The Skin Color Tax (fwd)

P. Myers (
Mon, 22 Dec 1997 17:13:15 -0800 (PST)

Subject: The Skin Color Tax (fwd)

Well, have yourselves a Freire little no smile...pat

Of Race and Risk 
by Patricia J. Williams
The Nation, December 29, 1997

Several years ago, at a moment when I was particularly tired of the unstable
lifestyle that academic careers sometimes require, I surprised myself and
bought a real house. Because the house was in a state other than the one
where I was living at the time, I obtained my mortgage by telephone. I am a
prudent little squirrel when it comes to things financial, always tucking
away stores of nuts for the winter, and so I meet the criteria of a quite
good credit risk. My loan was approved almost immediately.

A little while later, the contract came in the mail. Among the papers the
bank forwarded were forms documenting compliance with the Fair Housing Act,
which outlaws racial discrimination in the housing market. The act monitors
lending practices to prevent banks from redlining--redlining being the
phenomenon whereby banks circle certain neighborhoods on the map and refuse
to lend in those areas. It is a practice for which the bank with which I was
dealing, unbeknownst to me, had been cited previously--as well as since. In
any event, the act tracks the race of all banking customers to prevent such
discrimination. Unfortunately, and with the creative variability of all
illegality, some banks also use the racial information disclosed on the fair
housing forms to engage in precisely the discrimination the law seeks to

I should repeat that to this point my entire mortgage transaction had been
conducted by telephone. I should also note that I speak a Received Standard
English, regionally marked as Northeastern perhaps, but not easily
identifiable as black. With my credit history, my job as a law professor
and, no doubt, with my accent, I am not only middle class but apparently
match the cultural stereotype of a good white person. It is thus, perhaps,
that the loan officer of the bank, whom I had never met, had checked off the
box on the fair housing form indicating that I was white.

Race shouldn't matter, I suppose, but it seemed to in this case, so I took a
deep breath, crossed out "white" and sent the contract back. That will teach
them to presume too much, I thought. A done deal, I assumed. But suddenly
the transaction came to a screeching halt. The bank wanted more money, more
points, a higher rate of interest. Suddenly I found myself facing great
resistance and much more debt. To make a long story short, I threatened to
sue under the act in question, the bank quickly backed down and I procured
the loan on the original terms.

What was interesting about all this was that the reason the bank gave for
its new-found recalcitrance was not race, heaven forbid. No, it was all
about economics and increased risk: The reason they gave was that property
values in that neighborhood were suddenly falling. They wanted more money to
buffer themselves against the snappy winds of projected misfortune.

Initially, I was surprised, confused. The house was in a neighborhood that
was extremely stable. I am an extremely careful shopper; I had uncovered
absolutely nothing to indicate that prices were falling. It took my realtor
to make me see the light. "Don't you get it," he sighed. "This is what
always happens." And even though I suppose it was a little thick of me, I
really hadn't gotten it: For of course, I was the reason the prices were in

The bank's response was driven by demographic data that show that any time
black people move into a neighborhood, whites are overwhelmingly likely to
move out. In droves. In panic. In concert. Pulling every imaginable resource
with them, from school funding to garbage collection to social workers who
don't want to work in black neighborhoods. The imagery is awfully catchy,
you had to admit: the neighborhood just tipping on over like a terrible
accident, whoops! Like a pitcher, I suppose. All that nice fresh wholesome
milk spilling out, running away...leaving the dark, echoing, upended urn of
the inner city.

In retrospect, what has remained so fascinating to me about this experience
was the way it so exemplified the problems of the new rhetoric of racism.
For starters, the new rhetoric of race never mentions race. It wasn't race
but risk with which the bank was so concerned.

Second, since financial risk is all about economics, my exclusion got
reclassified as just a consideration of class. There's no law against class
discrimination, goes the argument, because that would represent a restraint
on that basic American freedom, the ability to contract or not. If schools,
trains, buses, swimming pools and neighborhoods remain segregated, it's no
longer a racial problem if someone who just happens to be white keeps hiking
up the price for someone who accidentally and purely by the way happens to
be black. Black people end up paying higher prices for the attempt to
integrate, even as the integration of oneself threatens to lower the value
of one's investment.

By this measure of mortgage-worthiness, the ingredient of blackness is cast
not just as a social toll but as an actual tax. A fee, an extra contribution
at the door, an admission charge for the high costs of handling my dangerous
propensities, my inherently unsavory properties. I was not judged based on
my independent attributes or financial worth; not even was I judged by
statistical profiles of what my group actually does. (For in fact,
anxiety-stricken, middle-class black people make grovelingly good
cake-baking neighbors when not made to feel defensive by the unfortunate
historical strategies of bombs, burnings or abandonment.) Rather, I was
being evaluated based on what an abstraction of White Society writ large
thinks we--or I--do, and that imagined "doing" was treated and thus
established as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a dispiriting message: that
some in society apparently not only devalue black people but devalue
themselves and their homes just for having us as part of their landscape. 

"I bet you'll keep your mouth shut the next time they plug you into the
computer as white," laughed a friend when he heard my story. It took me
aback, this postmodern pressure to "pass," even as it highlighted the
intolerable logic of it all. For by these "rational" economic measures, an
investment in my property suggests the selling of myself.

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