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Rising Up for a Dream Called Home


America's current financial situation is not about one recovering economy; it's a tale of two economies. 

One economy is soaring, breaking records of stock market and asset wealth. The other economy is barely holding on, as living-wage jobs – for those lucky enough to have them – are being replaced by employment that provides minimum-wage income that leaves families, in many cases, at the edge of or below the poverty level. 

For the people in the economy of surging wealth,  blue”>. 

Gottesdiener provides damning historical context to detail how a large percentage of black Americans have historically been dispossessed – except for a short period of time following emancipation after the Civil War – of home, property and adequate work as a de facto economic policy. 

In the foreword to  mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>CNN Money released a report in 2012 stating that not only is the median wealth of white households twenty times great than that of black households, but black wealth has undergone a devastating decline – 53 percent from 2005 to 2009 – with the result that the typical black household possessed less than $5,000 in wealth, compared to over $100,000 for whites.
 

By continuing predatory practices that have resulted in millions of house foreclosures in the past few years, many blacks are still pawns in a great predatory financial system. Nearly 140 years after the Civil War resulted in the end of legal slavery, blacks as a racial group are still being targeted, are still facing daunting – often illegal – challenges to achieve a the dream of a place to call home. 

 

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>MARK KARLIN: Your book is subtitled Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Many progressives emphasize the victimhood of injustice. You acknowledge that and detail it, but you are energized by the stories of resistance to foreclosure that you detail by following the four stories of families who resist being victims of predatory lenders. Resistance in A Dream Foreclosed is energizing and empowering, isn't it?
 

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Resistance is one of the driving forces of history, particularly in the United States, so of course it’s energizing.

This whole idea that African-Americans have been disproportionately victimized by the foreclosure crisis, well yes, that’s true, and that reality must be better understood if we’re ever to end structural racism in this country. But we don’t focus often enough on how discrimination and exclusion – whether [they’re] meted out against African-Americans or women or immigrants – create the material necessities and intellectual freedoms in which powerful resistance movements can form, flourish and ultimately benefit everyone.

The African-American families and organizers I focused on in the book are far from victims; they’re the reason that we have a radical housing justice movement in this country today. African-Americans are the reason we have breakfast programs in public schools. They’re the reason we haven’t torn down all our public housing and that Detroit hasn’t fully collapsed and that we actually have a powerful movement to stop mass incarceration of people of all races. 

There’s a quote by Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets at the beginning of  mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>MARK KARLIN: Dispossession of black families from homes appears integrally related not only to an adverse impact on keeping families together but also to the American reality that property rights are related to power. Those without property rights are, in the eyes of the status quo, without power against those who own land and housing.
 

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: This dispossession definitely, ultimately, comes down to power. Stokely Carmichael explained it well when he wrote in 1966, “Black Americans are a propertyless people in a country where property is valued above all. We had to work for power, because this country does not function by morality, love and nonviolence, but by power.” 

What I am trying to highlight in this book is the connection specifically between property and democracy in this country. Our democratic process began with only white male property-owning people having the right to vote. Today, a handful of majority African-American cities across Michigan have been stripped of their local democratic rights altogether after an onslaught of foreclosures decimated their economies. The question I ultimately want to pose with this book is: Can a society truly be a democracy if housing is not considered a right? 

Of course, after Citizens United, I think few would be foolish enough to call this nation a functioning democracy, anyway.

 

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>MARK KARLIN: These foreclosed houses represent lost assets by the black community. I read that half the asset values of blacks in the United States has declined since the 2007 crash, largely because of the subprime manipulation by the banks too big to fail and secondary lenders. Is that accurate?
 

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Those are the same numbers, in terms of asset declines, that I’ve seen as well. It’s worth remembering that the rampant overinflation of house values by the mortgage industry in the lead-up to the collapse certainly factors into this calculation. But regardless, the wealth loss in the African-American community has been staggering. The National Fair Housing Alliance called it “the largest loss of wealth for these communities in modern history.” 

What’s important to highlight, however, when we talk about wealth loss, is that we’re really talking about the loss of a family’s generational stability and the future access to everything wealth buys, including higher education, health care, nutritious food, etc. On a community level, we’re also talking about funding for public schools, hospitals, youth programs, recreational centers, art and cultural activities. So we’re really not talking about wealth. We’re talking about survival and the value of people’s lives. Here’s a concrete example: On the South Side of Chicago, which has a predominately African-American population and much less wealth than the city’s North Side, there is no level-one trauma center. One study estimated that longer transport times in the city led to “6.3 excess deaths per year.”  

Translation: Each year, six South Side residents die because their community has less wealth and, as a result, their lives are less valuable.

 

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none”>streetlights are repossessed.
 

It’s really quite obvious how individual foreclosures can lead to community devastation. So, to return to the contract issue, it’s also quite clear that the entire city of Highland Park, or Richmond, California, or Providence, Rhode Island, never signed a contract ensuring its own destruction. In other words, the core question is whether or not the mortgage industry and the Wall Street banks that securitized these loans have broken the broader social contract by engineering this economic collapse and then enforcing the resulting 4.5 million home evictions. I strongly believe, based on my experience traveling through many of these neighborhoods, that they did – and that, as a result, these contracts are no longer valid.

 

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>MARK KARLIN: Given that August 28 is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," can you discuss a bit further the quotation of Dr. King that Clarence Lusane uses in the foreword to your book?

padding:0in”>Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, which was published in 1967. It was his last book and the one that speaks most about poverty and the way that economic justice and social equality are inextricably entwined. 

The quote, directly, illuminates something very powerful: the way that racism is used as a mechanism to uphold – morally, legally and socially – unjust economic systems. To repeat, white supremacy’s end goal is not racism itself. Rather, it’s a tactic deployed by economic elites who want to maintain their grip on power and use it to not only justify their profit but also to sow racial discord in order to discourage people from uniting and organizing together. It’s really one of the most vile ways of holding on to power, since it essentially entails instilling a doctrine of unfounded hate throughout society, particularly in the minds of young children. And, as many historians have noted, racism often hurts middle- and lower-class whites as well as blacks, which is another reason that I think it’s quite silly for some white people to consider race an issue that only other people should worry about. 

To return to the quote, the first economic system, slavery, is one we obviously today consider morally and even economically unjust. But what’s interesting to me about the second part of his quote is that he’s criticizing an economic system – the for-profit real estate business – that is very much still part of our current lives. He wrote this sentence before the passage of the Fair Housing and Fair Lending Acts (1968 & 1977, respectively). Yet today it’s quite well-documented how the mortgage industry still deploys racism for profit: by targeting of communities of color that have been historically denied loans, by steering African-Americans into predatory mortgages and by, most insidiously of all, spreading a doctrine that subtly equates race with being irresponsible, being an unfit homeowner and (since we are a nation of homeowners) being not quite American. As Dr. King said, it’s more subtle but no less significant. 

I don’t think it will be too long until we look back and see both slavery and profiting off people’s basic needs as unjust.

 

padding:0in”>A Dream Foreclosedis echoing Hughes. I also thought that, in this context, the final line – or does it explode? – alluded quite nicely to the explosion of the housing market in 2008. More broadly, I chose it because it still speaks to the present reality, despite being more than 50 years old. 

Yet, what I would argue makes the poem iconic is not its continued relevance, but rather the way it concretizes people’s hopes and dreams and aspirations, dramatizing them as real enough to fester and stink and crust over and certainly much more real that abstract derivatives or high frequency trading scams. In other words, I thought the poem accurately oriented the reader to anticipate where this book places value.