The Illusion of Meritocracy in Housing, Part 1 | A Long Repentance Post #6 | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa



The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

In Post #2 and Post #5, we explored how white American Protestants promoted the heretical view of Genesis 1 taught by John Locke, that the productive can take land/property from the unproductive.   Also setting themselves up for deep anxiety, they also tended maintained that the social system they set up was fair and ‘meritocratic’ – as opposed to blatantly racist.  They tended to believe that their ‘individual success’ was the result of their ‘personal hard work’ in the ‘private market.’  White Americans even hid from themselves the fact that they used massive government intervention to set up a deeply unequal and racialized social system that continues to this day.  In this post, we explore the housing market.


Beliefs About Discrimination and Fairness

“So you think the system is fair?”

Michaela felt her blood rising as she turned to face her questioner across the office aisle.  Michaela didn’t like those NFL players taking the knee during the national anthem.  It was the wrong time, wrong place.  Even if the mostly black players had a case, which she wasn’t sure about, she felt something on behalf of the US as a country that rewards hard work.  And she had just finished saying so, since last night’s game was fresh on everyone’s mind.

“I’m saying the system should be fair, which it would be, except for certain affirmative action policies.  If you play by the rules, and keep your head down, you’ll be alright,” she said, keeping her fingers on the keyboard, but looking steadily at Brian.

Brian asked, “So people who complain about the police treating people differently based on race are just making stuff up?”

“It’s not just about police encounters,” Michaela clarified slowly.  But Brian seemed already prepared for that.

“You think the whole system is fair, or would be, except for affirmative action?” Brian said through a raised eyebrow.

At one point in the conversation, Michaela said, “I acknowledge black people in the past did suffer a lot of discrimination,” trying to build a connection with Brian, who was black.  “But now, I think white people are being discriminated against, more than minorities.  And there’s a lot of white people like me who feel it.[1]  Like in affirmative action.  The system has to be fair.”

“And by fair,” Brian added, recognizing that there was more at stake for Michaela than just the issue of police brutality, “You mean a meritocracy?”[2]

“Exactly,” replied Michaela.


Government Funded Housing and Wealth Accumulation Under the Guise of “Merit”

“Look, did your parents buy a home?” asked Brian.  “How about your grandparents?”

“Why is that relevant?” asked Michaela, genuinely perplexed but skeptical.

“Would you agree,” replied Brian, “that your zip code affects your experience of safety, schools, policing, and your ability to find good food at nice stores, books at nice libraries, and places to play at nice parks, all within easy distance?”[3]


“Well, then,” Brian said, “it’s important to remember how many middle class white families became homeowners, and where.  So do you know who was the first in your family to buy a house?”

“My grandfather was drafted for World War II,” said Michaela.  “When he got back, he applied for a mortgage loan and bought a home.”

“Before World War II,” said Brian, “most people couldn’t buy a home.  You were too much of a risk.  Most banks wouldn’t give you a home mortgage.  In fact, at the time of World War I, you had to pay for almost 70% of the price of a home up front.”[4]

“Okay,” said Michaela.  “What’s your point?”

“My point is:  We don’t live in a meritocracy.  My grandfather, who served in the Navy and fought for our country as a black man, was denied that very same loan your white grandfather got.”

“What happened?” Michaela asked, genuinely interested, but also patiently waiting.  She expected Brian to recite a litany of sob-stories stretching back to slavery.

“Our government,” said Brian, “stepped in to do something that the private market and the ‘meritocracy’ could not.  The federal government insured the loans for white families, but not black families.  It was part of FDR’s New Deal legislation.  In 1934, he created the Federal Housing Administration.  FDR was only able to pass this legislation by winning the support of Southern Democrat white supremacists.  And the FHA had a whites-only requirement.[5]

“In fact,” Brian continued, “the FHA was explicitly committed to racially segregated schools.  The FHA manual warned that if children

“are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represents a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist.”[6]

Therefore, “mortgage lending in such neighborhoods would be risky.”[7]  The FHA then influenced how much houses in these neighborhoods appreciated, how much financing was available to people who lived in certain neighborhoods, etc.  They did this by rating these neighborhoods from A (green) to D (red).  Journalist Alexis C. Madrigal examined his own neighborhood of Oakland, CA, which got a C (yellow) rating.  The FHA described C (yellow) rating neighborhoods in the following way:

“Yellow areas are characterized by age, obsolescence, and change of style; expiring restrictions [meaning: clauses written into the title not to sell to non-whites] or lack of them; infiltration of a lower grade population; the presence of influences which increase sales resistance such as inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, perhaps heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, etc. “Jerry” built areas are included, as well as neighborhoods lacking homogeneity.”[8]

This is where the term “redlining” comes from.  White flight to the suburbs was a social welfare system hidden from plain view.  That’s what allowed white Americans to believe that the system was a fair meritocracy.  They thought they were just getting rewarded for their hard work.”

Later, Michaela was disturbed to read that the Nazis were inspired by American white supremacy.  Nazi lawyers, she discovered, studied American laws very carefully.  In 1935, a group of 45 leading Nazi lawyers, who had just drafted and passed the Third Reich’s restrictive race-based laws against Jews, arrived in New York City.  They came to learn more about America’s racially discriminatory policies.  They were hosted by the New York City Bar Association, and were ‘warmly welcomed.’[9]  They examined the racial effects of immigration, anti-miscegenation, and citizenship laws in addition to housing and schooling segregation.  Yet the Nazis rejected American practices because they thought that America was too severely racist.[10]  Michaela was shocked.  She could see how this would continue to affect people for generations, up to the present.

America was too racist for the Nazis?


[1] In March 2018, Pew Research released a study about political beliefs among Americans by various factors.  According to this study, more than half of white millennials (born 1981 – 1996) “believe that discrimination against whites is as significant as discrimination against other groups.”  Fewer than half of young white men say black people face a lot of discrimination.  See Pew Research Center, “Wide Gender Gap, Growing Educational Divide in Voters’ Party Identification”, March 20, 2018;; discussed by Philip Bump, “A Bright Spot for Republicans Among Millennials: Young White Men,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018;; cf. Scott Clement, “Discrimination Against Whites Was a Core Concern of Trump’s Base,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2017;  notes that in a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 54% of Republican Trump-supporters believe discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than against blacks and Hispanics

[2] Many Americans believe that America is a “meritocracy,” where people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in a free market economy.  This is  connected to a pseudo-Christian idea from John Locke that individuals should work hard and earn their property through rationality and hard work.  As a consequence, Americans tend to believe that when ethnic/racial minority groups ask for government intervention, or assert that the system is biased, that they are discriminating against the white majority, or detracting from the rewards of “hard work.”  While people have certainly worked hard and sometimes gotten what they “deserve,” we argue that “pure meritocracy” is an illusion.

[3] Conservative columnist David Brooks, “A Sensible Version of Donald Trump,” New York Times, October 27, 2015; cites Raj Chetty’s study on the impact of neighborhoods and peer groups; cf. Justin Wolfers, “Why the New Research on Mobility Matters: An Economist’s View,” New York Times, May 4, 2015;

[4] William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, “Race and Home Ownership, 1900-1990” (Vanderbilt University and NBER); note in 1911 – 1914, the average down payment for (new and existing) single-family houses in 22 cities was almost 68 percent of the purchase price, and 46 percent of homes were acquired debt free.

[5] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), p.64 – 65 notes that in 1934, the FHA “insured bank mortgages that covered 80 percent of purchase prices, had terms of twenty years, and were fully amortized.  To be eligible for such insurance, the FHA insisted on doing its own appraisal of the property to make certain that the loan had a low risk of default.  Because the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement, racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program.”

[6] Rothstein, p.65 – 66

[7] Rothstein, p.66

[8] Alexis C. Madrigal, “The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2014;  For more information on American segregationist real estate practices prior to the New Deal, see Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)

[9] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Ira Katznelson, “What America Taught the Nazis,” The Atlantic, November 2017;; Rafael Medoff, “Book Review Was Hitler Inspired by Racist American Laws?”, Haaretz, March 29, 2017; adds, “Whitman should have mentioned that such views were held not only by crude southern demagogues, but by the president of the United States himself. In a document from 1939 (first published by this author more than 10 years ago), President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reliably quoted by a friendly senator as boasting, “We know that we do not have any Jewish blood in our veins.””

[10] Ibid


8 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s