How the Movement for Reparations Can Inform the Movement for Housing Justice

Community activists protesting gentrification . Atlanta, GA Photo by: Climate Justice Alliance

Community activists protesting gentrification. Atlanta, GA Photo by: Climate Justice Alliance

Part 1 of this post, “What is Reparations?,” illustrates the amplified discussion around reparations today as a part of a historic movement of grassroots political organizing for Black liberation. The visions of these movements involved the creation and strengthening of Black political and economic institutions to provide the foundation for a new society not predicated on the exploitation and theft of Black labor and resources. Closely related to the reparations movement, the movement for housing and land justice is steadily gaining momentum across the United States. Because housing policy and markets are one of the key avenues through which white people have accumulated (and continue to accumulate) wealth, it is crucial that movements for housing justice emphasize how our economy, namely the housing and real estate market, is structured by racism. In this section I will explore how the reparations movement can inform anti-racist organizing for housing justice and our understanding of the nationwide affordable housing crisis. 

Arguments for reparations first recognize that racial wealth disparities are rooted in the United States’ practice of settler colonialism and chattel slavery, which were foundational to the development of the US government and economy. For example, in 1963 the Black nationalist group, African Nationalist (Alajo) Independence-Partition Party of North America, argued for reparations in the form of land due to the fact that the US “was built with the unrequited slave labor of our African ancestors.” The Black Panther Party similarly pointed to the debt owed for the enslavement of African peoples stating, “we believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people.” The failure to implement any broad-based reparations program after the Civil War enabled the reconstitution of the white power structure as white landowners entrapped Black people in systems of sharecropping and debt peonage. Reparations movements’ historical narratives allow us to see how financial relationships like creditor-debtor, tenant-landlord, and systems of wage labor have perpetuated domination over Black people throughout US history, and into the present.   

Arguments for reparations further show how US policy continued the process of wealth accumulation to build the white middle class in the decades after slavery had officially ended. A key site of wealth building for whites and wealth extraction for Blacks that enabled this was the housing market and (sub)urban development. In response to the Post-WWI housing crisis, the federal government financed the development of suburbs across the country and subsidized loans that would make homeownership widely obtainable to white America. Black communities and other communities of color were shut out of FHA subsidized mortgage loans and segregated to areas of extreme disinvestment. This was done through the process of “redlining” in which every metropolitan area across the US was coded in different colors based on race. Areas with high Black populations were coded in red, designated as “risky” investments, and refused refused FHA-backed loans. FHA-backed sales were required to include “restrictive covenants” prohibiting the sale of the property to non-whites. Segregation and discrimination created rental markets in these confined, “high-risk” areas with artificially high demand enabling slum lording, price gouging, and predatory, scam home sales. Meanwhile, whites fled to the suburbs, driving up home values and enabling increased access to credit and broad-based wealth accumulation that could be used to fund higher education, business start-ups, and passing on financial assets through inheritance.

The movement for reparations illuminates the dynamics of racism and capitalism as an inseparable system of “racial capitalism,” which drives ongoing resource extraction and dispossession in Black communities today. N’COBRA (the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) summarizes this dynamic thus: “the wealth gap between Black people of African descent and Caucasians created during the enslavement of African peoples has been sustained; confiscation of land and other forms of wealth continue up to the present day. Black people of African descent were forced into poverty through enslavement, Jim Crow and continuing discrimination in employment, housing and other economic areas.” This argument points towards many examples in our current political economy of wealth extraction from racially segregated areas through housing and other markets. 

Financial predators target racially segregated areas because spatially confined residents who cannot afford to go elsewhere concentrate “bad credit” and poverty (due to previous racialized exclusion and predation). These areas are classified as “lootable” by financial predators because many residents rely on debt to meet their material needs, and predators can charge high interest rates justified by “risk.” To many people, the most familiar example of this dynamic may be the subprime mortgage crisis in which Black homebuyers were deliberately targeted by banks like Wells Fargo with skyrocketing interest rates, leading to mass foreclosures and loss of wealth. Over the five years of the Great Recession the racial wealth gap doubled. Another example is the practice of “serial evictions” in which landlords use eviction filings as a way to extract more value from rent-burdened tenants in the form of late fees.

The movement for reparations offers critical insight into how landlords, financiers, and creditors continue to profit from the racial wealth disparities created through slavery and later institutions of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. This understanding builds up an important challenge to dominant narratives that label Black culture as degenerate and claim Black people are at fault for their own financial circumstances. Studies show that, in fact, white people have received far more government handouts than Blacks, despite exploited Black labor enriching white elites throughout US history. The concept of reparations then implies “handouts” to Black communities are only returning a pittance of what is rightfully theirs. In organizing for housing justice, a framework of reparations requires us to see the necessity of land and resource redistribution for economic self-determination, where Black communities have democratic control over those resources, and where people with historically accumulated (and stolen) land and wealth no longer get to determine the livelihoods of racialized and criminalized others.

(Thumbnail photo: “Baseball in DeSoto Park” by St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing development. Via Michael Allen / Flickr)

About the Author: My name is Natalie and I am thrilled to be brought on by the Counter Narrative Project as a guest blogger. Since September 2017 I have been working with the Housing Justice League in Atlanta as a researcher and organizer around issues of gentrification, eviction, displacement, and affordable housing. I began this work through Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), a year-long service program for young adults interested in exploring Quaker faith, living in intentional community, and working with community-based organizations. My current work with HJL is focused on the eviction crisis in the Atlanta Metro area. We have developed an “Eviction Defense Manual” with a team of tenant leaders, other members of HJL, and volunteer lawyers. I am looking forward to use this blog as a way to dig in to my interests in the social sciences as a tool for political organizing and deepening my own understanding of the historical and global connections of the work I am engaged in. I come here as a student and welcome conversation, questions, and critique on what I bring to this space.