Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Elizabeth A. Herbin-Triant, Threatening Property: Race, Class and Campaigns to Legislate Jim Crow Neighborhoods. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. xv + 335 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-231-18971-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Anders, Federal Statistical Research Data Center, Texas A&M University.

Threatening Property presents the reader with a timely narrative that shows how racial animus interacted with economic interests to give rise to residential segregation. The narrative is distinctive in that it focuses on rural rather than urban America, and showcases how less wealthy whites, frightened by the “scarecrow of race,” were distracted from pursuing their economic interests. The dominant leitmotif portrays the success with which wealthier whites used racial fear to corral poor, rural whites to support elite interests. Threatening Property is both a useful companion for studies of how race and economics interacted in urban environments as well as a fresh look at how these intersectional dynamics played out in a rural setting.

The text revolves around Clarence Poe, a Jeffersonian champion of agrarian life. Through the lens of Poe and his nearest companions, the narrative shows how the populist energies that animated many rural voters were redirected by the “scarecrow of race.” Lured by the promise of protection from African-Americans, Poe, like many poor and “middling white folk,” left the party of his family and his economic class, the Populist party, and joined the Democratic Party. Poe’s vision of a residentially segregated countryside in his own North Carolina drew inspiration from his relationship with Maurice Evans, a South African politician influential in pre-Apartheid segregation. Starting in the Reconstruction period, most Southern cities enacted segregation ordinances now called Jim Crow laws; Poe saw in South Africa a model for rural segregation. In both the urban and the rural context, segregation in the South was part of a broader “international segregationist ideology.”

In North Carolina’s cities, battles over segregation ordinances combined both the economic demands of “middling whites,” who found high prices prohibitive, and the racial animus that lay behind efforts to exclude African-Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. In one particularly salient example, William Darnell, a 47 year-old black tobacco worker, tried to purchase a home from the wife of a local realtor, and, when Darnell’s case went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which overturned the local segregation ordinance, it was considered a victory for elite whites who demanded a local supply of black labor. Some legal minds like Gilbert Stephenson took an interest in the Darnell case and entered the legal debate suggesting that while urban segregation measures were not discriminatory, rural segregation measures were discriminatory.

Against this backdrop of urban segregation efforts, Poe put forward arguments for rural segregation. These arguments painted a picture in which small, white yeoman farmers were beleaguered by both competition against whites in urban centers, the resources of which drew away white labor, as well as competition against black farmers, who, willing to get by on thinner margins, put downward pressure on prices and wages. After failing to earn the support of the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, Poe proposed a North Carolina constitutional amendment which sought to exclude property ownership by race. But, deterred by the interests of elite whites, the amendment shied away from restricting rentals and laborers by race. Nevertheless, Poe’s efforts encountered opposition from elite whites who preferred less-demanding and more industrious black workers to white workers. Poe’s efforts were also opposed by W. E. B. Du Bois and other prominent members of the African American community; by contrast, other members of the African American community such as Booker T. Washington did less to oppose these efforts, while still other African Americans supported what could be called “self-selected segregation” in which there would be separate ownership of land by race despite there being no legal stipulation against integration. Poe’s efforts at legally segregating the countryside ultimately failed, but Poe still had an impact in segregating certain urban areas of North Carolina.

In the interwar period, the period after Poe’s chief efforts at rural segregation, urban areas such as Winston-Salem passed explicit racial zoning ordinances, but these were overturned by the courts. However, redlining practices starting in the 1930’s, highway construction starting in the 1950’s and urban renewal projects starting in the 1960’s did successive harm to African American neighborhoods and did little to advance the interests of less wealthy whites. Threatening Property is a story about how racial fears obstructed economic interest: “middling whites” focused on the “scarecrow of race” and thereby lost the opportunity to better their economic condition.

While the narrative is engaging and surprising at some turns, there are a few ways in which it could, I think, be improved. First, it would be helpful to see a graph showing overall percent black and percent of farms with black owners over decades for representative North Carolina counties. Secondly, I imagine that some thought to their precarity went into Herbin-Triant’s choice of the term “middling-whites” (in lieu of, e.g., “middle-class whites”), and I think the reader would benefit from a discussion of the choice of that term. Thirdly, while speaking about redlining towards the end of the narrative, Herbin-Triant claims that “HOLC’s policy protected elites at the expense of middling or poor white people …” (p. 234), but it is not clear to me that this is correct. HOLC’s policy likely made it easier for less-wealthy white families to move into wealthier, white areas of town: thanks to HOLC (the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation), the less-wealthy whites faced less competition from racial minorities and enjoyed access to a newly bolstered credit-market.

I will close with a broader point about the conceptual framework of Threatening Property. It is not clear to me that laws restricting property by race in a rural context should be associated with what we normally call “segregation.” In the urban context, population density is relatively high and racial dissimilarity can be measured as a distribution over smaller, well-populated geographic units. However, there is not merely a quantitative challenge about how to measure “rural segregation,” there is also a conceptual question about whether a region with very low population density can be said to be “segregated.” An alternative way to think about restrictions on which racial groups can purchase rural land is to view racist restrictions as attempts to block access to a production input (land) in the hopes of restricting the supply of outputs (crops, livestock). If that view were correct, then the phenomenon called “rural segregation” would be better understood alongside urban laws and practices which restrict, e.g., which racial groups can own factories (machines) or which racial groups are eligible for high quality education (human capital). In other words, “rural segregation” might be more about controlling what people can produce than where people can reside. Having said that, I fully agree with Herbin-Triant that there exist important albeit unsettled questions concerning “the costs of segregation,” including the wasteful costs incurred by the public of having “separate hospitals, churches and schools,” as well “how much rental income and property value would be lost to white and black families with markets for their properties limited to one group …” (p. 231). Researchers have an opportunity to address these questions and Threatening Property can help point the way.

John Anders is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Federal Statistical Research Data Center at Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. He has published several papers on the history of philosophy and mathematics. More recently, he is working on several projects in economics identifying the long-run impacts of Redlining policies and the War on Poverty. He is also working on several “PPE” (“philosophy, politics and economics”) projects concerning the intersection of economics with broader questions in the history of thought.

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