“You don’t know what Chicago is like…You’re going to be wiped out.” ~ Bayard Rustin to Martin Luther King
In Family Properties, Beryl Satter chronicles in immaculate detail the demoralizing course navigated by two neighborhoods through an exhaustive history of real estate exploitation and speculation in Chicago. The history would span more than five decades becoming institutionalized in municipal and federal bureaucracies leaving behind impoverished communities mired in resource inequity through policies which nourished a rapacious and discriminatory housing market. Within the postmortem examination of the legal maneuvering of Mark Satter, the nonviolent civil engagement of the Chicago Freedom Movement and the economic reprisal of the Contract Buyers League, there is anchored a growing and unshakable pessimism about the framework of American justice as it concerns poverty stricken people using standard legal and political tools to level the field of economic opportunity while finding themselves crushed from both ends by public and private sector.
When statistical evidence proves the victims of speculation are overwhelmingly Black and still the court renders a decision which asserts there is no clear condition of racial inequality in federal lending or speculative pricing practices, the expectation of judicial reprieve becomes an arbitrary, expensive and ultimately futile pursuit. Racial and social bias will factor into the sympathy afforded the plaintiff and the burden of proof required to reach a favorable judgment. The dissatisfaction is further magnified by a federal government which uses secrecy and deception to place its redlining practices just beyond the statute of limitations applicable to the case. Since the plaintiffs required the testimony of those federal housing agencies in order to prove that they were unable to obtain standard mortgages during the period in question, the speculators are then able to escape fiscally unscathed.
In this confusing morass of technicalities and doublespeak, cynicism is a survival mechanism. That this text came to publication in 2008 as another real estate bubble was looming on the horizon is almost comical. Only in this instance, the bubble vaporized the wealth and homes of non-Black America too. How could we not comprehend that conditions of inequity never confine themselves to the ghetto? If you don’t combat injustice in the world before you are directly impacted, then you will soon discover a system with appetite enough to consume you too. The very practices designed to impoverish Black communities between the Great Migration and Reagan era would return to impoverish all of America by the close of the second Bush term.
“If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country.” ~ Martin Luther King
America reserves it deepest tumult always for those Black people living at the margins who are informed that they are either too shiftless, too pregnant, too unmarried or too criminal to hold a piece of the thoroughly imagined American dream. The image painted of Dougherty County by W.E.B. DuBois is deeply intertwined with the vision Beryl Satter expresses of these children of the Migration now inhabiting the urban metropolis of Chicago suffering the same fate as their forebears in the rich bounty of the North. Their only aspiration being to own the land upon which they live discovering the terms of every agreement are subject to upheaval if someone perceives an opportunity to extract any remaining wealth from their already bone dry billfold. Thus much like the cycle described by DuBois of renters, metayers and landowners in Dougherty County, the landscape of Chicago extended us renters, contract buyers and homeowners who were similarly positioned in a restricted market where the resident was left unable to maintain basic subsistence unless they also participated in this perverse system of exploitation as operators of slums and tenements.
The greatest benefit Family Properties affords us is the contextualization of a multitude of historical events into a single, cohesive record. Beryl Satter is not so much wielding entirely new research in the text as she is recollecting existing materials in order to extend the story initially woven within her father’s personal and legal papers. In this outline, we have assembled rich and vibrant histories of the Chicago Freedom Movement, Contract Buyers League, The Woodlawn Organization and other progressive institutions which provided the groundwork for housing and neighbhorhood activism in Chicago. In her conclusion, Satter acknowledges the ongoing struggle noting that the most recent housing crisis found Black buyers once again steered away from standard terms for which they were eligible into subprime mortgages using the same hollow justification of lending in risky communities. The lessons rendered by the experience of those activists, organizers and organizations documented here offer us a case study for determining which tactics were most impactful and effective that we might place them inside our present toolbox in order to combat similar forms of discrimination with vigor and courage in the future for the calendar may change, but the techniques of American exploitation are as old as the country itself.