JPPE INTERVIEW, ANDRE PERRY:
Andre Perry is a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, a scholar-in-residence at American University, and a columnist for the Hechinger Report. His work centers around issues of race, structural inequality, and education. His book, Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, was published earlier this year, and he has had his work featured in MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, among others.
JPPE: Hey everyone, welcome to “The Difference Principle: Power and Inequality in America.” I’m speaking with Andre Perry, who is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, a Scholar-in-Resident at American University, and a columnist for the Hechinger Report. His work tends to focus on race, structural inequality, and education, and it’s been featured in MSNBC, the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Post, CNN, among other places. He’s also the author of a new book, Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, and the report deals with the devaluation of assets in black neighborhoods, which deals with findings he produced at Brookings in a study and presented to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Hi Andre, how are you?
Andre: I’m doing well, good to see you. You forgot to add that I was a fellow when you were an intern at the Brookings Institution, so good to see you again.
JPPE: Good to see you again. So the first question is: when you look at the recent movements to shine light on race inequality in the US, what do you see?
Andre: Oh, I see an opportunity to really transform policy in the United States in a way that produces equity and upholds the values that the constitution and other similar documents have promoted but not necessarily operationalized. So for me, as a researcher of policy, it’s encouraging to have so many different types of people marching in the streets, demanding change—structural change. So that just gives me the cover to really produce the kind of research and analyses I think is needed during this moment, but it is also part of my life’s work. I’ve been writing and researching structural inequality for years, and so this is my time— this is (my) equivalent of a super bowl—when it comes to structural inequality. There’s so much at stake, and we have an opportunity to truly change and transform the way we distribute resources and services in this country, so I’m looking forward to the years ahead.
JPPE: And I saw that you began your earlier work with a focus on education. You spent time as an educator, and as a dean I saw as well, which I didn’t know, actually. And your most recent book and a recent report that you wrote for Brookings deals with these issues of housing, and you set up your book with what I thought was a really interesting anecdote where you describe your family background with an estranged biological mother and a father who was killed in prison at 27, and then you discuss it in the context of these feelings of not belonging and seem to extend that to the black experience in America. In your testimony in front of the House you said, “The value of assets building schools leadership and lend itself are inextricably linked to the perceptions of black people. How much of the demand that impacts housing price is affected by how people are perceived,” and it seemed that in your book you emphasized this point through the case studies that you highlighted in order to show this idea that our concept of equity is corrupted by an idea that white people are the “gold standard.” Practically, this manifested in the tangible form of black real estate being devalued by as much as 156,000,048,000 dollars. So, where did that shift to housing come from, and why did you choose to orient towards that?
Andre: You know, kids don’t live in schools; they live in communities. Often times, when we are talking about academic performance, we ignore all of the other structural barriers that impede a child’s education. I wanted to examine all those other structures that impact children, so I could get at how they impact education, and what was clear to me is that it’s almost impossible to isolate education as a root cause of inequality, but a lot of people try to do that. They’ll say, “if we could only fix the school then everything will be alright.”
Andre: And, you know, that’s just not true. So much of academic performance is predicted by forces outside of school: what kind of job your parents have, what kind of education your grandfather had, home prices, transportation, the criminal justice system. All of these things have an impact on children’s and parents’ lives, which end up playing out in the schools themselves. So I wanted to say, “hey, so enough of blaming schools for society’s problems with policy” because when you blame schools, you essentially have little room but to blame teachers and students and people in that school, and that’s just misguided. I say throughout my book—and it’s become a mantra of mine— that there is nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve. I say that to get to that we’ve got to stop blaming black people. There’s this white supremacist myth that says the conditions of black cities and neighborhoods are a direct result of people in them, and that white supremacist myth also plays out in our efforts to reform schools. We blame teachers, we blame students, we blame school boards, but we treat school boards and school districts like we treat black districts—we treat black school boards and black districts like we treat black people. “We will take them over, we will impose all kinds of restrictions on them, we do things we would never think of doing to a white district.” And so I started looking at other sectors and said, “hey, teachers are not to blame here.” In particular, black teachers: in my education chapter in Know Your Price, I outline the added value that black teachers bring in particular, and so when you see reform hit hard in many districts, and you see a reduction in the black workforce, you go, “hey, this is contradictory to what to the goal of reform is, and that’s to provide opportunity.” And people have to remember: kids eventually grow up and become adults, and we’re cutting off job opportunities for black folks—what the heck are we educating black people for? So the point is that I wanted to look beyond education in schools, because it is often used—or school reform is often used— to advocate our responsibilities for dealing with all the other structures that impede growth in black children and families’ lives.
JPPE: So when you think about those other structures that impede growth, how do you delineate some of the other forces that have played a role in rising inequality since the 1970s that people might talk about: financializiation, technological disruption, globalization, and so on? How do you delineate that from the things that are specifically affecting black communities and the role of racism?
Andre: Well, I took an approach where I wanted to identify assets that we could measure in terms of the impact of racism on it. And then what I did was I just started going asset by asset and just examining the impact of racism, and eventually I will have some grand theory of how all these things come together. But at least for now I just started looking at different sectors, and this is where housing came into play. Housing—there’s so much data that you can pull from to measure housing. And what we did in preparation for the book—and it’s sort of the anchor study—we examined housing prices and black neighborhoods where the share of the black population was greater than fifty percent and compared them to neighborhoods where the share of the black population was less than fifty percent. And a lot of people say, “yeah the black neighborhood prices are going to be lower because of crime, because of education.” So, we sought out just to control for many different social factors just to get an “apples- to-apples “comparison. And after controlling for all those things as well as many of the “Zillow metrics” you see, we found that homes in black neighborhoods are devalued by twenty-three percent, about 48,000 per home, accumulative there is about 156 billion in lost equity, and we know that people use that equity to start businesses. In fact it would have started up more than four million businesses based on the average amount blacks use to start up their firms. It would have funded more than eight million four-year degrees based on the average cost of a public four-year degree. It’s a big number. And I look at the devaluation, and the reason I say devaluation is because, again, these assets are strong, but they are devalued, often times purposely, through policy. And so my goal with this is—I’m not quite there where I can offer up a grand theory that could be applied to things like globalization and commercialization and things like that. However, I do know we have plenty of evidence to say that the value of assets are mitigated by their proximity to blackness. And we’re corrupted in terms of how we value these particular assets by the preconceived notions of whiteness and blackness, obviously whiteness being of higher value and blackness being of lower value. That plays out many different ways; you just saw, my study looked at home prices, but there was just a major study that was just released that’s getting a lot of headlines that shows that black communities pay more in property taxes than their white counterparts. Thirteen percent more.
Andre: And that generally comes about because there’s always been municipalities that charge black communities higher in taxes because of this perceived over-usage of services. They perceive black people overusing services, so they charge higher rates, but that’s also come from just a negative perception. These things play out many different ways. I just identified, like, six different ways devaluation occurs and hope to keep adding onto those ways so I’ll be able to offer a theory of sorts in the future.
JPPE: Well, one question I have just listening to you talk about that is: I kind of wonder how you deal with the issue of hearts of minds, of there being these ingrained ideological forces that are just baked into the psyche of people, where there is a certain underlying racism. How do you deal with something like that? Because it seems like that might be difficult to address with just a single policy.
Andre: I wrote the book—it’s a policy book, but it’s narrated using first-person narrative. I use a lot of biographical sketches, lots of case studies because getting at this issue of changing hearts and minds, I think you have to do both. You can’t simply make the head case to people. You also have to make a heart case, and more importantly, you have to make a case for culture change. I wanted to show how these racist ideas and devaluations play out in the lives of researchers, family members so they could see—in sort of real terms—what this means or what this says about our culture and what we need to change. So I think people will be pleased to see that I’m talking about a lot of heady policy ideas, and I try my best to scrub all the jargon off of them and really talk plainly. That’s something I always recommend policy folks do: don’t get caught up in your own policy community and talk your way out of compelling others to join in on the fun. But I purposely really try to bring out the data in the context of the lived experience so that people can really absorb them in a way that can excite change. You can’t do just a heart case or a culture case—you have to have something that addresses the real concerns in terms of intellectual nature of the policy. Is it harmful? Is it negative? And you have to show it in the numbers, and numbers don’t mean much when culture will overrun it. We see that in terms of bad policymaking. We will push bad policy because it fits into our notion of what America is or what we think it should be, and so we have thousands locked up in cages right now along the US-Mexico border because of negative perceptions of brown folks. We have got to look at culture when we talk about policy, and so that’s what I think my book does.
JPPE: And when you look at how to build opposition to race inequality, in addition to cultural movements and engaging with people and as you said, changing hearts of minds, there are also these political questions of how you choose to champion policies that can help reduce race inequality and the effects of systemic racism wherever it might appear. One question I want to ask is about how best to do that. One the one hand, you might make the case that by championing general progressive causes that might level inequality and create equality of opportunity. You might be able to address some issues of race inequality through something like that, and it seems like there were subtexts of that when President Obama was running in 2008 when he was championing what became the Affordable Care Act. So how do you weigh the benefits and trade-offs of emphasizing these broad and underlying economic issues that really speak to—or attempt to speak to— everyone versus focusing more narrowly on: how do we deal with the specific problems that are spurring race inequality?
Andre: People don’t understand how anti-black legislation negatively impacts the entire country. You can actually produce policy responses to racism that address the anti-black policies of the past while showing how this will have a positive impact on us all. You know, I look at housing devaluation and show how home prices in black neighborhoods are lower. Now, white people live in those neighborhoods too, and their home prices are lower, too. If you address the anti-black nature of housing pricing, then you improve the quality for a whole lot of people, not just black folks. So in addition, we still have to address race and racism. To say that the impacts of red-lining, which by the homeowner’s loan order corporations in thirties which drew red lines around black-majority neighborhoods, deeming them unworthy of investment in the form of low-interest home loans, that practice haunts black people to this day. The wealth gap is enormous. The immediate wealth of white families about 170 thousand and compare to seventeen thousand for black families. About ten times difference between the two. That was created because of anti-black policy, and we have to have remedies for those who have suffered because of that anti-black policy. So, what’s interesting is that after COVID—after three weeks of COVID and social distancing— people were saying, “give me . . . I need relief for my business, I need relief to pay the bills,” and I say, “well, try being socially distanced for generations.”
And so yes, black communities need relief. You can call it a relief package, you can call it reparations, you can call it some type of race-based solution, but what COVID made clear is that the federal government has a responsibility of uplifting its citizens when times are hard, particularly when the federal government caused the harm. You know, between slavery, Jim Crow segregation, legal housing segregation, a biased criminal justice system. All of those things have caused harm—extreme harm—to the economics prospects, the social prospects of black Americans, and we need to remedy those. So yes, we can address anti-black policy by showing how it lifts all folks, so to speak, but if we really want to be equitable, the country should rally behind providing the kind of relief to black residents and citizens that is similar to how we provided relief to white people after the depression and other groups.
JPPE: And certainly one thing that’s interesting about this moment, too, is that there are a lot of calls for policies and ideas that might have seemed radical a decade ago. Discussions of reparations or defunding the police seem much more widespread, at least to me, and I’m wondering, when you look at policies that are important to champion right now, what are some that you would like to see particularly? And if we removed the question of political feasibility, what are some policies that you ideally would like to see?
Andre: Well, I have to say, I am absolutely ecstatic about the “defund the police” movement, and I’ll tell you why. Not only does it get at what is important in terms of increasing economic mobility, it also says that we need to move money in ways that reflect our priorities as a country and as a neighborhood. So, it’s clear that investments in police literally arrest economic mobility of the residents. I say this all the time: nothing says that a black man doesn’t belong in an economy like a police officer carefully kneeling in the back of the neck of a person and taking his life in broad daylight. That’s a statement about belonging in a community, and so for me, we’ve got to really look at this “defund the police” movement seriously as a framework. I’ve been telling people, “what’s your defund the police in education?” It’s obvious you can actually defund policing in schools—there’s a direct link—but the point is, what money are we going to move to excite economic growth? For me, I’m excited about this moment because we’re really putting a spotlight on the barriers—the structural barriers. It’s not upholding the tradition that black people are to blame, that parents are to blame. . . We’re getting at policy, real policy, real practices that have significant impacts on our daily lives.
JPPE: I want to conclude with a quote from your book that I think speaks to a lot of what you just said. You said, “I want people to fight for power. It means getting elected. Sometimes it means going out in the streets. It means going into court with devaluation data that I’ve produced. It means suing the appraisal community. It’s going to take a lot of mobilization because again, racism doesn’t just go away. This is a conversation about power and taking what’s rightfully ours.”
What do you say to people who say that they don’t necessarily want to work within the system; that it hasn’t gotten better and it won’t so long as they work within the system because the system has continued to find new ways to calcify inequalities on the one hand or generally preserve its towers of privilege?
Andre: Well, I say, to them, protests and movements that are directly confronting the systems and the harms of systems—we need that. You don’t get change without outside agitation. And sometimes that might look like something burning in the streets. It might come in the form of marches. It might come from civil unrest in many different forms. But, let’s be clear: you don’t get police reform in this country by working within the system. You get it from what we’ve seen from over the last few months: by hitting the streets, demanding change, crowding the courtroom, and finding alternative means of being. At some point we need different types of housing structures. We need to look at cooperative housing, for instance. We need new ideas around community—neighborhood—safety. We need new systems, and that’s going to come from the outside. It’s going to come from demanding change. So for me, I see my role as an insider—you know I work at a mainstream think-tank—but I get energy from folks on the outside. I want to be a resource for folks on the outside. So now I have cover, as a member of a marginalized group, to put forth research and data that often is devalued because I am also devalued as a black man in a mainstream think-tank. So I’m all for working from the outside. That’s the only way change occurs, really—substantive change. For me, I look at television— I march as well, and I’m, like, giddy. I’m like, “yes, this is what we need: doing the things that insiders won’t do.” And that’s why we’re in the position we are today.
JPPE: Andre, thanks so much for your time.
Andre: Hey, thanks so much for having me.