Home Fires

4 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

In Reimagining Equality, Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill examines the historical role that race and gender have played in finding a secure home–an issue that’s more timely than ever in the wake of the subprime-mortgage crisis. Twenty years after her testimony against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Hill finds that women are still on unequal footing.

What inspired Reimagining Equality?

When I bought my first home, in the 1980s, I was not the norm, because I didn’t wait until I got married. I knew how important [owning a home] was to me in establishing my independence, providing some security and a space where I could grow.

Why is the idea of home such a key part of equality?

Your home determines so many aspects of your life: where your children go to school, who represents you, your access to basic services and good food. There is so much hanging on where one calls home.

Why is having a home a particular struggle for black women?

It is a struggle for a lot of people. But African-American women are in most cases living in communities where the real estate market was starting to grow, and then the crisis happened, and the communities around them may have disintegrated. Also, women tend to spend [a greater proportion] of their income on their home. So when house values plummet and women are still spending 50% of their income on their home, that’s really important.

Your book says that in 2005, half of all home loans to African Americans were to women, and those loans were mostly subprime. Were they an easy mark or a new market?

It was a combination. They were a growing part of the market, but they were targeted on the basis of race and gender. It’s called reverse redlining. Loan officers would say they were going “granny hunting” or [making] “ghetto loans.” I know people want to say, “Well, why didn’t they just negotiate a better rate?” But those were the kinds of loans that were marketed to them, even when they qualified for conventional loans. If that’s all you see, then you assume that is what’s available.

By age 40, about 40% of black women have never been married. Is that partly why they need special protections to own a home?

I’m not just saying we should create better opportunities for people to buy homes. But whether you rent or you buy, what we are doing is pricing people out of the American Dream.

You say the public “rejected the testimony of your life experience” during the Thomas hearings. How has that shaped your career?

Had the hearings not happened, I’d probably be doing international commercial law, which was the direction I’d been heading in. When I started to look at the issue of sexual harassment–and trust me, this was not something I had planned for my career and my life–I started to realize that sexual harassment was a component of the inequalities that women face. So my career changed.

Did the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story feel familiar to you?

That whole idea of someone bringing charges against an individual in power, when there are sexual overtones–those things were very reminiscent. The outcome was disappointing to a lot of women, but the kind of conversation we had after the Strauss-Kahn episode was entirely different from the one in 1991. There was, of course, an effort to trash his accuser. But there was also a very vocal reaction to that, and I think that’s progress.

You’ve received 25,000 letters since the hearings. Do you dread opening them?

They’re mostly supportive. But if you print that, somebody will say they shouldn’t be mostly supportive.

I can’t help asking about the Ginni Thomas phone call–

Yes, you could.

Are there any circumstances under which your two families could put their differences aside?

Well, it’s not really about two families. It always was, to me, about the Supreme Court and the integrity of the court–who is going to be ruling on questions of law, what their own behavior is in relationship to the law.

And as a legal scholar, are you impressed with Thomas’ term on the bench?

I have deliberately avoided doing analysis of his work.

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