Nov 1 2013

COUNTERSPIN INTERVIEW: ‘The People Who Saw Their Dreams Exploding Are Blamed for This Crisis’

Laura Gottesdiener on Foreclosures

Anti-foreclosure activism, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. (cc photo: Michael Premo)

Anti-foreclosure activism, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. (cc photo: Michael Premo)

Ten million Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure in the last six years—not due to homeowners’ failures, but to the predatory, sometimes fraudulent behavior of lenders, some of whom targeted African-Americans and Latinos. CounterSpin’s Janine Jackson talked to Laura Gottesdiener, author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home (Zuccotti Park Press), a new book that brings the foreclosure crisis into vivid focus.

CounterSpin: There are a lot of people across the political spectrum who seem very invested in unseeing racism, either because they disbelieve in it or because they see attention to it as undercutting attention to class bias that “just happens” to overlap it. But can you make empirical sense of the impact of the recent foreclosure crisis in black communities without talking about racism?

Laura Gottesdiener: We can’t understand how these toxic, unpayable loans were sold unless we look at both current racism and also the recent historical trajectory of racism. That begins with the federal government refusing to lend in communities across the country in which there were a majority of people of color, or if they were even next to a community with a majority of people of color, because the white community might have been “infused” or “diluted” by the presence of its neighbors.

So, as a result of decade after decade after decade of starving these communities of loans, we ended up with a situation in the late ’80s and early ’90s in which communities were desperate for some type of capital investment. The capital that flowed into these communities came from a Wall Street mortgage industry that realized that it needed new customers and could exploit the government’s state-sanctioned policy of racism to sell the worst of the worst unpayable loans, push them aggressively in these communities, and, as a result of the rise of the securitization process, they had no vested interest in whether or not these loans were paid back.

So we set up a system—which we would never set up in any other industry—in which we could sell things that were to explode, to people who had been historically barred, legally, from buying these things that, let’s remember, are essential for human life. Then, once they explode, only the people who saw their houses and their dreams exploding are blamed for this current crisis.

A Dream ForeclosedCS: One of the things that comes through in the book is how having a home has been central in American ideas of community and democracy, and how that has, from the beginning, been a segregated experience.

LG: Since this country was founded, we have linked property ownership to full personhood. At the founding moment of this country, only property owners could vote, could enjoy the original freedom that this new nation promised, which was democracy. Yet to own property, you had to be a white man—so there was a counterintuitive and absurd situation that was set up, in which we promised the world that we were opening up this new nation in which everybody had access to its liberties, and then “everybody,” legally, had to be white men.

The rest of the population—women, people of color, people we now consider to be Mexicans but were living in Texas—all were barred from accessing democracy and full personhood in this nation. As we look at the trajectory of what home ownership has promised—and I’m certainly not advocating for a home ownership­–based society in the way the White House is currently—simply to understand what home ownership promises, we have to go back and look at the fact that it was key to being recognized as a full human being.

CS: Alongside the history that we have of devastating systemic discrimination also runs a history of resistance, and the book is also focused on the ways that people are responding.

LG: One of the questions that I get asked a lot is: “Why did you look at black America? Why did you look at communities of color?” Most people assume that I looked at these communities because they had been the hardest hit, because they had been the victims of decades, centuries, of economic and social racism and discrimination.

But, actually, I looked at these communities because they were the best organized in resistance to fight back, and as a result of enduring this type of discrimination over the decades, they better understood how we could actually carve a path forward in which we would be able to recognize housing as a human right, and we would be able to structure an economic system in which everybody has a place to put their kids to bed at night.

So, very briefly, I profiled four families who all used direct action, or legal advocacy, or community-based organizing, to win themselves a home. These tactics included eviction blockades, which is a direct action method of rallying the community to say, “We will not be moved.”

It included home liberations, which is a tactic used particularly in homeless communities that are organizing, and it is an incredibly powerful tactic because it not only says that sometimes we are forced to break the laws to enact our human rights, but it also says—at a time when the banks own millions of foreclosed properties across our country—these properties are destroying our communities, and we need to put families into them.

Those are some of the tactics and strategies that I profiled in this book, because 50,000 people are still being foreclosed on every month, and there is still a great opportunity for us to fight back.

CS: Failure, especially when it’s misrepresented as personal failure, is isolating. Big media certainly have plenty of blame to shoulder there—with pundits yacking about people who didn’t “deserve” loans in the first place, how lenders were forced to loan to people because of liberalism—well, the antidote to that isolation is organizing, community-building, and I’m guessing that you see some role for media in helping in that effort?

LG: I do. I think media have taken a number of missteps in their coverage of the foreclosure crisis. One of those missteps is depicting this as an “enemy-less” crime, that something bad happened but we don’t know who the perpetrators were, that there was essentially just a failure, that somehow everything fell apart, but it was nobody’s fault. And that, in large part, has fed into the fact that there has been no meaningful criminal prosecution.

The second major failure has been that the media has systematically overlooked communities’ efforts to fight back against this assault on their very survival. Many communities across the country, particularly communities of color, have been so badly hit by the foreclosure crisis that it is a matter of whether or not individual communities can survive.

And there has been very substantial and visionary organizing in these communities, more than worthy of 10 books or hundreds of newspaper articles. Yet we continue to see coverage of this crisis as an issue of stock prices rather than missed school days, and lowered values rather than communities organized in resistance, providing an example of how we can move forward.

Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist and an associate editor at Waging Nonviolence.