Tag Archives: social construction

Race: The Power of an Illusion (Part III: The House I Live In)

Even though it’s the third film in a three-part series, The House I Live In may be the most helpful for understanding the current state of racial affairs in the US (it’s the one I’ve shown the most in my classes). It covers both the social construction of race, how European ethnic immigrants became racially white, and how affirmative action benefited white people.

There’s a bit of an introduction at the beginning that helps to connect to the first two parts in the series, to make the case that race is not biological, but how that does not make it any less real. Race has social meaning and significance because there has been public policy and private action in support of it. The best way to see this happen is by following the history of immigrants who enter the United States, and whether they get classified as white or as something else. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant “race science” of the time focused on the struggles of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Of key concern to these supposed scientists was how these immigrants would be fit into the existing racial hierarchy. The impoverishment experienced by these European ethnic immigrants caused their neighborhoods to be dirty, unhealthy, and dangerous, thus leading to the conclusion that there was something “biological” about these groups that was inferior—their diseases, pathologies, crime, and intelligences were all allegedly linked to inheritable traits.

Of course, these new immigrants looked a little bit like the white Americans already in the US, definitely more so than Blacks from Africa or American Indians. It was unclear as to whether these south-east European immigrants were from separate races or “in-between peoples” who would eventually change race. This drives home the documentary’s point about social construction very clearly: these immigrants were not racially white then, although their descendants are considered white today. Or, as an interview rhetorically asks, what does race mean in conditions where individual US states could dictate the racial boundaries? For example, southern US states had different rules for who was Black—one-eighth, one-sixteenth, or any African ancestry—thus meaning that people could “literally, legally change race” simply by going over a state line.

For European ethnics, whiteness was the clear path to citizenship—one had to be considered white under law to be a citizen. Every other immigrant group knew this, too, and many petitioned courts to be considered legally white. This will surprise many viewers to hear: that someone’s racial status was not immediately known and that it could be legally changed. Various groups had successfully petitioned to be classified as white, particularly people from the Middle East and North Africa (the film doesn’t mention it, but the same thing was true for mestizo from Mexico). In other words, courts were in the business of ascribing race and, thus, citizenship to entire groups of people—often for the most spurious of reasons. Two cases studies are presented in The House In Live In: the first of a Japanese immigrant named Takawa Ozawa. He petitions in 1915 to naturalize and he argues that his skin was as white as most white people and that his beliefs were solidly American. He acted American, dressed American, his children only had white friends, and they attended a Christian church. The US Supreme Court, however, ruled that he was not biologically white (given the faulty racial science of the day), but rather Asiatic. Only months later, the Supreme Court decided another race case, this time pertaining to Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind. This time, Thind makes the scientific “argument” that he is Caucasian, because Indians are classified as Aryan. Unsurprisingly, the Court reverses its earlier logic, denying that this scientific reality means anything of substance and that “the common [white] man” knows perfectly well how to discern whiteness. And, to the all-white male Court, Thind and other Indians were not white. Due to these decisions pertaining to Asian immigrants, many Japanese farmers in on the West coast had their land taken from them and other Indian immigrants had their naturalized citizenship stripped from them. The film argues that still today, people of Asian descent are not considered American, even when they’ve lived in the United States for many generations; FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is just the most extreme proof of this.

After World War II, most of the meaning behind European ethnic differences melts away (a few religious incongruities aside). The key racial questions had always centered on Black-white, and this again becomes the dominant concern in the post-war era. Whiteness is of central significance as it grants exclusive rights and the now-legitimate “hard-work” of whites will enable social mobility. Middle-class status is achieved for many of these newly-assimilated whites by government-funded and -enabled affirmative action programs. The House I Live In does not make this explicit (although it is essentially arguing it), that European immigrants entered the middle-class due to affirmative action that raised their standards of living, gave them access and resources, and specifically gave them land and housing. The film focuses here on the Federal Housing Administration’s efforts to broaden homeownership in the US and Levittown, New York serves as the example to show this. Like most new suburbs, incoming residents to Levittown were overwhelmingly white. Blacks had trouble gaining access to racially-exclusive neighborhoods, but also to getting any government-subsidized loans because the minority neighborhoods they lived in were given high-risk security ratings. Financial underwriters warn against investment in minority communities (labeled as bad investments) and thus classified neighborhoods, in part, based on racial composition, assigning them the color red: thus, “red-lining” is born. These minority neighborhoods stay minority-dominated, because people of color couldn’t get loans there. Economic resources go elsewhere—mainly to whites and to suburbs—thus exaggerating the poverty of minority neighborhoods. Non-whites constitute only two percent of all the government loan recipients!

Being white is thus associated with being a homeowner. Even working class whites get this opportunity and they can even live in suburbs. Racially homogeneous suburban communities are created, while Blacks are particularly left out of new housing markets. Then, the federal government engages in “urban renewal”, deciding to get rid of old housing stock. This overwhelmingly affects people of color. The government does not replace the majority of this housing and new public housing is cited in poor, minority neighborhoods and built as “vertical ghettos” (tall apartment buildings). When the Fair Housing Act enables minorities to have access to all-white neighborhoods, some middle-class Blacks are able to move. When they do, they take their [modest] wealth with them (and out of the poor minority neighborhood). And their new white neighbors’ racial fears are preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders who offer them cheap prices for their houses, so they can leave before the threatened “racial invasion” happens (this process is called blockbusting). People claim that the influx of minorities lowers the housing values of a neighborhood, but it is clearly the quick abandonment by whites who undersell the value on their houses that does this. In other words, minorities do not cause problems for housing values and neighborhood stability—white racism does. The resulting white flight leads to ever more suburbanization.

The film ends by considering how it could be possible for the US to be a “colorblind” society. Even though The House I Live In was made in the pre-Obama era, the analysis remains the same: stark racial inequalities, including an incredible racial wealth gap (as most American’s wealth is held in housing equity), gives lie to the claim that we live in a post-racial society. Even though MLK spoke famously about such a colorblind future, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva observes that many white Americans believe that such a future has already arrived, and thus the concept of race is unimportant, maybe even meaningless. But he and others make the strong case there race must be part of any analysis in a society unequal by race. They quote Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun who said that the only way to deal with racism is to talk about it openly and not pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, the path to colorblindness, can only result from a very colored national discourse and reconciliation.

Topics: race, social construction, inequality, whiteness