By Heather Millar
I really couldn’t believe it when my next-door neighbor said it. “I’m selling my house,” she told me a couple weeks ago as we stood on the path between our houses. “They’re going to be taking pictures. I’m wondering — would you mind taking down your ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign when the photographer comes?”
It takes a lot to render me speechless, but this question did it. Finally, I said, “I feel really strongly about that sign. I am not going to take it down. I’m sorry.”
My neighbor never said another word to me. She’s moved out now. The stagers and real estate agents have taken over. I’m sure she’ll make a profit. We live in San Francisco; it’s impossible to lose money selling a house in the hyper-inflated market here.
The way I portrayed the exchange above makes me appear resolute and definite. But before I actually got to my answer, I spluttered and apologized a lot more than I’d like to admit. I’m a white, Baby Boomer woman. As much as I fight it, I’ve been conditioned to be polite, to be nice, to paper over differences, no matter how monstrous they are.
Reflecting on it now, these are questions I wish I had asked my neighbor that day.
“What about my Black Lives Matter sign scares you?”
“When I was seven, in 1970, the percentage of Black people in San Francisco was 13.4 percent. In 2020, it is 5.2 percent. Don’t you think that’s a loss? What have we lost in diversity and culture and creativity and vitality as a result? What happened to those Black people and families that were forced out?”
There are also questions that I have asked myself since this exchange.
“Why was I so shocked by my neighbor’s question?”
“Though I have lived all over the world and the country, I now live less than a mile from the house where I grew up. Of the people I see in a day, what percentage are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color)? Ten percent? How many of them actually live in this neighborhood? Five percent? Less?”
Discrimination in acquiring real estate has been one of the most profound ways in which BIPOC people have been excluded from building generational wealth. A house is usually a middle-class family’s greatest asset, and that wealth is passed down.
The real estate appraisal system instituted in the 1930s made the racial makeup of a neighborhood a key attribute in determining housing values. Read: White equals good and more value. Black equals bad and less value. Properties in towns that were all-white and far from cities and BIPOC communities coded “green” in this system. Those that were urban and predominantly Black coded “red.” (Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law tells the story of the government’s role in redlining.)
When one million Black GIs returned from fighting in World War II, they hoped that their service would mean greater equality in American society. Instead, they were barred from the suburbs being built from sea to shining sea in the 1940s and 1950s. The presence of even one or two non-white families could endanger housing values for a whole development, according to guidelines created by the underwriters of the Federal Housing Administration loans, which made the suburban boom possible.
This caused BIPOC families to be “redlined” into less desirable towns and neighborhoods. When they moved to these places, the white people moved out. To the suburbs. “Inner city” became code for Black, for poor, for violent, for underserved and blasted out.
If I’m being honest, I’ve been looking past this my whole life. I grew up in a “nice” neighborhood — code contrast to “inner city” — populated mostly by the families of professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors, small business owners. It wasn’t the most exclusive neighborhood in our area. The homeowner’s association didn’t insist on deed restrictions that barred Black, Asian or Jewish families, as did some nearby developments. Even so, it was all white. I remember clearly when the first Black family moved into the neighborhood in the 1970s. My parents talked about it for months, tut-tutting and worrying and saying things that I am embarrassed to repeat here.
In the late 1980s, as a young newspaper reporter, I covered Camden, New Jersey. In those days, it was entirely Black, the police were mostly white and spectacularly corrupt, the poverty brutally crushing, the drug culture vicious and rampant. I wrote about all that, but I did not write about the bright white line between Camden and the next town over, Collingswood, which was entirely white. The race border was right there. Why did I not see it? Or rather, even though I did see it, why did I not question it more explicitly?
In the 2000s, my family and I lived in Brooklyn, New York and we were looking for an apartment or condo to buy. As we toured open houses, I remember remarking how incredibly segregated all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods are. America is not so much a melting pot as it is a mosaic. There are lines everywhere. On this side, Orthodox Jewish, on that side, Italian. On this side, white Catholic, on that side, Asian immigrants. On this side, Middle Eastern Muslim, on that side, Black.
We ended up living in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean part of Brooklyn. I cringe as I remember asking our Black next-door neighbors just before we made an offer, “So how is it here? Is this a safe place? Do you worry about crime?” It was a largely middle-class neighborhood; it was just majority Black. So why did I feel it necessary to ask about crime? Why did I worry that the neighborhood might be unsafe?
To our new neighbors’ credit, they did not write me off after that exchange. We became friends.
I think that condo was one of the safest places I’ve ever lived. When white parents from my kid’s posh Montessori school dropped their children off for playdates, they looked worried. They shouldn’t have been. People sat on their stoops just like on Sesame Street. The kids played on the sidewalks. The parents talked. They noticed. Everyone looked out for my daughter on that block.
The reason I’d been thoughtlessly rude to my neighbors was a lifetime of conditioning that Black areas are “unsafe.” My attitudes had been shaped by almost a century of federal and local real-estate policies.
Am I really so different from my neighbor who wanted me to move my Black Lives Matter sign? Not as much as I’d like to think. It’s difficult to know how to fight a prejudice that has spread its tendrils throughout our institutions and attitudes. What can I do about the fact that homes owned by Black families are still consistently under-appraised? How do I fight the problem that Black families have less access to financing?
It sounds like a small thing, and I guess it is, but I think it’s useful to just keep pointing out these real estate injustices. Why aren’t there many Black families in my neighborhood? Why are our cities shot through with racial borders? Why do we white folks feel more comfortable in neighborhoods where people mostly share our skin color? Why are message boards and social media filled with complaints that someone “not like us” is walking down the street? I’m also trying to notice and change my internal dialog. For instance, do I pay more attention when someone of color walks past my house?
Asking these questions does not solve the problem. But it brings the problem into focus. Pointing these things out is a first step toward the broad social work needed to right more than a century of real estate injustice. We can also support SURJ Bay Area partners that work to change real estate injustice such as Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
I hope a Black family moves in next door. I hope our sign signals that they would be welcome.
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