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Suburbanites Need to Be Part of Racism Conversation, Says Professor


On July 29 of this year, President Trump announced on Twitter that he had “rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule,” a reference to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was passed by the Obama Administration in 2015.

With that, the issue of housing in American suburbs became an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Although the suburbs of today bear little resemblance to their cookie-cutter predecessors like Levittown, Long Island, they are still, in important ways, resistant to diversity and change.

To explore why that is, and how it happened in the first place, we sat down with Roger Panetta Ph.D., a recently retired professor of history and the author of Westchester: The American Suburb (Fordham University Press, 2006) and The Tappan Zee Bridge and the Forging of the Rockland Suburb (The Historical Society of Rockland County, 2010). He also co-wrote Kingston: The IBM Years (Black Dome Press, 2014).

Full Transcript Below:
Roger Panetta: How have I, as a white suburban resident, a former white suburban resident, contributed to this at the same time I espouse very liberal ideas about redistributive justice, about economic opportunity, about integration?

Patrick Verel: On July 29th of this year, President Trump shared this message with the world on Twitter, “I am happy to inform all the people living in their suburban lifestyle dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood. Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH rule. Enjoy.”

And just like that, the issue of housing in American suburbs shifted to the foreground of the 2020 presidential campaign. And although the suburbs of today bear little resemblance to their cookie-cutter predecessors like Levittown, Long Island, they are still, in important ways, resistant to diversity and change.

To explore why that is and how it happened in the first place, we sat down with Roger Panetta, a recently retired professor of history at Fordham and the author of Westchester: The American Suburb, and the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Forging of the Rockland Suburb. He also wrote Kingston: The IBM Years, which came out in 2014. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.

What is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing or AFFH rule? And why is Trump so eager to advertise that he’s getting rid of it?

RP: Your opening statement about Trump saying how happy we should be because he is eliminating this rule is a wonderful example of his political genius. Fact-checking his statement, of course, gives us the general pattern of a pile of errors. The rule does not enforce any construction, any zoning law changes. In fact, the Fair Housing Assessment rule simply implies study. And it was meant to be a tool in order to enable the Fair Housing and the Affirmative Furthering Program to find ways to know and assess, by community, whether or not they were complying with fair housing rules. And deliberately and specifically, it required no actions by communities without public approval. So it did not threaten to build public housing, it did not threaten to build multiunit housing. In fact, it promised no change. It simply required an assessment of whether or not that community was complying with the fair housing regulations. That’s all it did.

So he very cleverly has escalated that. I think what he has done is struck a nerve, and a very important nerve, and that nerve is my house, my home, my community where I live. And that’s why it’s incredibly politically shrewd. He’s cut to the chase. Right to the heart of what it means to live in the suburbs, to own your house, your principal lifetime economic investment. And he has promised not to endanger that.

PV: As I understand that this Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which just really rolls right off the tongue, this came out of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made it illegal to discriminate against people in housing. So this was an update to that 1968 act. Why would that be necessary? Why would there need to be an update?

RP: I think for about 40 to 50 years, the Fair Housing Act has not been able to successfully grapple with the issues of suburban housing and the segregation of suburban housing. So in order to try to give it some teeth without legislating the construction or the planning of those units, what it did is decided, let’s have communities do an inventory, assess where they are on the fair housing continuum, and tell us where they are and then suggest to us remedies they would make, that they would take, in order to create a more fair housing community where they were residing. So that’s all. And Obama was very careful, specifically implied there would be no imposed housing construction. So Trump’s saying there’s going to be public housing because of this action is absolutely inaccurate. I don’t think that matters. And I think to quarrel with him over the inaccuracies over this or whether or not the statements are fair misses the point. He’s striking a nerve.

PV: Besides legalized discrimination, which is what the 1968 act was meant to prevent, what were some of the other ways that suburbs were historically kept segregated?

RP: Now what Scarsdale and other communities had been doing for years is using restricted covenants. That is a group of community homeowners would agree, in writing sometimes, by specificity, naming the group, no Jews allowed, who could buy and purchase a home in that community. Some of those covenants actually got legal standing. It took a long time for the courts to overturn them, so community residents had formal written documents prescribing who could buy a home in that suburban community. And that expresses a fundamental problem here that people living in the suburbs want to live in a community of sameness. And that’s sameness is broad-based, it’s class, it’s ethnicity, it’s race, it’s probably political preference. It’s all of those things. And that they define as both comfort and safety. Those are the hallmarks of the suburb. And I think they’re very powerful and deeply embedded in the popular culture. Very hard to remove that.

And the long battle of Westchester, which Trump points to as ground zero, is very interesting. For almost a decade, they resisted the requirements of the Fair Housing Act to create more dense, racially mixed housing units throughout Westchester. And that was a bloodbath. It’s recently that they have conformed to that. And they’ve gone to introduce some community construction, but that bow is very interesting as a telltale marker about the way in which suburban communities resisted, politically, the notion of equal distribution of fair housing.

PV: Did you see the movie that they did on the guy in Yonkers? It’s like We Need a Hero, or something like that?

RP: Yes, so for a while I lived in Yonkers and there was a great diversity. And I remember a terrible, terrible story in my life. I lived in an apartment building that was racially integrated, 50% black, 50% white, and my wife were very committed to staying. And you could see it beginning to tip. You could see whites leaving in faster numbers. And there was a fire in the building one day and I had a two-year-old child and a fireman came up to me in the hallway. The fire was in our hall in the incinerators. And he said, “You know, those fires are caused by the super. He’s throwing paint rags down the incinerator, and you’re going to have an explosion.” And then he grabbed me by the throat and he said, “When are you getting out of this building?”

PV: Oh my God, really?

RP: Yes, he said, “When are you getting out of this building? What are you doing here? Why are you still here?” And he never said, of course, he meant, “Why are you as a white person are still here?”

PV: Wow.

RP: And that stayed in my head. And then we moved to Hastings. And when we moved to Hastings, my five-year-old daughter at that point said, “Where have all the black people gone?”

PV: I read that a 2018 survey experiment found that even politically liberal homeowners tend to oppose increasing development in their communities, even when they’re told that such development helps the disadvantaged. Any thoughts on how to counter that?

RP: Patrick, I thought that’s why your opening quote and the whole idea of this was so on target. It really gets to the very core of this issue we’re in now with Black Lives Matter. I wrote a letter to the president of the university and to the Bishop of the Episcopal church where I’m a member. And I said, “Really, I think what’s called upon now is for me to acknowledge my role in the patterns of racism. The blind privilege I have, and the advantages I have had as a white, professional, educated person.” I need to acknowledge those. And I think before I do anything else, I must create consciousness of how I fit in this in ways I do not see.

That’s exactly what you’re asking me here. How have I, as a white suburban resident, a former white suburban resident, contributed to this at the same time I espouse very liberal ideas about redistributive justice, about economic opportunity, about integration. But when it comes near my house, when you want to put multiple units in my community, when you want to put low-income housing, or fair housing in my community, you threaten the cost and the value of my primary life investment.

And when you do that, all of my political liberalism goes out the window. We need to confront that. And the studies you talk about raise another interesting issue, how and why do we not as a public know that about ourselves? So part of this question you’re asking is our sense of self-consciousness and self-awareness, do I understand what’s going on here? And I know what I feel. And it doesn’t matter to me if one black professional person moves next door to me, because that person somehow seems like me in some ways. It’s the notion of multiple units. It’s the notion of people I don’t know. So we’re prepared to allow slow accretions of blacks in the suburbs, but we’re not prepared for an open acknowledgment that the fundamental imbalance of that racially, and building the kind of multiple units in the centers, that we need to correct that. It’s a remarkable area of blindness, if not self-delusion.

PV: Do you think about this when you think about the ways that you… You were just telling me about how you moved from Yonkers to Hastings, which are very different places within Westchester. Do you think about that much now?

RP: Yes, I don’t know why. I think that was an important experience at Yonkers for my wife and I. I think we were very committed to that integrated living. We had terrific pangs of guilt when we left about what we had done. It was a matter of conscience, but that fireman shaking me by the neck, scared the wits out of me. And he pointed to my child and he said, “How could you be living here with your child? Are you a responsible father?” And I thought, “Gulp.” So it was a blow. It was a belly blow. And we continued to think about that. And so now, wherever I am, I tend to look around and see whether this place is white or black. Is this a mixed community? I can go four or five days and not see a black person? And that question always comes to my mind. I never want to let that go.

PV: Are there any suburbs that you’ve come across that have really embraced housing pattern changes that can be looked to as a model?

RP: There was a book recently done in 2019 by Amanda Hurley called Radical Suburbs. And what she did is she went back to the thirties and fifties and found experimental community developments in the suburbs that were based on more communitarian values, that were racially integrated, that had fair housing, inexpensive housing units, that really attempted to create and live up to the fair housing law before there was a Fair Housing Act. And that we have a history of that. That’s the irony. It’s not something we just need to look at places like Portland, where they have done a good deal of work creating more fair residential communities in the suburbs, but we have a history of it. And, again, it’s my deep feeling about our needing to come into contact with that information to realize about what were they trying to do, who were these places?

And, by the way, this also raises for me the other issue of the need to begin to study in our curriculums at the university level, the real estate history of the state, and the city, if not the country. Because in that real estate history, we have one of the fundamental issues of civil rights. American historians have been negligent in examining the place of real estate. And we live in a city that is governed and held by real estate. And we have a president whose reputation and power is rooted in real estate.

PV: Do you think we’re painting suburbanites with too broad a brush? Are there more progressives in the suburbs than we realize when it comes to this particular thing?

RP: Yes, and I think too broad a brush and really tells us about the power of popular culture in shaping our views of the world. I think we need to take a much more critical posture to how we know what we know and whether we think we know that. And so if I look at the white picket fence, the sort of house with a little backyard, all those images that really… The community of common people sharing common views. All of those very powerful images are stuck in our minds as what the suburb looks like. Tom Sugrue at NYU has done a lot of work in the last couple of years in trying to show us that the suburb is much more diversified than we think. And he has outlined a kind of phases of suburbs. For me, the easiest way to manage that, and for your audience, is to think of a series of concentric circles.

That series of concentric circles was first used in the 1920s at the University of Chicago to describe the development of cities. You can still use that now, and it’s very helpful to understand the suburbs. The suburbs have a series of concentric circles, not exactly, but it’s a helpful visualization. At the center of that may be the diverse suburb. And there are increasing numbers of those that Sugrue points out. Places like Yonkers, and the communities around Yonkers in lower Westchester. Indeed, lower Westchester is a good example of a diverse community that has a balance between, and the numbers fluctuate, between blacks, whites, and brown or Latinos. Those numbers also use the older housing stock to attract whites. So whites looking to buy houses find some of the old houses in Yonkers extremely attractive and affordable. So they buy them.

The end result of that process is to create a mixed suburban community. Now, the difficulties are those communities, those mixed communities, is they have a hard time holding the line. They slowly slide into segregated communities, which is a second form of suburban community. And that’s very old. We have black suburbs going back to the 19th century. And then in the third phase of the third circle of our concentric circles, we have communities that are mostly white. And then in the fourth circle, what we call the ex-urb, we have almost fundamentally white communities. That’s the Trump stronghold. So the profile is much more mixed than we tend to look and really has a much more politically diverse looking model for us.

PV: Yeah, it’s interesting. He should have been pitching not to suburban voters, but to ex-urban voters. It’s a whole different class.

RP: The point he’s also trying to make is that, and I’m fascinated by it, and I don’t know an answer to this, is this tipping point. When those diverse suburbs get too black or brown, and I don’t know what that number is, whites begin to leave and eventually diverse suburbs become segregated suburbs. It’s hard to hold on to them, their diversity. Now the question is why? What makes whites think, “This is going. I can feel it, and I have to flee?” And is there a way that we could subsidize those home values to stabilize those communities? We do not, I do not, you do not, we do not have experience of living with, working with African-Americans and browns the way we should. They remain, in our minds, the creatures of popular culture. So when my neighborhood increasingly becomes black, I think, “What do I know?” I go back to popular culture and it tells me what’s going to happen. Can we counter that? If we can’t, diverse suburbs all will eventually evolve or devolve into segregated suburbs.

PV: Why does red lining matter so much when it comes to the racial makeup of places like the New York metropolitan area?

RP: It’s a very good question because it gets behind the issue. It asks, what is the process by which these communities have been segregated and the way in which communities are shaped? And redlining is also a very good word, because it’s the actual red line that you would see on real estate maps. It’s the actual redline. And in historic documents, when we found those maps from banks, or communities, and you saw the red line, people said, “What was that?” And slowly they figured out it was used by banks to determine the value of property and where they would and would not grant mortgages. So redlining meant, if you were inside that red line, you were not going to get a mortgage. Indeed, the value difference between redlining and outside the red lining is about one half. So houses redlined were devalued by one-half houses not redlined.

PV: Wow, is that dramatic.

RP: Very dramatic. And then of course the difficulty is the banks think, “You’re asking for $150,000, but I valued your house only at $25,000. I can’t do that.” But I’ve made that number because I’ve redlined. And redlining is… And this is a word I want to hold on to. This is so pernicious. It’s hidden. People don’t see it, it’s subtle. It took a very long time from the 1930s to the 1970s to really outlaw the practice. And it still goes on. It goes on in other kinds of loans, it goes on and other kinds of banking procedures, it goes on in credit cards. It goes on in a whole series of things because I use those measures to determine whether you’re loan worthy.

PV: It reminds me of the conversations that you hear about race in the sense that racism hasn’t gone away, per se, it’s just that we’re better about using euphemisms to cloak it. So like when you think about a neighborhood you’re not talking about, “Okay, we’re not going to come out and say, ‘We don’t want a multiple dwelling apartment building because we don’t want poor people.'” You’ll say things like, “It’s going to ruin the character of the town.”

RP: What you’re talking about is the subtlety and sophistication of racism now. In a lot of communities where there have been proposals for multiunit housing, the very liberal community members respond to that by pointing to the environmental impact. So, “We’re not arguing about the unit, the numbers, or who. That building is going to damage our environment. And that has nothing to do with the race.”

PV: What gives you hope that things will change for the better?

RP: I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. And I don’t want to say I’m filled with hope. Because my first feeling about this problem is there’s something about it that’s intransigent. The government, political leaders, have had a crack at it for several decades and we have not moved the needle very far. It’s a problem that I think the public has found ways to dodge, to hide. And I think the word I keep coming back to how insidious this is. There is a battle here about whether this is a class or race issue, and suburbanites like to say, “I’ll let you into the suburb if you can really meet the economic level of life here.” So that’s a class issue. I don’t object to you based on race. We know from recent studies that the black incomes in the United States are going up, black professional incomes are going up.

The number of blacks with advanced degrees is going up. And the general economic condition, and the number of blacks in suburbs is going up. So all of those hallmarks tend to show that they’re beginning to have the badges that we have required for entrance into the suburb. So I tend to think that may be a method of change more readily than the way in which we tried to do this through the law.

As a matter of fact, this is a very good question, that people will qualify for what you think is the standard. And, again, “I’m going to let you in one by one, not in 25 units.” So the pace of this is abhorrent, but that’s where the change is coming. It’s very difficult, based on all the evidence and what you’ve said, to get communities to openly acknowledge, “We have been wrong here. We have to figure out a way how to change this.” I have a hard time seeing that change of consciousness unless I admit that I am part of the problem. And the first way the response, for me, to Black Lives Matter is to think, how have I contributed to this, and how do I change? I need to find ways to publicly say to my community, we need to open this up now. No matter what the danger is to what we think is our primary asset, our home value.


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