Communication Currents

Communicating Race in the Foreclosure Crisis

April 1, 2011
Mass Communication

After a decade of teaching “the race/gender class,” I continue to have many students thank me for providing data or vocabulary with which to talk about racial issues that get aired in the media. These repeated experiences suggest that few Americans have regular exposure to progressive discourses of race and public policy, and communication scholars have a role to play in changing that.Bursting the Bubble investigates how op-ed pages communicated racial disparities in the subprime mortgage and foreclosure debacle. The case study of editorial commentary on the subprime mortgage crisis reveals: (a) how the allegedly “race-neutral” topic of markets and consumers produces discourses of blame that demonize people of color and anti-racist policy programs; and (b) how the editorial pages can give readers a chance to reconsider “common sense” notions of race, wealth, and housing.

When a twenty-first century Father Coughlin can call the first biracial Black president a “racist… with deep seated hatred of white people” on a major cable channel, civility and facts are hard to find in dominant media discourses of race. Even in more sober arenas of public affairs programming, racial issues are usually embedded within frameworks that overemphasize individual acts or shocking stories. I suggest that scholars invest in bringing alternative ways of discussing race into public discussion, using an old-fashioned media venue: the op-ed pages of the newspaper.  Although it has many limitations, the op-ed page is one of the few dominant media spaces that allow for lengthy argumentation, presentation of evidence, and wide circulation.  Moreover, whatever other shortcomings traditional journalism has when it comes to race, the editorial page still subscribes to and draws legitimacy from the ideals of information exchange, argument, and civil discourse in a common search for good policy.

 I gathered ten years (2001-2010) of opinion pieces (op-eds, masthead editorials, letters to the editor, columns) from the dominant press to explore the following questions:

(1)  What themes and explanations emerged in editorials and letters to the editor about racial discrimination in mortgage lending?

(2)  When progressive themes surfaced in the opinion pages of the dominant press, how did they challenge dominant frames?

After sorting through the articles to find those that directly referenced people of color, I found a total of 53 editorials, letters to the editor, op-ed, and columns. Once gathered, I did close readings of each one to determine if its major themes resonated with dominant racial frames, or challenged them. 

The majority of the editorial materials were published between 2007 and 2010, perhaps reflecting the nature of the debate over the housing bubble. By 2007, the crash of the market forced a widespread consensus that the subprime market was a problem, but why and how it had become such a large problem was still a matter of discussion.  People of color who had taken out subprime loans soon became targets of interest in the public discussion of how the country got into the subprime mess, and how to prevent another burst bubble in the future.  The editorials were almost evenly divided between those that recycled dominant racial frames and those that challenged them.  The former concentrated on the culpability of individual actors, and cautioned that the state should not overreach in any new attempts to regulate the mortgage market. These pieces also ignored or distorted the history of racism in mortgage lending and other aspects of the housing business, and denied evidence of present-day discrimination. 

Many dominant editorials insisted that the crisis was the result of bad decisions by two sets of actors: ignorant borrowers and shady lenders. For example, a Los Angeles Times editorial that acknowledged banks had denied housing opportunities to “people solely based on race, sex, surname, or address” in the  “not-so-distant past.” However, the editors proclaimed that the subprime crisis was a function of a new pathology: financial illiteracy. “[T]his time around, we’re limited by too many choices rather than too few… financial illiteracy is the new redlining.” This effectively denies racial discrimination occurs in the current housing market, and places blame on consumers who continue to buy their kids “the latest cell phones.”

Progressive editorials, on the other hand, revisited the history of racial struggles in housing and finance, emphasizing evidence from studies about past and present-day discrimination against people of color.  These writers took care to re-educate readers about key policy measures, and illustrated how a laissez faire approach to civil rights laws had exacerbated the housing crisis.  Together, these pieces revealed how the “free market” does not operate in a colorblind manner.

Many progressive writers offered examples of state and federal home loan programs that had better success rates than the free market. For example, a New York Times writer pointed to successful programs in states like South Carolina that provided low-cost loans to minorities and low-income people.  The op-ed argued these state programs are proof that “something is not working in the traditional loan market,” and blaming minority and low-income buyers risks “squandering an opportunity to move past ill-formed moral discourse about poverty and its causes” instead of creating a system to “repair the housing market.”

Only one article managed to question one of the bedrock assumptions of the subprime crisis: that homeownership itself is always-already a social good. Economist Paul Krugman’s column questioned the way the government frames home owning vs. renting.

Here’s a question that is rarely asked, at least in Washington: Why should ever-increasing homeownership be a policy goal?... [T]he belief that you’re nothing if you don’t own a home is reflected in U.S. policy. Because the I.R.S. lets you deduct mortgage interest from your taxable income, but doesn’t let you deduct rent...(Krugman, 2008).

Krugman then described the unspoken assumptions about renters that support these policies: renters aren’t as “invested” and won’t take “responsibility” the way homeowners will.  These prejudices result in policy measures that give privileges to homeowners that distort the affordable housing market and disguise the risks of home ownership. Relatedly, because people of color are more likely to rent, racial prejudices can become intertwined with the myths of homeownership vs. renting. 

This case study reveals how race is imprinted on economic issues that seem to be “race-neutral.” The “free-market,” the “American Dream,” and the tax code have been shaped by racial inequalities.  Unfortunately, in most news accounts, the banality of racial discrimination is outside of the frame: each instance of racial injustice is usually greeted with surprise or disbelief. These reactions stem from a refusal to admit that race and racism are deeply entrenched parts of daily life.  A serious discussion of the subprime crisis requires us to retrain our eyes as we survey many of the guiding assumptions that undergird the meaning of housing and home, the composition of neighborhoods and the valuation of how we contribute to them, and the necessary conditions for engendering a sense of belonging and pride in our society.

About the author (s)

Catherine R. Squires

University of Minnesota

Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity & Equality