Make The American Dream Available To Everyone: Stopping Discrimination Against Minority Home Seekers
September 23rd, 2020
My brother-in-law sent me an article this week from delanceyplace.com about a book called “The Outsider” by Dan Rottenberg. It describes how, in 1916, J.P. Morgan Jr wrote the following words to the President of New York’s Museum of Natural History: “I cannot stand the German Jews and will not have anything to do with them. They have made themselves impossible as associates for any white people for all time.” The Jew with whom he was refusing to associate in this instance, a fellow Board member at the Natural History Museum, was my great grandfather Felix Warburg. Particularly striking is his reference to “white people,” a group from which my fair-skinned, blue-eyed great grandparents were clearly excluded. Perhaps the definition of “whiteness” evolves over time; the FACT of prejudice does not.
On September 17 of this year, real estate agents from a number of Long Island firms were interviewed by a panel of state senators. These meetings were scheduled after a Newsday article published in November of last year recorded the agents treating white, African American, and Asian American buyers differently and guiding them towards different neighborhoods. According to an article published in The Real Deal from September 18, the agents and their companies uniformly and defiantly denied discriminating against minority home seekers.
Today in New York City, Jews are mostly, though not uniformly, treated as “white” (clearly a term of approbation as applied by people of Northern European Protestant stock.) African and Asian Americans, however, still suffer the embarrassment and disrespect of being shunted off to neighborhoods where they will be “more comfortable” living with “people more like them.” The real estate industry must do better. As gatekeepers, we must make it our mission to break down these barriers, not perpetuate them.
At this moment in our nation’s history, when the issue of prejudice is front and center as young people of color die in police custody, synagogues and mosques are bombed with increasing frequency, and Chinese-Americans are insulted on the bus for bringing the coronavirus to America, real estate agents are empowered to be change agents. We can make a commitment to ensuring that everyone has equal access to the housing we offer and make sure that the financing partners with whom we work do likewise. I have devoted past blogs, like this one, to detailing a few of the many examples of prejudice that I have witnessed during my career.
Successive waves of immigration have created what is best in the United States. Yet each ethnic or national group, as it arrived, was exposed to exclusionary behavior, in housing, and in multiple other respects. The Irish, the Jews, the Italians – none were “white” during their first or even second generations as Americans. And what of those who did not get to choose whether to come here or not, those who were brought here as slaves? Surely their descendants merit a new definition of belonging which banishes the notion of judgment based on skin color or ethnic origin.
As New York State comes carefully back to life during this pandemic, we have yet another opportunity to reinvent ourselves. The Jewish New Year, 5781, began this past weekend; it demarcates the opportunity for new beginnings. Real estate professionals of every stripe, regardless of their backgrounds, can use this opportunity to make the American Dream available to everyone.
FREDERICK W. PETERS
is Chief Executive Officer of Warburg Realty Partnership. A graduate of Yale College with a Masters Degree from CUNY, Frederick entered the real estate business as a residential agent in 1980. After working as a Sales Director at Albert B. Ashforth for a number of...