On Monday evenings, I meet with a group of very good people at Bethesda Baptist Church on Lincoln Avenue. We call ourselves New Rochelle Against Racism (or “NewRoAR”), usually twenty to thirty of us each week, of a rotating overall a group of 75 or so. We are black and white and Hispanic, men and women, straight and gay, young and old and in-between.
We talk about experiences we have had growing up as black or white or Hispanic people and things that happen to us in our daily lives today. We go to movies together, we discuss books, we march, we get some things done—encouraging more police/community learning about, and cooperation with, each other, and working to make our public schools better.
Once, during one of our more “social” evenings I was having a drink with one of the deacons—lemonade, remember I said this was a Baptist Church—while some of the older church ladies were off in different corners with grandchildren playing board games. After about forty-five minutes, the deacon suggested that I get to know some more folks better by going over and joining in one of the Monopoly games. I thought, sure, I love games, I’m very competitive, a big Manhattan lawyer with some real estate experience, so I’m going to go in and win that game against those old ladies and kids.
So I go over there and you know first you get your game piece or token. Somehow, if you’re the last one to choose its always the thimble, right? What are some of the other ones? Top hat, roadster, high-button shoe — kinda cool things, right? If you’re the last one, you get the thimble, maybe the iron is still available, if that’s still one still exists.
So I introduce myself and sit down and I say let me know when its my turn. They say, “Oh it’s your turn right away, go ahead,” So I take the dice and roll an eight and count out 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8—I’m on the Electric Company. So an 8-year-old looks up at me and says that’s mine $50.00 bucks, or whatever it is.
Then, “Oh, you had doubles, you’re lucky, you go again!”
OK, so another eight and I’m on St. James Avenue, one of those orange spaces I guess, and already two houses are there and I got to pay again and I turn and yell back over to the deacon, “Hey this isn’t fair!” I take a good look at the Monopoly board now and all the properties already have at least two houses, some with hotels. There’s nothing left for me to invest in or collect from other people. I’m always going to be a tenant with no chance of reducing my rent.
The deacon comes over picks up the dice looks them over with a deadpan expression, “They look OK. Everybody is using the same dice now. Seems fair, doesn’t it?”
My father, probably like your father if you are a white, suburban Baby Boomer, bought the family home in a neighborhood that was created and maintained white, based on written federal guidelines for mortgage underwriting, which promoted housing for white people in white neighborhoods. Lending to black people in any neighborhood was explicitly precluded in order to “maintain property values.”
Further, outright deed restrictions in many neighborhoods had existed for years, although they were being formally stricken down in the courts in the 1950’s but their impact persisted over time. Also, at the time I was child in a small Italian-American hamlet near White Plains, most houses there were not found on multiple listing. Sellers would let a network of friends and extended family know that their home was on the market. There were one or two real estate agents who quietly marketed within the community itself as well. I know my Dad found our house when he was told about it by a guy in that community who worked in his office. He had come back from World War II and had graduated from high school, so he did a little college on the GI bill, eventually got a VA mortgage for a house, with low interest rates that were tax deductible (in other words, very much subsidized by Government).
So you had this interplay of governmental action and people’s tribal inclinations setting up a situation where white people accumulated equity in real estate—the greatest store of wealth for most people even to the current day—while black people were confined to areas where they could not accumulate such wealth.
Now, a conservative would tell you that things are fair today, that anyone who “works hard” gets the same roll of the dice and that efforts to integrate our communities are “social engineering”, but I say that the damage done fifty years ago clearly persists and requires affirmative remedies.
Black families, even at similar income levels as whites, “jump in the game” with net worth a fraction of that of white families (about 1/14th that of whites) and are less likely to start out with the necessary “nut” or down payment for a starter home at current high suburban prices. So they come to the game late, as I did in the Monopoly game, and say not fair—in my game, a five year old would know it and say “not fair!” So we stigmatize black people when they go to, say, “Community Chest” to stay away from getting hit with more rent or utility bills, instead of accumulating wealth, as they move around the metaphorical game board.
Or will they draw a “Chance” card? What do you get then? “Pay poor tax”? What are some “poor taxes’? Full, high Social Security taxes on your wages versus a phase-out for higher-paid workers? Higher prices for inferior foods at inner-city supermarkets? Abusively usurious interest and service charges at check-cashing stores rather than fair banking services? Or try another “CHANCE” and what may happen? “Go to jail… go directly to jail… do not pass Go… do not collect $200.00.”
We’ve got work to do on fair and affordable housing.