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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Plus Ça Change...Of Gentrification and Grim Racists

A recent article in New York Magazine detailed some of the racist tactics of a landlord who controlls several New York buildings ("Grim, Racist Methods of One Brooklyn Landlord").  In the article the anonymous landlord discussed how he evicted black tenants in buildings that he owned in order to put in white tenants. He bought out leases and installed white tenants, asserting: "My saying is — again, I’m not racist — every black person has a price. The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars. Everyone wants them to leave, not because we don’t like them, it’s just they’re messing up — they bring everything down. Not all of them."  Later the landlord stated: "If there’s a black tenant in the house—in every building we have, I put in white tenants. They want to know if black people are going to be living there. So sometimes we have ten apartments and everything is white, and then all of the sudden one tenant comes in with one black roommate, and they don’t like it. They see black people and get all riled up, they call me: “We’re not paying that much money to have black people live in the building.” If it’s white tenants only, it’s clean. I know it’s a little bit racist but it’s not. They’re the ones that are paying and I have to give them what they want." "

I think that there will be many readers (of the article linked above and this blog post) who are appalled and surprised at the persistence of racism in housing.  There will be some who will be vaguely disquieted but they will dismiss this landlord as an ugly outlier in a world where most providers of housing are fair and non-racist. Then there will be others who, like me, from personal experience and the experience of many other people of color, know that racism (often combined with sexism; the Welfare Queen still lives in popular imagination) in the provision of housing is as common as non-Whole Foods variety, non-organic, sliced bread.

Looking back, across many leases and purchases of housing for myself and my family, I can count on one hand housing searches where I was *not* at some point the victim of racial discrimination, including in my most recent search for housing last fall. Then I was lucky to have a realtor who dealt with me fairly.  But more than one landlord changed tunes, going from "Happy Days Are Here Again" after hearing from me by phone or e-mail to "The Volga Boatmen" on seeing me. I was honestly fearful of seeing any landlord before attempting a rental, and I remain grateful that my current landlord was pleasant and seemed positively disposed to my candidacy even after seeing me. That in 2015 I am thankful to have been treated fairly (much less well) when seeking housing speaks volumes.

Landlords and sellers are often subtle in their discrimination.  Even when housing providers are boldly racist (like the realtor that I spoke to on the telephone some years back about a rental; when she drove up to the property and saw me she put the pedal to the metal and took off like a bat out of hell. She wouldn't take my calls after that...), it's often hard to prove such cases.  This is the grim reality of "fair housing" in this country. Most people who know that they are being discriminated against don't try to vindicate their rights, and even if they did, they might have little to show for it. This is also the grim reality of "gentrification." Though some have argued that gentrification is merely the "improvement" of neighborhoods, class is but a small part of its dynamics. Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke eloquently in an obscenity-laced response (or "rant" as some saw it) to claims that gentrification is an unmitigated good. The race and culture of old settlers is often ripped out right along with corner stores and bodegas. I have, in the past, worried that exceptions to the FHA (like the Mrs. Murphy clause discussed below) are swallowing the rules of fair housing. But there is no need to worry about exceptions when the rules are violated ( or savvily avoided) with impunity.

So, it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As a tribute to old times, I republish below my blog post from November 2008, "Dialing Mrs. Murphy (Or, Me Talk Pretty One Day").


I began the search for temporary housing by scouring Craigslist. I had been making calls for months, but now it was time to nail something down. I found a promising ad: fully furnished, all utilities included, Internet and parking. The pictures looked great. Maybe a little more heavily decorated than I’d like, but the place looked well kept. I made the call. Someone picked up on the first ring, whereupon I stated my reason for calling, trying to sound at once business like and warm and friendly. After listening patiently, the person on the other end asked me to hold while she switched phones. She returned and began telling me about the apartment.

“It’s my father’s place. He’s away visiting in Ireland. We figure we may as well make some money since he’ll be gone for so long. It’s part of my house, downstairs. It’s in the nice part of town so you don’t have to worry about security.” The woman had an Irish accent which grew more pronounced as she continued. “We want someone who doesn’t smoke, has no pets, and is the right sort. It is my home, you know. You’ll have to call back and talk to my husband and he can schedule the showing. You sound respectable, you said you’re a law professor, is that right?” 

“Yes, I teach in Cleveland. I don’t smoke, and while I like pets I don’t really have time for or interest in caring for any so I have none.” I said it all rather too quickly. After her comments, I felt as if everything I was saying was a lie. Am I the right sort? Will I be a blight on the neighborhood's niceness and security? Am I respectable, or do I just sound as if I am?

Why would I wonder such about such things? Then it hit me.

She probably thinks that I’m white. Why wouldn’t she? I speak crisp, standard, Northeastern U.S. English with, I’m told, a vague hint of Californian that betrays my Los Angeles upbringing. Most people who speak as I do and have the job that I do are, statistically speaking, white. They are also probably men, but the register of my voice no doubt gives away my gender. So, if she thought I was white, she could certainly be forgiven for thinking so. I struggled mightily to curb the impulse to say: “I’m black; will that be a problem?” I didn’t want to ask because I didn’t look forward to any of the three possible responses I envisioned hearing: 1) stunned silence then a stammered “no” which really meant “yes” 2) stunned silence followed by “Yes, it matters”, followed by polite dismissal (or a click as the receiver was hung up) 3) stunned silence followed by righteous indignation at having been asked about whether race figures in such matters (“We’re all post racial now!”). None of the three possible outcomes seemed attractive. I suddenly feared that I had called the wrong number. Could it be...Mrs. Murphy in the flesh?

Many of you know the hypothetical Mrs. Murphy of Fair Housing Act fame.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) proscribed discrimination in most housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. It contained a noteworthy exception, the so-called “Mrs. Murphy” clause found in 42 U.S.C. §3603(b). This section, in brief, allowed landlords who were owner-occupiers of small scale multiple dwelling units or owners of few rental properties to discriminate. Mrs. Murphy, so named during the legislative debates surrounding the clause, was the hypothetical small landlady who ran a boarding house, or perhaps owned a duplex apartment building and resided in one unit while renting the other. Such persons, legislators argued at the time of the enacting of the FHA, should be able to rent their housing as they saw fit, given the small, intimate settings in which their rentals occurred. The exceptions in the FHA, however, did not include discriminatory housing statements or advertising. Under the FHA, Mrs. Murphy could discriminate racially but could not advertise or state that she was doing so. Mrs. Murphy could, for reasons of race, silently turn down applicants who presented themselves. (There are other legal non-discrimination norms that might proscribe Mrs. Murphy’s silent but racist inspired refusal to rent; these I leave for another time.)

I have had my share of racist experiences while searching for housing. (See my blog post How Now, Brown? Parents Involved in Community Schools and the Triumph of Color Blind Ideology.) In recent years, however, when I have mostly sought short term accommodations, I have generally avoided such incidents by dealing with large, impersonal entities such as corporate housing providers who really only care about whether I can pay. When I do deal with smaller, private providers of accommodations, I generally am known to the provider or am otherwise “pre-approved.” In short, I try to avoid the potential Mrs. Murphys of the world altogether.

With the advent of Craigslist, people who would have advertised their housing with a sign in the yard or maybe an advertisement in the local newspaper can now offer their housing to a national or even international Internet audience. So, Mrs. Murphy now has global reach. Really, anyone may dial her number. A caller’s manner of speaking may often reveal gender and sometimes race to her. Thanks to a greater number of integrated social and educational interactions than used to be common, all too often people of diverse racial backgrounds sound like, well, people of non-diverse racial backgrounds. They sound white ("Speaking Standard English is not 'sounding white'," you say! Yeah, I know that song...). When these people telephone out into the world, whether they set out to do so or not, they are phone passing.

Black people know that I mean. Phone passing is when you call to order goods or services and you breeze through the interaction using your best Standard English voice, knowing that in many cases the person on the other end of the line probably assumes your whiteness and treats you accordingly. Not treating you well, necessarily, just neutrally. You get that nice, even, default customer service mode. There’s nothing funnier (in that wry, sad-funny way) than when you arrive to claim the book you placed on hold at the book store (the last one of its type in stock) or to get your vacuum cleaner fixed after talking to the repairman on the phone (who stayed late to accommodate you) only to be confronted with a puzzled “Oh, was that you who called ?” Most such vendors shrug it off and continue to offer the same level of service they offered on the phone. Some are visibly perturbed by what they no doubt see as racial identity fraud and set about giving what is clearly an inferior level of service.

Phone passing presents a thornier situation when it comes to negotiating for longer term arrangements such as housing or jobs. On the one hand, there is an ethic of non-discrimination that theoretically prevails which would eliminate the need for one to announce one’s race. On the other hand, there is the sober reality that race may especially matter in smaller, more intimate situations and the sooner one puts it on the table, the better. I came to that conclusion years ago when first applying for legal jobs. I attended a good number of interviews with interviewers who were clearly flummoxed by the seeming mismatch between my face and my resume. I learned to avoid awkward interactions by prominently listing on my CV items such as “Black Law Students Association Co-Chair” and “National Urban League Scholarship Winner” in order to tip off potential employers.

In the case of my potential Mrs. Murphy, I chose not to give any indication of my race but, the truth is, I have no intention of calling back to schedule an appointment. Am I being unfair in not giving this a try? Maybe. But there’s just too much chance for unpleasantness, and that would be unfair to both of us, non-discrimination norms notwithstanding.

Too bad. She sounded like a nice lady.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Remembering Marie (Or, Marie’s and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity): A Mother's Day Tribute

[It is almost Mother's Day.  This is, in many ways, a very difficult time for me.  Although I am a mother and have been for many years, and I know many people who are mothers, the death of my own mother left me with an odd sense of aimlessness and even resentment in the face of Mother's Day celebrations. As part of my ongoing work to overcome these feelings, and to mark this Mother's Day and what will soon be the twenty-fifth anniversary of my mother's death, I re-publish the following post from May 23, 2010. I cried as I re-read this, but then I smiled. So there is progress. Happy Mother's Day to all.]

I am Very Busy these days Writing and Editing Important Work. I have no time to blog these days, and certainly not today. However, my mother is making me write this.

For those who know me, this may seem surprising, since today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother Marie. (Marie was not her real name, but it’s what we called her, for a host of simple and complicated family reasons. I even insisted that it be put on her tombstone along with her “real” name.) In the past, in the years shortly after her death, I marked the days coming up to it and the anniversary itself with copious private tears, with the tears getting more private with every passing year. Big girls (and certainly not big boys) are not supposed to cry, right? I have, correspondingly, trained myself to cry less at her memory. Even now when I cry I think of how my mother used to complain about my crying as a child. I was the cryingist and whiningist child in America, she used to say. My crying and whining by themselves didn’t so much upset my mother; it was the reasons that I cried and whined. Like many children, I cried for many minor matters, assuredly. But I more often cried for things that were beyond my own personal childish grievances. I was always wanting things to be better and different, big things, things for everybody.

So, for example, I used to cry when my mother had to go off to one of her three jobs. I wondered why she had to work so hard and be gone all the time. (I remember, for example, overhearing my mother confiding to a friend that one of her employers owed her a dollar and a quarter from a previous week. She then spent at least half an hour trying to answer my query about what a dollar and a quarter was and why it mattered so much. Once I understood, I ended up crying because I didn’t want us to need the money. ) I didn’t understand that the days of my infancy and early toddlerhood, when she had no job at all and was with me much more of the time, were some of the worst days of her life. As a teen-aged mother she had struggled every day in a home where she contended with her own mother and with a community that looked down on her.

Later, when my mother sent me to live with my aunt while she, as she called it, “got her life together” (she eventually remarried and then spent time smoothing the way for her children to join her in her new home), I used to hide in the closet at my aunt’s house and cry. I cried not only because I felt abandoned but also because my mother couldn’t live like the mothers I read about in Dick and Jane books. When I was finally able to rejoin my mother I almost never cried in front of her. I had learned many things during my time away from her, among them that it was best to be as little trouble as possible if I expected to fit into her new life. She had enough troubles of her own and really didn’t need the added burden of dealing with America’s cryingist and whiningist child. The only time I remember crying in front of my mother between third and twelfth grades was when we were in an auto accident together when I was 14. During those years my tears were in private at all times, and even in private my tears were more like prayers, fervid supplications that my life and her life would be better at some point in the future.

When Marie died I cried incessantly for months afterward, so much so that my toddler twins used to take up stations on either side of me and pat my back while chanting “Don’t cry mommy, don’t cry.” Except at Marie’s funeral, however, I never cried public tears. Mostly I cried at home in front of my children. I suppose that some would say that tears should especially be hidden from young children, so as not to upset them. I felt the opposite, though. My tears were a signal to them and to myself that I was at home and they were at home, and that at home grief should no more be hidden than happiness. Moreover, I cried at the realization that besides me my children now had no other female relative in the world who would adore them, and I blamed myself for somehow not having a large, loving family to give to them. I cried the most at the realization that Marie’s life, and my life, had finally gotten better, and she wasn’t here to enjoy it.

Today for the first time in many years I cried just a little, even with full freedom to give voice to my sadness. Instead of crying I laughed a lot at the joy her memory evoked. In the years right before her death, when I was first starting off in law practice, I began to put away the stoic pose of my late childhood and college years and had taken to sharing with Marie the trials and tribulations of my work life. Marie, bless her soul, would have none of it. At the beginning of any such conversation she would ignore my complaints and engage me on what she felt to be the truly important stuff of life. “What did you eat today?” she would ask. When I persisted in complaining about something at work she would grow exasperated. “Why are you upset about these things?” she would ask. “Don’t whine, work. I raised you so that you could be in a position not to kiss anybody’s [behind. Though Marie could be as polished as a wealthy suburban matron in public, she could at times curse like a sailor when the situation called for it.] Work hard not only for the sake of hard work, but so that you can get out if you must. Vote with your feet.” Then, my mother would go back to her conversation about the real substance of life. “Now, what did you eat today? And did you spend some time outside today?”

I thought at first that the reason my mother refused to engage me in the details of my professional life was that it was too alien for her, too far removed from her own life. My mother had, after all, scarcely attended a regular high school, having studied much of the time at a “continuation school” for pregnant girls and later finishing up at a night school. But I figured out that this wasn’t the reason at all that my mother behaved this way. She was not well educated, but she was certainly bright. She understood the details of my lawyer’s life. The fact was, she understood them better that I did. What she understood was that as important as I thought that my professional life was, it was but a shadow of the seemingly simple but immensely rich and complex internal workings of my personal life. Only when that personal part of my life was well founded could any of the rest of it come together.

I am reminded of a book that I came across recently called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Roger Taylor. In it the authors discuss one of the less-publicized aspects of Einstein’s life, his personal interactions with black people. Notwithstanding the almost shocking absence of black people from the movie “IQ,” a lighthearted fiction that portrays aspects of Einstein's life in the town of Princeton, there were a significant number of black people living in the town during Einstein’s years there, and he had close associations with many of them. The book offers insights from many members of Princeton’s black community on why Einstein was seemingly so comfortable in the black community, both within Princeton and outside of it. It was more than a great man’s admiration for a “simple” folk; after all, he counted among his friends some of the most brilliant and accomplished blacks of the day, such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. What, I think, made Einstein so comfortable was that just walking around Princeton’s Witherspoon Street black community and talking with the residents there about apparently small things, as Einstein often did, made his own scientific work make sense. Such walks and talks were, I would argue, the real stuff of Einstein’s life. As one respondent in the book wrote about Einstein’s walks in the black community, there “he was free.”

So, my mother Marie, like Einstein (she would be tickled by the pairing, because she would know that it was, at the same time, improbable yet highly probable), understood that if life could not be reduced to its smallest elements, then larger structures, such as Law and Science, stood in peril of toppling.

Rest in peace, Marie.