatives and the demand of homeowners who feared that a “black invasion” would destroy the value of their property. Ultimately, that is an economic issue. The argument might have been clearer with a judicious pruning of repetitious information.

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