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Anita Hill explores racial tension in housing market

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Front Page


Just named senior adviser to the provost and hired at the Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll law firm in Washington, D.C., Professor Anita Hill (Heller) has had a booming month. To add to her academic and legal success, Beacon Press released Hill’s newest book on Oct. 4.

“Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home” focuses on racial and gender biases and inequalities as they pertain to the housing market. Through statistical research and anecdotal evidence, both personal and external, Hill exposes the details of how the current housing crisis has smashed the American Dream for many people.

Hill achieved national fame 20 years ago when she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill chronicled the hearings that followed in her book, “Speaking Truth to Power.”

Hill begins each chapter of her newest book with a different dictionaries’ definition of home.

“I do begin ‘Reimagining Equality’ with an idea about home and the importance of home,” Hill said in a BrandeisNOW press release. “I talk about how important it is in American history. I don’t believe that you can have equality without first securing that place where you can live out your dreams and live out all the opportunities that the country has to offer at a national level.”

Despite repeated requests, Hill could not be reach for an interview or comment on this story.

She discusses in her book how in the past few decades more and more single women are applying for loans to buy homes. These women are often targeted by banks for higher loan payments and less fair agreements.

Banks also target black clients for unfair loan terms, making black women the most susceptible group. Due to the rising Latino population, however, Hill admits that they too are vulnerable to inflated costs.

“Nothing better represents the twisted path to racial and gender equality in America than the search for home as a place of refuge, financial security, and expression,” Hill writes in “Reimaging Equality.” “At the end of the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, for African American families, the search for roots that had been lost to slavery became a search for land, a place where they could earn a living and escape the vestiges of bondage and the brutality of Jim Crow laws.”

Hill’s own family was forced to flee their home in Arkansas due to racism and violence, eventually ending up in Lone Tree, Okla., where Hill grew up.

The first two chapters focus on Hill’s personal story: leaving home for college when she was 17 years old and discovering that her grandfather had been a slave.

Hill describes being transplanted from her large, tight-knit family’s farm—Hill is the youngest of 13 children—to a large, impersonal college where one had to struggle to be heard and to feel at home.

“My personal story of home has to do with my leaving home at the age of 17,” Hill told BrandeisNOW. “It was after the civil rights movement, after the women’s rights movement, and we were really having to think again: one, about what our home life would be life, where we could find home, and two, what it was going to mean once we got there.”

Her story of leaving home at 17 resonates so deeply with her because her great-grandmother, Mollie Elliott Taylor, was 17 as well when she was sold to a new owner in 1864 due to the tumult of the Civil War. She was separated from her husband and pregnant with their first child, Hill’s grandfather.

Although Mollie was never reunited with her first husband—she later remarried—she stayed close with her son, Henry. “… Mollie never lived far from Henry, my grandfather,” Hill writes. “Theirs was a bond forged by the cruelty of slavery that had separated Mollie from her husband and other family and left Mollie and Henry with only each other for the first ten years of his life.”

Experiences like this make the notion of home so important to Hill, making the current housing crisis especially painful to her.

“The crisis is more than a collapse of the housing market, it is a crisis of home—a tragic turning point in the search for equality in America,” Hill writes.

Hill argues that the current housing crisis has hurt black women more than others due to the inequality that persists in the United States. Banks, like Wells Fargo, have faced lawsuits purporting that they discriminate based on gender and race.

Anjanette Booker, a resident of Baltimore, was highly affected by this, nearly losing her house and her hair salon in 2008. Hill quotes a New York Times’ article about Booker, reading, “Four years ago, Miss Booker bought a brick row house for $130,000, taking a subprime mortgage because she had a low credit score. Her initial payments were $841 a month. … After two years her mortgage payments shot up to $1,769.”

Although Booker was able to keep her house and salon, she was one of the lucky ones; many black women lost their houses when their mortgage payments were raised.

“I do outline the trajectory from the slave cabin, to segregated housing, to rampant discrimination in mortgage lending practice and now to reverse redlining—targeting women and communities of color for toxic mortgage agreements,” Hill told BrandeisNOW.

“Underlying each one of those factors is bias, social bias that has been so embedded in our institutions, particularly lending, that they keep coming up. Until we understand and really attack and confront the historic bias and the historic racial and gender discrimination that has become a part of the lending culture, we will not ever really protect ourselves against the kind of catastrophe that we have had in the last few years in the housing market.”

This idea of home being essential to equality and American life has persisted for generations. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Own Your Own Home (OYOH) campaign promoted home ownership as a necessary step toward the American Dream.

“OYOH slogans declared that the male homeowner was better at just about everything and dubbed him the ‘real American,’” Hill writes, explaining how the OYOH campaign, which promoted home, actually discriminated against women. “… the message of OYOH was that by encouraging their husbands to buy homes, women would be happy and fulfilled, as long as they stayed in those homes and out of the workplace.”

The Own Your Own Home campaign may partially have contributed to the current bias against single women buying their own homes, which has become a trend.

On home ownership when Hill bought her home in Massachusetts about 10 years ago, Hill told BrandeisNOW, “The growing market was single women. This reflected both our economic and our social progress. We weren’t waiting until we married to acquire a home and we were beginning to build the means to realize our dream on our own.

“One in every five homes was being bought by women on their own. Single women were targeted for subprime loans and, many of them, by some estimates as much as 40 or 50 percent, qualified for conventional loans.

“Now we all know what happened with many of those rates. They escalated. So whatever equity women had is being stripped.”

Despite these issues, Hill feels she has found home.

“In truth I didn’t move to New England for the real estate,” Hill writes. “I was looking for a new intellectual home. After years of hearing from individuals, mostly women, who had suffered various forms of discrimination, I felt I needed to be outside a law school environment to rethink the role of law.”

“I found both an intellectual home here at Brandeis and I found a physical home,” Hill told BrandeisNOW. “I found that place where I feel very secure in Massachusetts. It allows me to do the things that I want to have the opportunities that I think the country has to offer.”

Hill will be speaking about her book at a Heller School luncheon on Nov. 2.