Anita Hill's book on gender, race and home creating a stir

Professor relates current economic devastation to old prejudices

For most people, and most media, the declining home prices, soaring defaults and widespread foreclosures that have staggered America and its citizens in recent years have been understood as products of distant financial manipulations and elusive macroeconomic forces.

In “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home,” a new book that goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 4, Brandeis Professor Anita Hill offers a fresh and strikingly different perspective. Through personal stories and research, Hill, who teaches courses on race and the law and gender equality in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, relates the devastation of families, communities and cities to deeply rooted race and gender prejudices that have persisted even as their outward form has shifted from slavery to segregation to subtler forms of bias.

Hill rose to national prominence 20 years ago when she confronted Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas on sexual harassment in the workplace. That experience was chronicled in a previous book, “Speaking Truth to Power.”

“Reimagining Equality” is attracting considerable attention, and Hill is scheduled for a national speaking tour following its publication, beginning with an appearance at Cambridge Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 8 p.m. Hill will speak about the book on campus at an open-to-the-community Heller School event on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

The following Q&A is condensed from a conversation between Hill and Brandeis Magazine editor Laura Gardner.

BrandeisNOW: You say this book is about home, so what’s your definition? Are home and equality equivalent? What you're saying is you can't have one without the other?

Anita Hill: I do begin “Reimagining Equality” with an idea about home and the importance of home. I talk about how important it is in American history. I don't believe that you can have equality without first securing that place where you can live out your dreams and live out all the opportunities that the country has to offer at a national level.

How long did you think about this idea of home before you wrote the book?

I hadn't been really formulating this book for years, but I've been thinking about the concept of home for years.

My personal story of home has to do with my leaving home at the age of 17. It was after the civil rights movement. After the women's rights movement. And we were really having to think again. One, about what our home life would be like, where we could find home. And two, what it was going to mean once we got there.

Did your mother feel when you left that you were going to do something really different from what she and her parents and grandparents had done?

I'm absolutely certain of that. I think it was an act of faith. It was an act of courage as well. Because she didn't know the world that she was sending me out to. Nobody really knew it.

Growing up, did you know that your great-grandparents had been slaves?

I assumed that my great-grandparents had been slaves, but I'd always heard that my grandfather was a slave and it really didn't make sense to me. The Civil War was over in the 1860s, so how in fact could my grandfather have been a slave?

Well, in fact it was true. I went back and got the census records and found that in the 1870 records he was counted as being six years old. And I did the math and he was born in 1864 and the emancipation really didn't take effect in Arkansas until after he was born.

So I thought, well, how could it be that this man could be my grandfather? It turns out my mother was born to him when he was in his 40s and when I was born my mother was in her 40s, and that's how within two generations we span from slavery to the civil rights movement.

It was something that amazed me and the story of him, my grandfather, Henry Eliot, and his mother, Molly Eliot, who changed her name from Mary, which was her slave name, to Molly, which she took on at the end of slavery.

The story of how they made that transition from being the property of a slave owner to owning property to me is fascinating.

Molly, before Henry was born, had been sold away from her husband and I imagine she was 17 years old at the time, 16 or 17 roughly. And I imagined her pregnant, being sold away from her husband, from her family, from this home that she had known, and then moving into another slave home as a young mother. He was her first child.

I imagined what she had to go through, the strength that she had to have to go on, living as a free person in the shadow of the plantation that she had been enslaved in.

You actually grew up with a very strong sense of security as place of home, of meaning, of belonging. And you had this huge family. You grew up on a farm, but it seemed to be a very, very enriching, positive, community-building experience.

I have the benefit of having a very secure family. But that didn't come easily, and that's why the history was so significant to me – how we got from Arkansas to Oklahoma, to that place of security.

But even in that place of security it was also a place that was changing. That life on the farm was not something that was going to be sustained forever for my family. And we knew that by the '60s and '70s.

One of the things that I found so compelling and important about the stories of the period between the 1880s and the 1920s when, as one writer has said, so many people were trying to grab this foothold on to the land and were unable to do so, is that many of the elements that caused people to have to move on and to look for new homes, many of the elements that existed then, exist today when we start looking at the foreclosure crisis.

You outline an evolution from slavery to segregation to redlining to gender and racial bias in lending.

Yes, I do outline the trajectory from the slave cabin, to segregated housing, to rampant discrimination in mortgage lending practice and now to reverse redlining—targeting women and communities of color for toxic mortgage agreements.  Underlying each one of those factors is bias, social bias that has been so embedded in our institutions, particularly lending, that they keep coming up. Until we understand and really attack and confront the historic bias and the historic racial and gender discrimination that has become a part of the lending culture, we will not ever really protect ourselves against the kind of catastrophe that we have had in the last few years in the housing market.

Is it overwhelmingly African Americans who have been affected by this mortgage crisis or it is more?

It's a combination of a lot of factors that came together. It's race. It's gender. It's class. We talk about the losses of value and property in the African American community, but the statistics show that in this latest recession African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos have in fact lost ground. As much as 65 percent of the wealth among these groups of people has been lost. So it's not isolated to one particular ethnic group Or even to people of color in general. 

And what was the growing market of home buyers prior to the subprime lending debacle? The growing market was single women. This reflected both our economic and our social progress. We weren’t waiting until we married to acquire a home and we were beginning to build the means to realize that dream on our own.  One in every five homes was being bought by women on their own. Single women were targeted for subprime loans, and many of them, by some estimates as much as 40 to 50 percent, qualified for conventional loans. Now we all know what happened with many of those rates. They escalated. So whatever equity these women had is being stripped. But women and people of color were just the beginning. We know that banks distributed these flawed instruments widely. Then bundled them and sold them on the market, in some cases to pension funds, thereby ultimately causing the collapse of the financial market. But at the time, banks were making money by issuing and reselling subprime and other high rate loans. 

Have you found a home?

Yes. I have. I found both an intellectual home here at Brandeis and I found a physical home. I found that place where I feel very secure in Massachusetts. It allows me to do the things that I want to have the opportunities that I think the country has to offer. So that's how I'm defining home.

I sometimes miss some of the things that remind me of home in Oklahoma. The people. The food. The songs. But I am happy at home where I am. One of the things that I have discovered is that home is really as much a state of being and state of mind as it is a physical location. And I believe that I've found both.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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