MAGGIE SIVIT

Equal Property

An interview with writer and historian Beryl Satter

MAGGIE SIVIT
MAGGIE SIVIT

Beryl Satter combined a gripping personal story and a meticulously-researched history of systematic racism in her 2010 book Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. The narrative thread that ties her book together is the story of her father Mark Satter, a crusading Chicago lawyer. Like a real-life Atticus Finch, he struggled to achieve justice for clients who had the entire system stacked against them. The Federal Housing Administration, convinced that interracial neighborhoods led to “the decline of both the human race and of property values,” generally refused to insure mortgages on blocks with both black and white residents. Greedy speculators then forced black homebuyers to sign contract loans at grossly inflated prices. The victims of this contract-selling scheme could be evicted after one missed payment. 

Satter’s father, a white man, spent eight years defending black clients in court and trying to prick the public’s conscience with speeches, letters, and editorials. But in the midst of his struggle for social justice, he struggled to keep his own family financially afloat. In a cruel twist, he was accused of being a slumlord because he couldn’t seem to maintain the buildings that he owned in Lawndale. He died in 1965 of heart disease, leaving behind a widow and five children, the youngest of whom was six-year-old Beryl.

His story occupies the first half of Family Properties, while the second half remembers reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.,  the community activists from the West and South Sides who formed the Contract Buyers League to fight against contract selling, and the federal court cases that finally led to change. A professor at Rutgers University in Newark, Satter has won high accolades for her work, including the National Jewish Book Award and the Liberty Legacy Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Your father’s story has many sad elements in it. His years of struggle on behalf of his clients did not end in victory. When he died, he left behind a widow who had cancer, and significant financial troubles for his family. Would you consider his story a tragedy? 

I think that anyone who cares about social justice understands that the horizon that you’re aiming for in terms of victory or defeat has to be much broader. It can’t be right now, tomorrow, next week. It can be in twenty years, in forty years, in sixty years. It can be any time. You just have to do the best you can as a moral human being and hope that the effort you put forth eventually bears fruit. He could have lived another forty years, even another fifty years, in which case he would have seen some fruits of his activism. He died before he saw any results, but that doesn’t mean the results didn’t happen. So when I look at the activism that came after his death and the laws that ultimately passed that helped relocate money back to cities across the nation, I ultimately don’t see this as a tragedy. I’m not saying that he died with an easy conscience, clear that everything would be better. But I don’t think his work or his life story is ultimately a tragedy.

Was writing the book a cathartic experience?

It was a wonderful experience for me, because my father was a really interesting person. He was a brilliant man; he was a brilliant activist; he was as courageous as a human being can be. To encounter somebody like that in any way would be exciting, but to encounter such an individual who happens to be my father was thrilling and deeply absorbing. I want to say that it was also quite exciting to encounter Monsignor John J. Egan. I knew nothing about this man and learned everything by reading about him and was just completely enthralled and engaged. The same with some of the other people that I wrote about, like Clyde Ross and Ruth Wells; they were very exciting people to read about and to research. Of course it’s a little more gripping because it’s my father…but the whole story was enthralling to me, not just his story.

Did your father influence your decision to be a historian? 

That decision isn’t inherited from him. I think I mention in the book that I up with a lot of mysteries in [my] immediate past. The idea that the past could explain the present was not something directly inherited from him, but the result of his death—the result of the fact that many things happened when I was too young to understand them, yet I lived with the repercussions of those events on a daily basis. Anybody who grew up in the aftermath of something rough [that] they don’t understand might think, “Maybe I should think about the past. Maybe that would explain things.”

Some people in your family were bitter about the fact that he didn’t do enough to support his family. How did they react to the publication of the book?

The people who felt that way were mostly my mother’s relatives because they didn’t know him as well; they were the ones who gathered around her after he died. They’re proud of me, but they don’t talk about it.

Their children, my first cousins, are happy about the book and for them it’s a way to know again an uncle and an aunt that they vaguely remember from their childhood—people they knew but didn’t know. It’s given them an insight into the pain and struggles of their parents’ generation that they didn’t have before.

You dedicate the book to your brother Paul. What was his role? 

He was absolutely invaluable. The book would not exist if he had not made the decision as a young teenager that the material in my father’s office had to be saved. There was so much stress and chaos at the time of my father’s death, because my mother was also fighting for her life, that I don’t think anyone else thought, “Who’s going to go to my father’s office and gather the papers there?”

Paul thought of it because of his love and devotion to his father, and he saved that material. He also spoke to me about my father the whole time that I was growing up so that the memory stayed alive to some extent. I think he stoked my curiosity about my father because my other siblings didn’t speak about him very much, and it would have been possible for me to forget that there was a story there. But basically the book is based on the material my brother Paul saved when he was sixteen years old.

In your book you note similarities between the credit exploitation of the sixties and the subprime mortgage crisis of today. Can you explain the parallels between these events?

The similarities are very, very striking. In both cases they are examples of an economic crisis being caused by manipulation of credit. In the sixties, I feel like the treatment that black Chicagoans received when they were subject to predatory contract loans, which were at high interest rates and inflated prices and on very harsh terms—they were sort of the canary in the mine. In the sixties people learned this was a great way to make money easy, if you didn’t care about the consequences to the communities.

In the seventies the FHA HUD scandal was the first national scandal about predatory credit behavior. That scandal is even closer to what’s going on now, because that’s an example of a set-up that enabled people to push high-interest loans to make money off the fees to the loans. [There were] absolutely no consequences to your behavior because the loans were, in the seventies’ case, guaranteed by bad federal policies; and in the current case, there were no consequences because the loans were immediately sold to Wall Street. There were powerful incentives to make predatory, high-interest, badly-structured loans that were profitable to the lender and disastrous to the borrower.

More or less they’re all variations on a theme and I don’t think we’ll have relief from this sort of predatory credit behavior until laws are passed that guarantee fair access to credit for people regardless of their color—credit access that’s based on individual credibility, not on an assumed group characteristic. As long as we have built in structural differentials between different groups’ access to credit, there’s an opening for credit exploitation. Of course I mean structural racism—problems with African Americans getting loans, no matter what their credit history, problems with Latinos getting loans no matter what their credit history.

Do you believe that minority groups were more hard-hit by the subprime crisis?

Yeah. There’s lot of studies that have been done to show that African-Americans were something like over twice as likely to be steered into subprime loans than whites of identical economic status, and Latinos were also disproportionally steered into such loans. It went bigger than that, but in a way it’s more heartbreaking because the moderate-income minority communities that were targeted for subprime loans were communities where people had overcome immense obstacles to become property owners, and then they were blanketed with solicitations to take out mortgages. They were very systematically targeted to take out loans that were going to be damaging to them, with the end result that they would lose their homes.

Non-minorities suffered as well because the subprime mortgage crisis brought down global economies. But nevertheless, the largest loss of wealth is going to be among minority homeowners, and it’s quite heartbreaking because this seems to happen once a generation; and when it happens, blacks particularly get back where they started over and over, and are blamed for being behind economically. It’s particularly painful to work twice as hard, lose everything, and then be blamed for it. And I think that is an experience that many black families have had over and over and over.

What lessons can reformers learn from this book?

The lesson that I learned from the people I wrote about is that poor people, the ones who are most directly affected by an economic practice, are the best situated to come up with a solution. The big issue is to learn how to listen to them and learn how to provide them with the means to analyze their own situation. That was the message of Monsignor Egan. To some extent it’s [community organizer Saul] Alinsky’s message. I actually favor Monsignor Egan over Alinsky as a model of how to do community activism because I think Egan had more of a fundamental moral vision of right and wrong, whereas Alinsky was more pragmatic and practical in his approach to problems and sometimes that tripped him up. I think that if a solution is dreamed up by a well-funded think tank, but not tested on the ground and discussed on the ground, and the perspective of the people most affected by it is not taken into account, it’s not going to work. It’s going to be a top-down solution and it’s going to, in all likelihood, re-victimize the people it’s trying to help.

Who was Egan? 

John J. Egan was an activist priest. He combined a number of elements in his outreach to not just Catholics but to all Chicagoans. He actually studied with Carl Rogers, the humanist psychologist, and had a deep empathy for others, and a way of withholding judgment until he learned what people had to say and what they needed. He combined that sense of empathy and respect for others with a very specific kind of community organizing training that he received from Saul Alinsky, who’s a pioneering community organizer. From Saul Alinsky he learned methods of going door to door in a community to learn everything there was to know in that community, to read everything you could read, to talk to everyone you could talk to, and to try and get a sense of the dynamics within a particular location so that problems could be addressed—problems that people in a given community articulated.

Your father himself was a landowner in Lawndale who refused to sell off the property he had there. Why didn’t your father sell those buildings?

He wrote many letters from his deathbed saying, “Whatever happens, do not sell these buildings.” I think he wanted to show that he could turn them around; they were almost paid off. He had devoted years to these buildings and he wanted to hope for the best, but the truth was after his death my mother couldn’t keep those buildings. They had become an economic drain, not an economic benefit, and it was impossible for a widowed mother of five to maintain four buildings in a neighborhood where she couldn’t withstand the tide of exploitation…that had dragged down even the most reputable landlord and homeowners.

The reason the story of my father’s properties is so important is because there’s a liberal mantra that goes still to this day that if only some well-meaning white people had stayed in these neighborhoods, everything would have been fine. I think my father’s experience shows that this is simply not true. Once a neighborhood reaches a tipping point, once it’s been redlined and targeted as an area where no loans can be made no matter what, a few well-meaning people staying put won’t do anything. All it means is that they go down with everyone else, and it’s not really the answer.

This interview was condensed and edited.

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