Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. He reads the history of modern cities and social movements through a black queer studies frame. His work has appeared in Radical History Review, Occasion and No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. He is at work revising a book manuscript entitled, Queer Removal: Liberalism and Displacement in the Nation’s Capital. Follow him at @KwameHolmes
If there is any axiom for home buying, it is that location is everything. Home prices flair up or down subject to factors that range from the convenience of mass transit in urban areas, one’s distance from highways in suburban ones, the availability of high-performing schools, access to natural beauty, cultural amenities, broadband service, a high-rise view and more. Because consumer demand drives land value in the residential market, the real estate industry translates visceral human response –“I love (or hate) this place”– into an “objective” home price (1).
And few factors influence home price more than a listing’s proximity to violence. Given this, indulge me in a small bit of storytelling. On a hot July afternoon, along the major thoroughfare between a small, well-heeled suburb and a large Metropolitan area; a latino man in his 30’s becomes agitated at the sight of a black driver. The former closely tails the later, eventually forcing both cars from the road. The aggressor leaps from his vehicle and walks towards his target on foot. Adrenaline and cortisol course through his veins. He pays glancing attention to the shadow of a 4-year-old girl in a safety seat, strapped into the back of the black driver’s car. His hand hovers over the handle of a firearm, ready to draw and fire at a moment’s notice. Still behind the wheel, the black driver attempts to ease the tension, telling the aggressor of the gun in his glove compartment and warning against a violent encounter. But his pleas for sanity fall on deaf ears. Taking position at the front of the black driver’s car, the aggressor opens fire into the driver side window, shooting his victim in front of an adult woman passenger and her no-longer-innocent child. The wild and unprovoked shooting garners national media attention, and the once anonymous suburb finds itself infamous for a mounting trend in road-side homicide.
A large body of literature within criminology tells us that home prices in the well-heeled suburb should react to this tragedy with a sharp downward turn. In a 2006 article published in Quantitative Criminology, George E Teta (et al.) assert that homicide, unlike other types of crime, most directly correlates with declines in home prices (2). Other studies indicate that homicide is particularly impactful in high-end neighborhoods where the rarity of violent crime draws an outsized media response (3).
Nonetheless, in the year since officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights Minnesota, under nearly identical circumstances as I describe above, home prices in the St. Paul suburb rose at an impressive clip of 13%; the area’s most robust bull market since the sub-prime speculative bubble (4). Obviously, the fact that Yanez was a member of the St. Anthony police department at the time of the shooting differentiates my story from the sad reality of Castile’s death. But there’s a strong case that the real estate market should have put the brakes on Falcon Heights home prices. Diamond Reynolds’ widely viewed Facebook live video did not only make Philando Castile a globally trending hashtag, it brought unexpected infamy to Falcon Heights and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests threatened to further deteriorate the area’s desirability.
Indeed, corporate actors across multiple industries often fret that recent attention to police violence and anti-brutality protest negatively impacts their bottom line. Earlier this year, “pro-business” legislatures in a dozen states debated versions of law that would charge activists with a crime should public protest drive revenue away from local business. Liability insurers are also concerned. Risk Management Inc. cancelled the Sorrento Louisiana police department’s liability policy after a series of pricey racial discrimination lawsuits made them too much of an insurance risk. Recently, a close friend who works in non-profit advocacy shared with me (on condition of anonymity) that insurers were unwilling to provide their organization liability coverage because of the “consequences” of “political involvement.” As one insurer put it, “you see on the news what’s going on.” Outside of concerns for personal safety, crime rates drive consumers away from a housing market because they place upward pressure on homeowner’s insurance rates and, undoubtedly, proximity to protest has the potential to do the same. And yet, in defiance of market logic and actuarial science, home prices in Falcon Heights only continue to rise. Why?
I argue that Castile’s death is not a failure of policing or a constituent of crime anxiety. Rather, Philando Castile was killed by our obsession with growth, and in particular, the middle class’ reliance upon property values for economic security. His killing sent current and potential homeowners in Falcon Heights a clear message: The state, via the police, will protect the long-term value of your home against the stain of blackness. Rather than counterintuitive, the market response to this tragedy becomes predictable when contextualized within the history of blackness’ forced association with value depreciation.
Blackness, Visibility and Value
Interest in the many tentacles of the carceral state has driven the lion’s share of recent academic scholarship on the outsized power capitalism wields over black life (5). In her foundational book Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes how deindustrialization left populous states like California with surpluses of finance capital, land and manpower amidst a political turn away from redistributionist welfare policy. Rather than pursue universal basic income or full employment, California built prisons; and expanded the punitive power of the criminal justice system in order to fill them (6). The militarization of municipal police departments—so powerfully on display during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings—has strengthened the bottom line of private defense contractors at the expense of black suffering (7).
Still, the disposal of black lives into the carceral machine is an adjacent, but different, historical phenomenon from the deep association between black visibility and property value loss. Prior to emancipation, black “hands,” as they were counted, functioned as both units of currency and unmatched labor power. Under the control of white masters, enslaved people increased the value of their families’ property portfolio. However, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes, after emancipation, sociological and actuarial expertise collaborated to frame black people as congenitally defective–destined for early death and eventual extinction. However methodologically unsound, this new knowledge donned the shroud of objectivity and was incorporated into the first private life insurance offered to black families. Needless to say, this early means of quantifying human potential consistently paid less capital to black families less than non-black ones (8).
As American progressives brought scientific positivism to bear upon urban development, the earliest zoning professionals and planners mapped any neighborhood friendly to black people as a “blighted” habitat that threatened property values across an entire city’s “ecosystem” (9). The establishment of the Federal Housing Authority during the New Deal nationalized the production of risk-assessment maps—a mortgage lender’s guidebook to redlining—and put federal muscle behind the racial biases of urban planning science. Postwar federal urban renewal policy only made individual homeownership near black neighborhoods a riskier gambit, as local governments aggressively deployed eminent domain authority to acquire and demolish neighborhoods that stood in the way of “progress” (10). White homeowners took note, and took advantage of federal mortgage financing to escape into communities like Falcon Heights. These suburban safe havens were far removed from poor African Americans who found themselves without options; hemmed into subsidized housing within Metropolitan America’s most inaccessible geographies. So many of the black people who have lost their lives at the hand of the police—Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—lost their lives in those same neighborhoods, because police have been empowered to treat poverty with deadly force (11).
Philando Castile, though, was killed in the suburbs and as I mentioned at the start of this essay, location is everything. To apply the “broken windows policing” frame onto his death is to over-privilege the American inner city within our conception of a global relationship between blackness and value that manifests differently in each local context. More accurately, Philando Castile was killed at a number of crossroads. He was killed in transit, on Larpenture Avenue, a crossroads between St. Paul and a number of suburbs in Ramsey county Minnesota, including Falcon Heights. According to an NPR analysis of the geography of his arrests, he was traveling between St. Paul and Ramsey county suburbs during many of the dozens of times law enforcement saw and stopped him in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb. He was also killed in one of the most well-watched communities in the state. A 2011 Falcon Heights community brochure tells readers, their town was the first community in Minnesota to boast a member of the neighborhood crime watch on every block. In that regard, Castile’s death echoes Trayvon Martin’s; who was killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Most pressingly, he was killed at a major crossroads in American history; a moment defined in part by the middle class’ mounting reliance upon the whims of the real estate market for their own survival.
If there is any utility in distinguishing between neoliberalism and capitalism, it is that the former term highlights the cultural and cognitive shifts produced by privatization over time. For example, as deunionization and governmental negligence has left more Americans without access to public or private pension programs, those same workers have been forced to rely upon home equity to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Many working and middle-class workers have a fiscal interest in land value as most 401ks allow employees to funnel their contributions into Wall street’s real estate index. White collar employers, like the University of Minnesota, have their own stake in metropolitan land markets as recruiters dangle the prospect of long term real estate investment in front of potential employees. Much in the same way that taxation, welfare and military service produce (however coerced) citizenship and national belonging, the real estate market demands its own form of tribute as a condition of the distribution of equity and retirement income. In that sense, the housing market wields a kind of sovereignty over American life, assigning positive value and the right to live to those populations who contribute to its strength and longevity, and demanding the expulsion–to the point of death to those who threaten the same. What we face, in short, is necrocapitalism.
Necropolitics vs. Necrocapitalism
The Movement for Black Lives has generated the nation’s first popular conversation about the value of black life. Still, movement advocates tend to describe the police’s devaluation of black life as the state’s failure to recognize African American’s citizenship. Both the left and right’s focus on state agents’ behavior towards African Americans necessarily frames these debates in terms of citizenship. Police boosters claim that #bluelives engage and defeat “the thugs” bent on robbing us of our constitutionally guaranteed right to private property. Critics point out that programs like Stop and Frisk deny black and brown citizens’ due process and suspends their freedom from unlawful search and seizure. To ask if black lives matter, forces the state to account for its failure to protect the “natural right” to “life” black people are promised in the nation’s founding documents. Indeed, one could describe racially biased policing in the United States as an iteration of Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics. The ubiquity of police killings, the impunity which greets anti-black police violence, and the utter predictability of both reveal how often the American state rehearses its power to expose black people to death.
But we must expand beyond Mbembe and the Movement’s concern with the unfulfilled promises of the nation and position Castile’s death as signpost of a necrocapitalist order. Necrocapitalism refers to a powerful contradiction churning at the heart of post-World War II capitalism. On one hand, decolonization, racial liberalism and globalization have produced, quite literally, a narrow pathway out of poverty for once subjugated populations. Here, the ascendency of integrationism in American jurisprudence, professional codes of conduct and popular culture has encouraged black people to attend schools and search for jobs in majority white territory. In turn, across post-colonial Europe, African, Arab, Persian and South Asian migrants flooded into cities built by their natural resources and in search of lifestyles made possible by their labor. In London, these economic refugees were often forced into illicit “hidden homes” (black market rentals carved out of abandoned commercial buildings) or publicly subsidized tower blocks.
On the other hand, while multiculturalism has demanded more diverse Western labor markets, anti-blackness is still central to value assessment in global land markets. This means that liberalization drags black people into the very line of fire, figurative and literal. The 80 identified victims of the Grenfell blaze were not profiled by a police officer blinded by America’s unique history of anti-black racialization. But they, by proxy of their residency in a south London tower block, were similarly targeted for removal from public view. As Hip-Hop activist Akala told the BBC, the tenant management organization purchased highly flammable cladding for Grenfell as part of an aesthetic upgrade. For years, residents lobbied tenant management for funds to repair their building’s faulty electrical systems, and were met with a polite but firm stonewall. Those repairs would have had almost no impact on the building’s exterior—and by extension—the appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. Since the Tony Blair years, borough councils have strategized to remove the “eye sores” of tower blocks, as well as “hidden homes” from the urban landscape. More research needs to be conducted on south London’s hidden homes project, but a preliminary scan of media reports reveal that urban reformers hoped to help tenants “escape” exploitation by bringing them “out of the shadows” and “into the light of day.” These “regeneration” projects function similarly to urban renewal policy in the United States, displacing poor Londoners into various states of housing insecurity, including permanent homelessness. Once displaced, they are more vulnerable to attack from white supremacists, ill-health, street crime and police harassment.
Though differently produced, Philando Castile’s death and the Grenfell tower tragedy were animated by the same economic order, one that requires black people to cross metropolitan and national borders to survive and countenances the removal of black life in tribute to value. In the wake of tragedy, pushes for reform have found new life. The English parliament is as focused on enforcing safety regulations in tower blocks as American city councils have been on forcing officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. Yet, as police killings continue and Grenfell survivors find themselves unable to trade sympathy in for permanent housing, a reform agenda feels like little more than wallpaper applied to rotting dry wall.
What then, can we do? We must grapple, simultaneously and at a cognitive level, with how we understand blackness and how we assess value. There may have been a time when we could say that markets quantify our desires and reflect them back to us. But our coevolution with capitalism has progressed beyond that sort of linear, direct relationship. Now to oppose the devaluation of blackness is to oppose how markets assess value itself. Perhaps then, the only way to break free from a necrocapitalist order is to demand a society that rejects any coherent system of value assessment. One that makes space for diverse and multiple modes of living; rather than demanding market territory for each identity category. Doing so may allow black people to choose whether or not it’s worth the risk to travel through any geography where the free market’s deadly logics are so densely concentrated.
- Here I am in conversation with Eva Hageman’s dissertation, “The Lifestyle: Economies of Culture and Race in Reality Television,” NYU 2016.
- George E. Tita, Tricia L. Petras, Robert T. Greenbaum, “Crime and Residential Choice: A Neighborhood Level Analysis of the Impact of Crime on Housing Prices” Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
- Joel Best, Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999).
- Data drawn from Zillow.com on June 29, 2017.
- Recent exceptions include, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); David P. Stein “This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy”: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s” Souls 18, 1 (2016); N.D.B Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Devin Fergus, “The Ghetto Tax: Auto Insurance, Postal Code Profiling and the Hidden History of Wealth Transfer,” Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2013).
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007).
- Elizabeth Kai Hinton From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2016).
- Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
- David Freund, Colored Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
- I refer here to a significant literature in urban studies, but on the psychic trauma’s left behind by urban renewal. I most recommend Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: Ballantine, 2004). Whether or not one endorsed urban renewal policy, everyone was left with the impression that black communities could be leveled to the ground at a moment’s notice.
- Here I am referencing broken windows policing. For an excellent review of recent scholarship on broken windows see, Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton ed. Policing the Planet, Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (London: Verso Books, 2017).