Property Values Matter. Bigly.
There they went. Again. The opening night prime time proceedings of the Republican Convention prominently featured Mark and Patrice McCloskey. They are the couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in their prosperous St Louis neighborhood. He’s the one in the pictures with the big assault type weapon. She is pointing a pistol.
On the surface this represents nothing more than the enduring power of property values arguments used by Democrats and Republicans since forever. Ho hum.
If we really are in a new moment, however, perhaps we can and should look more deeply into why this imagery is so perpetually powerful.
So far, most discussion of housing discrimination is disconnected from the historical roots of housing and land ownership itself. That’s because of what historian Gerald Horne calls malignant amnesia. Unpleasant things are erased altogether or twisted like a pretzel to tell a story quite different than what actually happened.
White supremacy isn’t just rooted in white people owning Black people. It’s about white people owning the Native people’s land too.
The truth about U.S. colonialism itself has been made to disappear in a dense fog of mythologies about The Founding. The story is that we originated in anti-colonialism, what with rebelling against our British overlords and all. Alas, that’s not exactly the complete picture.
More accurately, what happened is that property owning white men didn’t want to share. Sensing the potential of their New World, they devised a way to keep all the bounty for themselves and their kind, not just for their own generation but for a long time to come.
One of the many ways we know that anti colonialism was a cover story is that since 1776, the U.S. has never supported any other anti colonial struggle. Not one. Not in Haiti. Not in Mexico. Not in India. Not in Cuba. Not in Africa. Nowhere. Except for a few temporary tactical alliances for geopolitical reasons, the U. S. has aligned with other colonial powers, especially when those powers were facing rebellion.
Ho Chi Minh found this out the hard way. On Sept 2, 1945 he included exact language from the US Declaration of Independence for Viet Nam’s own effort to proclaim itself finished with French domination. Given that the U.S. had worked with the Vietnamese against the Japanese in WWII, he appealed to President Truman for help.
No dice. Truman and every President after him doubled down on assistance to France. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. soon enough became the invading power itself.
What does this have to do with the McCloskeys? More than you think. Much more.
For a long time now a Christianized description of history has referred to slavery as the original sin of the U.S. If it was a sin, it wasn’t the first. The original sin would have been brutally displacing the Native peoples in the first place. Without which there would have been no place to put the enslaved people.
The McCloskeys are the linear descendants of more than 400 years of settler colonialism. That experience gave birth to the U.S. version of the ideas of real estate and property values now so deeply rooted in the public mind. Attachment and affection for the heavily subsidized real estate they own, whether mortgaged or debt free, generates an enormously powerful perceived financial and cultural interest for most white people in maintaining the racial status quo.
It derives from how the white way of thinking constructs a zero-sum racial version of reality. Inside that system it becomes natural to think that the higher value of a suburban home itself proves and validates the superiority of white people and of the white way of living.
Anecdotally, just about every white person I know has a story of being shown urban and/or rural poor black neighborhoods by their parents. It was definitely part of my childhood. The message is clear: look at how these people live in these slums. We are better than that. We are better than them. We must protect ourselves from them. Were we to allow them into our neighborhoods, our property values would surely collapse. Ironically, in my day, it would have been typical after such an outing, for the boys anyway, to come home and play Cowboys and Indians.
Chain, chain, chain
Within what is now called the United States, claims of entitlement to territory are foundational. Milestones include the Thanksgiving myth, the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation; the Constitution; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; the land auctions associated with the Trail of Tears (1830-1836); the phrase “manifest destiny” coined 1845; the Treaty of Guadalupe (1848), the Homestead act (1862); the whites only homeownership policies of the New Deal and the explosion of white suburbs following WWII.
In 1620, Edmund Gunter, a clergyman and mathematician in England invented a tool essential to the whole process. The 100 link Gunter’s Chain was commonly used for making land surveys. Its use here dates at least as far back as George Washington who was himself a zealous surveyor and land speculator in his youth.
Whether white people alive today actually know the facts or not, they often defensively claim that their family tree doesn’t include any connections to slavery. Which could be true. Some white ancestors actively opposed slavery.
We should celebrate them more for that. Our failure to do so is itself revealing as to our true values. Is there a recorded case of someone searching Ancestry Dot Com to validate their claim that they are descended from an abolitionist? Not that I know of. Is there a statue of William Lloyd Garrison anywhere? What about the Grimke sisters? Do we celebrate the birthday of abolitionist martyr Elijah Lovejoy? Nope.
But slavery is only part of our national story anyway. Generation after generation, virtually all whites participated in and benefited from the occupation of Indigenous lands.
Many whites, some Blacks too, joined overtly and frequently in violent acts of expelling and dispossessing Native Peoples. Many belonged to brutal military organizations, formal and informal. The degree to which this was elemental to creating the culture of gun worship and violence that envelops us still cannot be overstated. Other whites played supportive roles by supplying legislation, financing, arms, transportation, legal representation, land survey services, religious justifications and the sheer force of occupation itself.
These people are venerated as heroic pioneers. With one expulsion or confinement after another, they took collective and individual possession of the land they seized. As they went, they built the superstructure that justifies and maintains it.
This Land Is Your Land
In 1940, Woody Guthrie arrived back in his native Oklahoma from New York. That’s when he wrote his famous anti capitalist song, protesting the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of the rich. But that is not the song’s only meaning.
Guthrie’s lyrics make no lament on behalf of dispossessed Native people. At a few performances, Pete Seeger used a stanza by an unknown writer asserting that it’s Native people’s land too. But very few people know that verse even exists.
The popularly accepted understanding of “This Land is Your Land” blithely treats conquest as a fait accompli:
From California, to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
And why not? By 1940, foot-by-foot and acre-by-acre, surveyors had placed their Gunter chains and more high tech methods that came later, upon the lands of all of the Native nations and peoples. The number of dispossessed and brutalized Native people was even greater than the four million people who were enslaved in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.
In the territorial expansion process, preceding and following the Civil War, many more of our white ancestors participated in land seizure than were directly involved with the enslavement system while it existed. At every step racial superiority was invoked.
The Declaration of Independence does not explicitly refer to slavery at all. It does however include this language as its grand finale complaint against the British:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Fast forward to today’s struggles over the Washington Redskins name and imagery along with many other enduring derogatory stereotypes associated with native peoples.
None of this is intended to suggest some victimology competition between Black people and Native peoples. Rather, it is to help us more fully understand the intricacies and evolution of the white way of thinking. That includes how slavery and territorial conquest are connected—congealed, would be more like it.
The cumulative individual and collective experience of territorial conquest is a vital component of the white supremacy ethos that remains embedded in our culture. And our economy. And the connection to it of ordinary white people, not just the rich.
In his brilliant book, about what we call the Trail of Tears, Unworthy Republic, The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, Claudio Saunt addresses the issue of ownership and white supremacy for the common white man. Concerning the removal of the Choctaw and the dispersal of the land they had previously occupied he writes:
“When the auction opened in Mississippi in 1833, Robert J. Walker, an ambitious lawyer and future U.S. senator, gathered speculators in a tavern a few yards from the land office and persuaded them to form the Chocchuma Land Company. Prices dropped by 30 percent the day after, the result of the lack of competing bids. Walker claimed that it was “a source of inexpressible gratification” to him that by artificially lowering prices he was protecting common white men, the sturdy farmers who had “moistened with their blood the soil of Mississippi” when defending the state against the “exulting savage.”
Putting the title in entitlement
Title refers to how the legal system says you own something. For real estate purposes, title refers to ownership of a specifically defined piece of property, meaning that you have the rights to use that property.
Deeds, on the other hand, are the legal documents by which title is transferred from one party to another. Whether you buy or sell a 100,000 acre factory farm or a two-bedroom suburban home, paperwork is required. Otherwise it doesn’t count.
Deeds are artifacts of white supremacist conquest. And of residential segregation. Without a deed, you couldn’t even include a covenant preventing the sale of a property to any non Caucasian.
Real Estate is a major sub-system of the larger white supremacist infrastructure
patriarchy + white supremacy + capitalism + violence x 25 generations = U.S. structural racism 2020
The racial distribution of land/home ownership is a key expression of that formula. An elaborate ecosystem sees to it that Black households are less likely to own homes, farms or other land and that the property they do own is of less value. The resulting vast disparity in wealth between whites and blacks related to home ownership is well documented. Less understood is the psychological and ideological effect.
Dissect the white psyche though and there it is. Because of the perceived personal value and importance of property ownership, average white homeowners like the McCloskeys can be just as intensely invested in preserving existing property arrangements as Fred Trump or a Koch brother.
During the urban uprisings of the 1960’s it was common for suburban white men to sit on their front porches with long guns. George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin fits the same pattern. So does the history of northern Sundown Towns where blacks were not permitted after dark.
Among its other problems, the tired trope, “whites vote against their own economic interests,” fails to take white allegiance to racially segregated home ownership into account. (To be clear, whites do routinely vote against their own interests but not in the way that argument is commonly made. That’s a discussion for a different essay.)
Putting the cult in culture
It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump, the apex example of overt white supremacy in the 21st century thus far, would be a man who combines real estate connections and mass media sales skills. It is relevant to note here that whites own and control essentially all of the mass media platforms. And, of course, the land occupied by their production and dissemination facilities.
Speaking of Trump’s media skills, he truly is the first TV President. Yes, Nixon performed poorly on TV and that contributed to his loss to JFK in 1960. But no one has ever been a TV President in the way Trump is. For one thing, no one has ever had two TV networks at his disposal before. First Trump had NBC with The Apprentice. The importance of that show is underestimated. What is usually forgotten is the role played by MSNBC and Joe Scarbourgh in particular in Trump’s emergence as a political persona. And, of course Fox News.
What’s significant here is that mass media influence helps to both cause and explain how white supremacist culture is so powerful. Liberals live and die in the land of policy. They use the term culture wars dismissively, as though they are a secondary concern—and a distant second at that.
That’s a mistake. I recently heard a wise person on TV—whose name, unfortunately, I didn’t get—make it crystal clear: culture eats policy for breakfast every single morning. Which is how white supremacy survives every single policy that gets thrown at it.
In the land of policy everything is already fair and just. There is no form of racial discrimination that is legal. Written laws, court decisions and other policies that require racially fair policing, housing, health care, education, wages, jobs and everything else would stretch from here to the moon. And yet the disparities persist with a vengeance.
It’s no wonder the 2020 Republican Convention did not adopt a platform. Platform? We don’t need no stinkin’ platform. Culture is our platform. Haven’t you noticed that we don’t care when you talk about the rule of law? Platform? Donald Trump is our platform. He gets results.
For centuries now, whites have not just voraciously sought land for themselves. They also assert their legal and moral right to determine what land any and all people of color may occupy and/or own and under what conditions they may live.
Within the U.S., they prefer that Blacks live in ghettoes and assume that Native people live on reservations. Racial confinement makes it easier to distribute services and resources such as tax policy, law enforcement, transportation and education in ways that advantage whites.
Just for good measure, the phrase “the man-of-the-house” incorporates the unity of patriarchy and property ownership.
So it is that politicians on all points of the political spectrum have consistently appealed, overtly and covertly, to protecting property as a core message to white voters. Law and order, the sanctity of neighborhood schools, fighting crime, Castle Doctrine and Second Amendment rights embody codes that convey the property values message.
Perhaps the best known example was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. His victory is correctly credited to his campaign’s effective use of these arguments, particularly insofar as they added so-called Reagan Democrats to his tally. Which brings us straight back to the prominence of the McCloskeys in 2020.
If Trump is repudiated by the voters at the polls in 2020, especially by larger numbers of white voters, that could be a kind of decolonizing Declaration in its own right.
This essay is adapted from a book Frank Joyce is writing on unlearning white supremacy.