I met Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at the High Point Café in Mount Airy, the leafy Philadelphia neighborhood where she lives. It was a beautiful day on a gorgeous street, so we decided to sit outside near the commuter rail station behind the café.
Every 15 minutes or so, a commuter train passed the bench where we were chatting. The trains carry passengers from Center City through severely impoverished North Philly neighborhoods to Chestnut Hill, until recently the richest area in the city. Taylor, an activist, historian, and professor at Princeton University’s African American Studies department, keeps a sharp eye on dynamics like these. In Germantown, one neighborhood over, a developer has bought a public school from the city for cents on the dollar and is now trying to turn it into a rental complex; Taylor’s been attending the organizing meetings for residents opposed to the plan.
Taylor’s new book, out in October, is Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, and last week it was long-listed for the National Book Award. It details the relationship between private industry and the federal government as they create crisis after crisis among black homeowners—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not. Discrimination and horrendous housing conditions for black people are not evidence of a crisis within this public-private partnership, she argues; rather, they are its foundation. These problems persist well after legal segregation ends, as passengers on the Chestnut Hill West Line can attest. In our conversation, Taylor explained why public-private collaborations will never work, and where a better framework for housing justice could start.
Nawal Arjini: Your book focuses on the point where economic incentives meet the personal biases of real estate brokers, as well as public policies. One might think that any one of those might be at odds with the other two, but you show how they all work together.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: The problems are not just about the federal government, or real estate, or banking. It’s about their relationship, the ways that the private sector influences the direction of public policy. The real estate industry in the 20th century is consumed with segregating African Americans, because of the belief that black people pose an existential threat to property values. This precedes the development of federal housing policies in the 1930s, when the government recruited experts to shape policies and laws. At one point, they have a scale of which group is the most deleterious to property values, with blacks and Mexicans being the most harmful. They connect ideas of race, risk, and property, which becomes federal policy—discrimination is seen as critical to profit and property values. That’s why we see discriminatory practices even after fair housing is passed, even today, because it is still key to American real estate that race is a factor in property values.
NA: Would you mind explaining that term you use, “predatory inclusion”?
KYT: Predatory inclusion explains how, even when black people are no longer legally excluded, the consequences of their decades-long exclusion shaped the terms upon which they were included. The FHA goes from exclusion to exposing African Americans to new forms of real estate exploitation. Black people had to pay higher interest rates, they had to pay more fees, they were relegated to isolated and neglected housing. Black people’s housing wasn’t even an asset—it was a debt burden. It will never accrue at the same rate as it has for white people.
NA: You include statistics about how a significant section of black people would be considered middle class—a third of black Chicagoans at one time were making more than the median of white Chicagoans—but everything costs 75 percent more in their neighborhoods, and the quality of everything they buy is lower.
KYT: That’s the race tax. It’s a critical aspect of understanding the difference in experience between black people and their white peers. In the postwar period, African American incomes are rising, and a small but burgeoning middle class is able to buy homes. The FHA, elected officials, and the real estate industry had maintained for years that black people were too poor to do that: That’s why their housing looks the way it does, that’s why they’re doubled- and tripled-up into apartments, this is the best they can afford. As early as the 1954 Housing Act, some FHA policies begin to shift. Not all black people could be relocated to public housing, because some of them, with their rising incomes, didn’t qualify. Now they might show up in your neighborhood, so we have to figure out even more creative ways to contain the black population.
The urban uprisings in the 1960s can be seen as demands for inclusion into American affluence amid the longest economic expansion in American history. Hundreds of urban uprisings are catalyzed by substandard housing. So Richard Nixon says, forthrightly, if they own their own homes, they won’t burn the cities down. There’s a recognition from above that we can’t just continue to exclude and hold people at bay—we have to try to incorporate and integrate them into the system. Racial liberals thought black people have been prevented access to the institutions that make America great, so if we just include them, they can look like the white middle class that flourished after the Depression. They thought the market was a colorblind space where anything can happen; Jim Crow and housing discrimination were man-made interferences with the ability of the market to function. But once people have been included, what is it about these institutions that produce an outcome that looks very similar to what exclusion looks like?
NA: You quote [NAACP leader] Roy Wilkins’s testimony to Congress, where he says he thinks of education as a priority, and other people assume jobs are the most important issue, but when he talks to people on the street, they care most about housing.
KYT: This was a critical reason why I wrote the book. In books about civil rights, there’s very little written about housing—I think because we don’t have a happy ending. Housing more than any area shows the abject failure of capitalism to solve the problems of African Americans. Housing is so foundationally tied to racism in its conflation of race, risk, and property. The Kerner Commission, the government commission set up to investigate why riots keep happening in the ’60s, found that the top three reasons were: police brutality, poverty and unemployment, and substandard housing. And yet the issue of housing is never taken as a central catalyst of the Northern civil rights or the Black Power insurgency of the 1960s and ’70s. The precipitating factor in these riots was always an incident of police violence. But what was the underlying reason? It’s rats mauling children to death.
NA: Do you think there’s a political and/or academic re-fixation on housing now?
KYT: It’s impossible to get away from, because you can’t solve the housing issue on private terms. As long as there is a price on shelter, it will be inaccessible to millions of people. Compound that with the federal government’s resistance to public housing, and you end up in a situation where a significant portion of the population can never be adequately housed. When it’s just left up to the market to determine the floor on housing prices, it will go as high as humanly possible. That’s what we’re experiencing now—historically high rents, historically high levels of housing insecurity. Fifty-one percent of people are paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent.
We keep talking about a housing crisis—is it a crisis if it’s been in this state for the last hundred years? I don’t think it’s a crisis. I think this is housing under capitalism. It’s insecure, it’s unstable, it’s every person for themselves.
NA: I’m curious about the ways that academics use the word “disinvestment”—it seems like it undermines how intentional some forms of neglect were, and how much energy went into them. How much money goes into, like, policing those neighborhoods?
KYT: Well, during this period of migration and urban growth, there’s what you might call targeted disinvestment—including fewer municipal services, like trash collection, in redlined neighborhoods, even though their populations are growing. Urban schools in white neighborhoods where white people are leaving are underutilized, and in black schools people have to send their kids in shifts because they’re so overcrowded.
But a lot of people talked about cities in the 1970s and ’80s as dying places that white people are leaving—urban crisis, urban chaos, nothing productive happening there. In reality, those were dynamic sites of extraction and profiteering for those who were politically connected and able to invest in and flip cheap housing. In urban renewal, there’s investment in demolition, in private capital to rebuild parts of the city to attract middle-class people, which for black people meant destruction. So both things are happening
There’s a sanitized way of trying to understand segregation as being about white discomfort. No. White people were using terrorism to keep black people locked in neighborhoods through the 1960s. They were using mob violence and bombs to keep people trapped, cut off from transportation, jobs, from all the things that allowed white, middle-class citizens to flourish.
NA: One narrative about public housing is that people designed these public buildings to fail, they breed violence, they force people into unsanitary or unlivable conditions. When we call for more public housing, how do we either avoid falling into those narratives or making them come true?
KYT: Public housing was built to stigmatize people—to be distinct from other housing in the area—and to minimize land costs. That’s why many built high-rises, because it was cheaper to build up than out. I think the stuff about how the form of the building interacts with psychology is just racist. It’s more an issue of isolating people. The government is trying to appease the private sector, so they completely bottom out on income requirements. This is housing of last resort—like, without this, you’d be on the street.
The poison pill was that the cost for repairs was included in the rent; there wasn’t separate funding from the government. In the ’70s, Congress created an appropriation for maintenance—but the damage had already been done, which was to associate dilapidation, insanity, and domestic dysfunction with public housing in the public imagination. There are models all over the world of public and subsidized housing that adequately house people and which are not seen as the site of social dysfunction. That’s a very particular narrative that comes out of the racist United States.
We don’t have to live like this. If we have almost a trillion dollars a year to pay for the military, to redistribute tens of billions of dollars to the rich through mortgage-interest deduction each year, then we can divert billions of dollars toward the construction of low-rise apartment housing throughout cities. There’s all sorts of money that can be reinvested in living arrangements that are collective, that respect the earth, and that could play a central role in uplifting the quality of people’s lives.
NA: Your previous books were trade books about mass movements and intellectual histories of public figures. How do you balance your academic work and your public-facing writing and organizing, and how do you see those interacting?
KYT: It’s the benefit of being in an African American Studies department, which has always been preoccupied with both the public as well as academic studies. Black studies itself emerges out of the rebellions of the 1960s. Black students demanded to have a deep interrogation with black history in an academic setting—that meant not just history for history’s sake, but as a way to understand the society that black people were living in. It was a discipline conceived of as a feedback loop: People on campus would help prioritize and shape what histories and knowledge were important to know about, which would then go back and help various social movements and organizing in black communities. For many people, in all kinds of ethnic studies, that dialectic is still very important. When I wrote the Black Lives Matter book, I was writing to engage with important questions in the movement. In black studies, we reject the idea that these are two separate spheres that shouldn’t interact with each other. The notion of an ivory tower—that’s not a world in which I would be comfortable, abstractly thinking and not being engaged.
NA: You’re in an African American Studies department, you’re a historian, and you’re also a member of the American Sociological Association. Would you talk about the often contentious relationship between sociology and black studies?
KYT: Sociology has long given an empirical underpinning to essentially racist characterizations of black people. The work of sociologists was important to real estate operatives in Chicago; some of the language of sociology—like “blight,” “urban ecology,” looking at African Americans as “invaders” in an ecological sense—this is an example of how social science is easily absorbed into the business of real estate.
At the same time, African Americans have been drawn to sociology to understand our social world. W.E.B. Du Bois is one of the grandfathers of sociology, and tried to inject complexity in understanding the condition of African Americans at a time when arguments around cultural inferiority were staples of analyses of black people. The field of sociology has drawn important black thinkers over the course of the 20th century to combat the popular narratives about black inferiority.
You go to some sociological meetings about race, with panels of white experts who talk about how horrible it is to be black in America, and you want to go to the top of the conference hotel and jump off. Black life is complicated. I co-authored an article with three of the most well-known black sociologists today about how there’s more to black urban life than death and despair, drugs, gangs. I wrote about black baseball, Zandria Robinson wrote about poetry, Marcus Hunter wrote about gay nightlife among African Americans, and Mary Pattillo wrote to put this in a bigger framework of the range of black experience. There’s a struggle within the field of sociology, to have a less sensational—“Let’s hang out with the gangs and the drug dealers to give you a slice of the real urban grit of black life”—approach, and more one that looks at the range of questions, problems, play, happiness that exist in black lives.
NA: You write often about the limits of electoral politics in affecting black life in any significant way, but people still ask you a lot about your views on the election.
KYT: We know people died for the right to vote. But people also died for democracy and justice and inclusion, and voting does not necessarily secure that. When people say that, they ignore the most important factor in creating progress in the United States: social movements, and the power of ordinary people to come together collectively, to force the political establishment to adhere to their demands.
I’m a Sanders supporter. Sanders’s program, if implemented, would transform the lives of black people. But that’s the catch—if implemented. Bernie Sanders could become president, and be confronted with a white-supremacist Republican Party, and half a Democratic Party that worships at the altar of neoliberalism. A social movement is the only hope for a Sanders agenda to ever pass. Yes, it would be good not to have a white supremacist in the White House. But beyond that, in order to not just be reactive or defensive, but to go on the offense and actually fight for things that we want—we have to have a movement.