Finding value in racism
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In recent decades a powerful narrative has taken shape which explores the impact of federal housing policies in shaping the highly racialized geography of poverty and privilege which forms the landscape of today’s American city. Called the “New Suburban History,” it documents the racial discrimination written into the subsidized home loan policies of the federal government after WWII, based upon the assumption that property values depended upon the maintenance of neighborhood homogeneity on the basis of race and class. By lavishing neighborhoods comprised exclusively of white homeowners with federal subsidies, while targeting the neighborhoods of non-whites and renters for red-lining, these programs, it is argued, became self-fulfilling prophecies of growth and decline, and it is generally assumed that the racism of both policy-makers and white homeowners distorted their conception of “value.” This dissertation argues that the problem with this narrative is that “value,” so central to the story, in fact is never defined. It asks what urban planners actually meant by the term “value,” which they explicitly stated to be what their exclusive land-use regulations were designed to both augment and maintain. It does this by connecting a history of the changing definition of “value” in 19th and turn-of-the-20th century economic theory to the development of exclusionary land-use regulations at the National Conference on Urban Planning, developed in pursuit of “value,” and argues that privilege and exclusion are essential to the category of “value” itself, regardless of whether they are distributed on the basis of skin color. Against the standard narrative, which holds that racism distorted conceptions of “property values” in the 20th century American city, what is argued here is that the institution of value, and the social categories of privilege and exclusion which it requires, have fundamentally shaped our categories of race.