Raisin, Race, and the Real Estate Revolution of the Early 20th Century
Power, Prose and Purse Law, Literature, and Economic Transformations 287 (Alison LaCroix, Saul Levmore, & Martha C. Nussbaum eds., 2019)
42 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2017 Last revised: 14 Nov 2019
Date Written: October 17, 2017
Lorraine Hansberry’s hit play of 1957, A Raisin in the Sun, centered on the decision of an African American family in Chicago, the Youngers, to move to a house in a white neighborhood. The play is set in the post WWII era, but many of its scenes and actions relate back to real estate practices that began at the turn of the century and that continued to evolve into the mid-century and to some degree beyond. During those decades, housing development and finance increased dramatically in scale, professionalization and standardization. But in their concern for their predominantly white consumers’ preferences for segregation, real estate developers, brokers, financial institutions, and finally governmental agencies adopted standard practices that excluded African Americans from many housing opportunities, and that then reinforced white preferences for housing segregation.
Many seemingly minor actions in the play reflect the way that African Americans had been sidelined in the earlier decades’ evolving real estate practices—not just the family’s overcrowded apartment, but also more subtle cues, such as the source of the initial funds for the new house, the methods for its finance, and the legal background to the white homeowners’ effort to discourage the purchase. This paper, a draft chapter for the forthcoming law-and-literature collection, Power, Prose and Purse, pinpoints these and other small clues, and describes how standardizing real estate practices dating from the turn of the century effectively crowded out African American consumers like the Youngers, with consequences that we continue to observe in modern patterns of urban segregation.
Keywords: Raisin in the Sun, Race, Housing Segregation, Real Estate, Housing Finance, Civil Rights, Law and Literature, Lorraine Hansberry, Hansberry v. Lee
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