"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Racism Perverted The American Dream

Now that I have your attention, just what “American Dream” am I talking about?  There have been so many, or at least so many uses of the phrase.  Most of them tend toward the philosophical; the superficial ones usually mention “freedom,” while the more sophisticated revolve around “a better life for the children, and their children.”  I’m not going to disagree with this, but I am going to talk about what those two terms actually meant during our history.  That’s why I’m going to nominate “home ownership” for the best phrasing of the American Dream, because it addresses just what “a better life” and "freedom" actually meant to real people, and to a large extent still do.  For a concept to be as old as our early immigrants and as current as today, of course, its literal meaning has to change, and this one has.  The ownership part hasn't, but the amount required has.

Look beneath every claim that our first settlers came over for some variation of “freedom,” and you will find they came over for property, because in those days property was freedom, or at least the basic requirement.  The desire to own one’s own property was the real motivation for the vast majority to come here, and its variations once here have made consistent appearances throughout American history.

Back in the pre-industrial age, it wasn’t so much about the “home” part; the focus was on land, because it was needed to sustain continued occupation of that home.  Land was the reason the vast majority of the original immigrants—and a substantial portion of later immigrants—came here in the first place.  The very first visitors to the western world were searching for quick riches, but the immigrants came in search of the one thing Europe had run out of a long time ago: available land.  Countless generations of the European poor came of age knowing they had no chance of ever owning land; those Hessian mercenaries so castigated in our history were nothing more than European peasants who had only their lives to sell, in a far away place from which most of them never returned.  They didn’t really expect to, not in those days of very chancy travel and no government accountability, but the reason many of them chose to stay was the same that had brought their unplanned adversaries here also: land.  Not only was there acreage beyond the imaginations of downtrodden Europeans, nobody owned it (okay, we are not considering the Native Americans, but neither did the immigrants).

The idea of sufficient land for everybody lies unspoken behind the philosophy of our Founding Fathers.  It was the fundamental assumption about the experiment in Liberty they came to call The United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson immortalized this concept as “The Yeoman Farmer.”  A tenant has a home, but was at the mercy of his landlord.  A peasant may own land (although he usually didn’t), but not enough.  Only someone who not only owns land, but owns enough to provide him and his family with sustenance plus surplus has the ability to resist economic, social and political pressure, and can thus be a free man.  This is also the reason why so many otherwise eligible white men couldn’t vote during the Colonial and Federal periods; they did not meet the wealth requirement, and thus were not trusted to exercise their franchise free of external influence.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this, because it changed everything, but it also took a while to happen.  As the 19th century proceeded, the transition from growing items for local consumption to growing items for sale on the market—in other words, from agriculture to agribusiness—led inexorably to the need for larger and larger parcels of land in order to be successful, and the consequent and equally inexorable decline in the number of farming families.  This was disbelieved and resisted, of course; into the 20th century there was a national movement dedicated to claiming that the traditional 40 acres was still enough to support a family, despite all evidence to the contrary.

By the 1920s more people lived in cities than on farms, but the decline in farm families did not have nearly as much to do with this remarkable historical achievement as did the preceding decades of mass immigration.  The Industrial Revolution had led to the need for larger and larger parcels of land for a resident farm family to be self-sustaining, but it also stimulated something close to the exact opposite to accommodate all those new arrivals.  It did so by providing to an unprecedented portion of the western world’s population an alternative means of securing their daily bread: wage labor.

Thus, despite the fact that a vast majority of the immigrants to the United States in the decades around the turn of the century came from an agricultural background, most were directed to urban areas, and rather unwillingly became part of that emerging concept, the “working class.”  These people did not give up on the idea of owning their own residence, however, but quickly realized that their quest was no longer for “land.”  In the new industrial cities the dream of land ownership transitioned into the only format possible, ownership of a house with little—if any—more land that what it sat on.  It just had to be located near to where he worked and she shopped.  They bought the best homes available under these restraints, which usually were shacks cheaply built specifically to lure those for whom home ownership remained their version of the American dream.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has reminded several generations of readers that the fate of many new Americans who participated in this conversion was to fall victim to predatory lenders and venal administrators, with tragic results.

But the transition continued, and—very gradually—a set of rules emerged to mitigate what happens to individuals and families that attempt to negotiate with corporations, in the field of real estate as well as others.  I said “mitigate,” not “correct,” because the rich taking advantage of the poor has not exactly disappeared from our society.  An American middle class did come into being, and home ownership was virtually a requirement for entrance, at least for a married couple.

The evolving American dream of ownership also explains the appearance of the “suburb.”  Planned residences to provide a quiet, bucolic escape from an ugly, noisy, dirty and polluted city began to appear in America quite early in the 19th century.  They were only for the truly rich at first, and they spread slowly, commensurate with the drop in the wealth requirement for entry into them, to which the railroads made a substantial contribution.  These “railroad suburbs” also further embedded a system of residential segregation by race.   Many people of all classes might be disturbed by the movement of black people into their neighborhoods, but only the most well off had actually possessed the means to move to where such people were unlikely to be found.  The railroad suburbs allowed more families of less wealth to move, and the nature of African American distribution began to change.  While the early “Main Line” suburbs saw the rich bring their black servants with them and house them nearby, the steady arrival of a larger number of the less wealthy (I really have to express it that way) into the expanding suburbs led to precisely the opposite result: the grouping of African Americans within carefully delineated enclaves, progressively more distinct from the community norm.

After the Second World came the “automobile suburb,” about which I have had a word or two to say previously.  The transportation revolution, an unprecedented national prosperity and government spending combined to offer a new variation on the old theme of ownership, not lots of land to support the family, nor a shack or house packed tightly against many others, but a nice house on (initially) one eighth acre of land.  You weren’t isolated as was the farm family, or crowded into unhealthy quarters as so often in the cities.  It seemed like an ideal opportunity, and a great many seized it.


This migration to the crabgrass frontier brought forth a resurgence of traditional American real estate practices in new forms required by the new opportunities.  Racial segregation reached new levels of effectiveness in the automobile suburbs, effectively creating prosperous white rings around a decaying black core.  Within the cities themselves, a predatory financial community “redlined” poorer neighborhoods to death.  The result of these factors—and many others—served to not only maintain but to increase the overall level of residential segregation in the United States.  An unprecedented opportunity to achieve what should have been the true American dream—Inclusive Diversity—was squandered.  Racism perverted this latest version of the American dream, just when technology and economic progress offered the tools to realize it for everyone.  We continue to deal with the consequences.