Dimensions of Citizenship - Mabel O. Wilson - Mine Not Yours
Citizenship
July 4, 2018
Dimensions of Citizenship

Mine Not Yours

 

Harwell Hamilton Harris, Weston Havens House, Berkeley, 1940. Photo: Maynard L. Parker. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.
—Claudia Rankine1

You climb the stone stairs—several flights in total—that zig-zag up between the wooden houses perched on the hill directly above campus. It’s a warm day for January, but then again this is the Bay Area and the air still has its characteristic bite. Step by step you finally make your way to the neighborhood’s upper reaches and walk along Panoramic Way looking for #255. You discover a long weathered wooden wall overgrown with vines, the house’s number—like it’s mass—barely visible. But soon you realize this must be it. The two-car garage is wide open so that visitors can access the front gate, which has been left ajar as a sign of welcome to your temporary home: Weston Havens House by architect Harwell Hamilton Harris. You walk down the stairs and cross the wooden bridge that connects to the front door of the iconic modernist house in the Berkeley Hills once photographed by Man Ray.

You catch your breath and knock. You are greeted by the caretaker, a cheery graduate landscape architecture student. Low ceilings dominate the front part of the house—to the left is your bedroom suite and to the right is a large kitchen still outfitted with its mid-century ovens and cooktop. Crossing into the living space the ceiling slopes upward, with diffuse light radiating from clearstory skylights between the trusses. Your arduous climb up the hill bestows its reward: a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay, from the Oakland docks and Bay Bridge to the San Francisco skyline, Golden Gate Bridge, Tiburon, and Angel Island. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap the upper living spaces of the house, whose main bedrooms sit below the upper level. From this viewing platform-cum-modernist living room, you look forward to watching the dramatic Bay Area weather unfold.

You receive your key and settle in to prepare for the next day’s presentations before catching a flight back to the East Coast. Upon returning the following week to teach your first class, you dig in your handbag for the house key and insert it into the lock of the outer gate. It doesn’t open on the first try. You turn it left and right, but it does not cooperate. After about two minutes of twisting and turning, pushing and pulling the lock gives way. Later, you inquire if your two housemates have had the same problem. Yes, it’s a stubborn lock, but you will get used to it they say. The next day it is the same scenario. Your heart races, anxiety sets in. What if someone doesn’t know you are a visiting professor and thinks you are trying to break in? To resolve the problem, you send the following email to appropriate administrative staff:

Dear,
Hope all is well with the start of classes. All is well with the house. My only challenge is that my key doesn’t do a good job of opening the door from the garage. It takes about 2 minutes of jiggling the key back and forth (which I fear may either break off in the lock or cut my hand) to get the lock open. Is there another key I can use?
Additionally, quite frankly as an African American woman I don’t want to stand outside a house I don’t own fighting to open a lock (cue: Henry Louis Gates)!
Thanks,

Just in case your bid for humor hid the depths of your anxiety, you include a link to a Washington Post article “Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates Arrested,” about the 2009 incident where the noted professor and television personality was arrested while “having trouble opening the front door with his key” to his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts after a white neighbor suspected he was a burglar.2 You knew instinctively that a neighbor or passerby might see you and assume you (a black woman ) were somewhere you did not belong (an iconic private house in a white neighborhood.) That’s one of the incessant maneuvers that racism deploys to dehumanize you—it routinely puts you in your place—mentally and physically.

Dispossessing Blackness

The United States’ four hundred years of slave codes followed by Jim Crow segregation have laid firm groundwork for legislating where black people belong. Enslaved Africans belonged in the fields, not the big house. Black commuters belonged in the back of the bus, not the front. Black residents belonged in public housing, not the suburbs. Black workers belonged with their hands on a broom, not at the head of the boardroom table. The legacy of those individual actions, corporate practices, state policing, and legal dictates can still be found in the nation’s racially segregated landscape of neighborhoods and cities.

In the months following those anxious moments at the doorstep of Havens House, there have been a spate of incidents, almost daily, where white Americans have called law enforcement on black Americans who were engaged in the “criminal acts” of sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a meeting, napping in a common area at a Yale University graduate dormitory, walking a stroller in a public park, checking out of an Airbnb, working out at a gym, or returning purchased items—with receipts—to a Victoria Secrets. In next-door Oakland, one white woman called the police to remove group of black residents who were barbequing at Lake Merritt on a balmy April afternoon. Across the bay in San Francisco, a young black girl selling bottled water with her mother in order to do her part to fund a family trip to Disneyland was harassed by a white woman who called the police because the they lacked a vendor’s permit. When the mother responded that as a resident of the apartment building she had a right to do what she pleased because it was “my property,” the white woman, who also lived nearby, quickly defended “it’s not your property!” One blogger Michael Harriot recently quipped that the aforementioned incidents exposed how black people are routinely prosecuted for the “possession of blackness with the intent to exist.”3 This constant barrage of racist intimidation, at its most extreme resulting in the inhumane taking of black life by paranoid police officers and white vigilantes, continues historical practices that have disenfranchised black people of the right to life, liberty, free movement, and property.

In the pages of Citizen, poet Claudia Rankine chronicles how injustice stalks the routes of black Americans as they travel daily through spaces that render black bodies either hyper-visible (subject to policing) or invisible (absent of power). Her collection of prose poems alerts readers to the everyday expectation of many blacks that they will experience some form of state sanctioned disruption or personal affront. She recounts one such story of a friend: “I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I know. I just knew because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”4 Citizen tours the psycho-geography where these racist ontological assaults take place—at school, in the departmental office, in the car, in an airplane, at a café, on the subway, outside the therapist’s house, with friends, with strangers, in your mind, and in your memory. In these scenarios, black bodily comportment responds with fear, insecurity, and anger. Rankine takes stock of these cumulative slights whose cuts ravage the surface of black being.

Written in an unusual and challenging second person voice, Rankine forces her reader “you” to identify with and become the subject of racialization. Rankine draws me inside the intimate psychological space that racism cultivates to experience the fear, violations, violence, and erasure of subjectivity. She plumbs the depths of the black psyche to dredge up the seething anger: “You, begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints.”5 Her technique of personalization works so that I can comprehend what prompts such rage: “It [anger] responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”6 Racism not only robs black people of their dignity and personhood, but also of their right to belong. In terms of power, as Rankine shows us, racism robs black Americans of citizenship.

The modern conception of “citizen,” those ancient practices of affiliation that Europeans reinterpreted during the Enlightenment, is predicated on an individual belonging to a distinct geo-political group. In the late eighteenth century, rebellious white British colonists first tested a fully secularized form of government by declaring the right of “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and establishing the United States.7 America’s democratic republic replaced European absolutism in which the monarchy backed by the Church had been imbued with natural and divine authority. In the British kingdom, for example, all lands and subjects fell under royal jurisdiction. With the rise of the modern nation-state, citizens, owing to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them,” could privately own land and collectively legislate the laws that governed those dwelling within the nation’s jurisdictional boundaries.8 The productive working of the land and the yielded fruits of one’s labors were essential to ownership for John Locke, who also rooted the notion property in personhood: “yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.”9

The US Constitution did not define who was a “citizen” when it was ratified in 1789. Perhaps this was because who became a citizen of the recently formed nation-state was self-evident to the white-male-cis-gendered landowners crafting the US’s legal and governmental framework. Landed property, a patriarchal endeavor, was a prerequisite, for example, to have the right to vote in elections. But with white Europeans eager for land and opportunity arriving on the shores of the new nation, it was necessary for lawmakers to define eligibility criteria and a process toward citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 determined “that any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen.” Given this racialized definition of “citizen,” enslaved and free blacks residing within the US, along with Native Americans, could never obtain the same rights and freedoms as white Americans. And yet, despite these legal prohibitions, some did make the attempt to lay claim to citizenship and its privileges.

In 1857 Dred Scott, an enslaved Missourian, sued his owner Irene Emerson to be able to purchase his freedom along with that of his wife and daughters. His case argued that because Scott had resided with his owner for a few years in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin territory that he had a legal right to be free. The US Supreme Court’s ruling on Dred Scott v. Sandford concluded that anyone of African descent had no claim to rights of self-determination and personhood guaranteed through citizenship. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that the “black African”

had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.10

Taney’s white supremacist verdict ruled that blacks were not self-possessed individuals morally worthy of the rights of citizenship as recognized by the Constitution. Instead, they were pre-ordained inferiors best kept as property to be bought, sold, and entailed. Federal courts, therefore, had no jurisdiction over the case because Scott as a non-citizen had no legal standing. Being born a slave had consigned Scott to toil for his owner until his death. Despite this landmark ruling, of the 4.4 million blacks residing in the US, nearly a half million claimed themselves to free as recorded in the 1860 census.11 It was not until the Thirteenth Amendment officially ended slavery at the close of Civil War in 1865 that the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 redefined citizenship as:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…12

This amendment maintained that all legal citizens would be guaranteed the right to live freely and to own property regardless of race. However, the historical correlation of land, whiteness, and citizenship has made property ownership for many black Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities an ongoing challenge over the course of the twentieth century and up to today.13

John Gast, American Progress, 1872.

Landed Whiteness

For legal scholar Cheryl Harris, “the origins of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination.”14 “White possession and occupation of land,” Harris suggests, “was validated and therefore privileged as the basis for property rights.”15 Five hundred years of violent forced removals of Native Americans from wide swathes of the continent so that these territories could be surveyed, parceled, and sold as property by state and private interests ensured that white settlers would gain in wealth and grow in number. Land provided a place to build a home, to raise food, and extract other valuable resources. Land—real property—was fundamental to founding patriarch Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of white yeoman farmers, a symbol of American virtue, mastery, and independence. Furthermore, when land held in common turned into private property, the owner dictated who can use it and how it’s used. The exclusive right to own—it’s mine not yours—is sustained by the law and defended through state sanctioned enforcement. In other words, property ownership validates power and sovereignty.

If as “property,” personhood and land underwrite the American national project, then racism, in part, defines their exclusionary nature. The correlation between race, land, and citizenship can be found in the ways that homeownership in the twentieth century was touted as the “American Dream,” which for many immigrant groups became an avenue for assimilation into “Americanness” defined by whiteness and middle-class status. Historian Dianne Harris reminds us that homeownership “was the single most important symbol of achievement and belonging,” particularly for the working class, and that “as an exclusively white privilege,” it was “already deeply embedded in the American consciousness by those early decades of the twentieth century; indeed, Americans were by that time willing to resort to violence to protect that notion.”16 By the 1930s, the banking industry and the Federal Government enabled the practice of redlining, which graded neighborhoods in terms of the quality of housing stock (interchangeable with racial stock) in order to prevent black and other undesirable applicants from obtaining mortgages in white owned areas. Another tool, restrictive deed covenants prevented blacks, Jews, and other minority groups from purchasing houses in white neighborhoods as a means of preventing the destabilization of property values. White Americans would quickly resort to violence to defend their turf against incursion from minorities who did not belong, as one black family discovered when they moved into the planned suburb of Levittown just outside of Philadelphia in 1957.

The current racialized landscape navigated by Rankine’s Citizen was made possible by these legal measures and violent actions that continue to diminish the rights of black Americans. A recent investigative report released in February 2018 documented how discriminatory practices in bank lending have not disappeared, despite the fact that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made many of them illegal.17 These patterns of discrimination have reemerged in loan allocations that have financed the gentrification of urban neighborhoods around the country. Researchers discovered, for example, that in the city of Philadelphia, white home loan applicants were ten times more likely to receive a loan from a bank than black applicants.18 The arrival of white home owners in Philadelphia’s historically black neighborhoods have escalated the cost of rental units and increased the tax burden for lifelong homeowners resulting in widespread displacement, an intolerable burden in a city whose poverty rate is 25.7%.19 As white newcomers move in, the police often become the de facto agents to forcibly remove those who are perceived as a threat to comfort and safety. It is no surprise then, that Philadelphia was the site of one of the most egregious of the racial profiling incidents cited earlier in this essay. In April 2018, a white manager of a downtown Starbucks called the police two minutes after two young black men sat down at the popular international coffee chain. The three police officers promptly arrested the young men for trespassing. Ironically, the crime committed by Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson was “waiting while black” for Andrew Yaffe, a local real estate developer. By removing them from private property, which also disrupted their real estate negotiations, Nelson and Robinson were denied their fundamental American right to belong.

In response to the unpopular and demeaning treatment by an employee in one of its franchises, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized to Nelson and Robinson for their ordeal and committed to funding an educational startup for young entrepreneurs. In May, Johnson also closed over 8,000 stores to educate its baristas and managers about racial bias. As part of their training session, Starbucks employees watched a short video by award winning documentarian Stanley Nelson that used the history of racial discrimination against black Americans in public spaces as a case study for what it means to “not be welcomed as an American citizen.” While filled with moving testimony and documentation of racist acts, many of them violent, the short video’s strategy attempted to assuage white fear without addressing the structural causes that lead to the policing of private and public spaces. Private property is exclusionary. That is the power ownership wields—whether it’s a homeowner or a corporation like Starbucks. When the growing privatization of public space and hyper surveillance of public spaces is overlaid onto the historical racialization of citizenship and property in the US, black citizens continue to feel the pain and violence of exclusion. You live the consequences of not belonging when disenfranchisement can turn deadly at any moment. As Rankine recounts: “Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.”20

×

Dimensions of Citizenship is a collaboration between the United States Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale and e-flux Architecture.

Mabel O. Wilson is an architectural designer and cultural historian. She has authored Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016) and Negro Building: African Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012). At Columbia University she is a Professor of Architecture, a co-director of Global Africa Lab and the Associate Director at the Institute for Research in African American Studies. She’s a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?) a collective that advocates for fair labor practices on building sites worldwide.

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Notes - Mine Not Yours
1

Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014), 51.

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2

Krissah Thompson, “Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates Arrested,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2009, .

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3

Michael Harriot, “Philadelphia Police Department Changes Trespassing Policy After Starbucks Incident,” The Root, June 8, 2018, .

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4

Rankine, Citizen, 105.

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5

Rankine, Citizen, 24.

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6

Ibid.

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7

Declaration of Independence (US, 1776).

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8

Ibid.

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9

John Locke, “Chapter 5: Of Property,” Two Treatises of Governement, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Mentor Books, New American Library, 1965), .

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10

Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856).

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11

“Data Analysis: African Americans on Eve of the Civil War,” .

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12

U.S. Constitution, amend. XIV., §1.

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13

Ta-nehesi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014, .

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14

Cheryl A. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 106, Number 8, June 1993, 1716.

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15

Ibid.

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16

Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 14–15.

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17

Emmanuel Martinez and Aaron Glantz, “How Reveal identified lending disparities in federal mortgage data,” Reveal, February 2, 2018, .

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18

Emmanuel Martinez and Aaron Glantz, “Kept Out: For people of color, banks are shutting the door on home ownership,” Reveal, .

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19

Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia’s Poor: Who they are, where they live, and how that has changed,” November 2017, .

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20

Rankine, “February 26, 2012/In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” Citizen, 89–90.

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Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014), 51.

Krissah Thompson, “Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates Arrested,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2009, .

Michael Harriot, “Philadelphia Police Department Changes Trespassing Policy After Starbucks Incident,” The Root, June 8, 2018, .

Rankine, Citizen, 105.

Rankine, Citizen, 24.

Ibid.

Declaration of Independence (US, 1776).

Ibid.

John Locke, “Chapter 5: Of Property,” Two Treatises of Governement, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Mentor Books, New American Library, 1965), .

Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856).

“Data Analysis: African Americans on Eve of the Civil War,” .

U.S. Constitution, amend. XIV., §1.

Ta-nehesi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014, .

Cheryl A. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 106, Number 8, June 1993, 1716.

Ibid.

Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 14–15.

Emmanuel Martinez and Aaron Glantz, “How Reveal identified lending disparities in federal mortgage data,” Reveal, February 2, 2018, .

Emmanuel Martinez and Aaron Glantz, “Kept Out: For people of color, banks are shutting the door on home ownership,” Reveal, .

Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia’s Poor: Who they are, where they live, and how that has changed,” November 2017, .

Rankine, “February 26, 2012/In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” Citizen, 89–90.

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