A House Is Not a Home:
Dreaming about Property in America


When asked what her dreams are, Star (Sasha Lane), the displaced, teenage protagonist of Andrea Arnold’s 2016 feature, American Honey, tells a sympathetic trucker that she wants to get her own place—a trailer where she can raise a family. Always just out of reach, the imagined home propels her forward as she travels between towns selling magazine subscriptions, at one point accepting cash in exchange for a sexual encounter with an oil worker. Set on the open road, the film repeatedly depicts the homes of Star’s potential customers—lavish mansions whose inhabitants thoughtlessly discard jewelry amongst piles of presents or happily offer cash to watch the spunky teenager drink tequila. Honey is Arnold’s inaugural portrait of American culture, a bold, dreamy declaration that, regardless of race or class, the goal of homeownership inspires us all.

American Honey, 2016

In identifying a home of one’s own as the deeply held fantasy of Star and her mentor-cum-boyfriend Jake (Shia LaBouf), Arnold taps into longstanding perceptions of the home as a foundational component of the “American Dream,” a mutable term that promises the reward of upward mobility in exchange for individualism and drive. The home has occupied a central position in visions of American prosperity for centuries, suggesting an abundance of material and moral riches. It is depicted as a method for building and bestowing equity, and as a space that is both conducive to familial bonding and rife with potential to signify personal success.[1]  

Its mythology is strikingly resilient and bolstered by a longstanding association with family values. Continually remerging as the par excellence emblem of the good life, it has endured corruption, market downturns, and public suspicion. In the wake of the Great Recession, restoring homeownership for “responsible middle-class families” was amongst Barack Obama’s top priorities.

But it is worthwhile to consider how the home’s longstanding hold on American hearts and minds has often served to further stratify wealth, and to separate people based on race, class, and criminality.

“Freedom From Want,” Normal Rockwell, 1943

The contemporary culture and business of homeownership germinated in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, when Norman Rockwell was tasked by the Saturday Evening Post to render Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 promise to deliver the American people “Freedom from Want,” he created a now-iconic image of a family gathered for a bountiful Thanksgiving.

Directly linked to political discourse intended to address the trauma of the Great Depression, “Freedom From Want” depicted the home as a site of comfort and family bonding, updating frontier fantasies in treatment that laid the foundation for future re-inscriptions of the home as the locus of American prosperity.

Commercials regularly draw upon the association between home and family to underline their products' role in important life experiences, positioning items ranging from soup to insurance within traditional domestic tableaux in order to provoke an emotional response.

The continuity between historic and contemporary images of wellbeing as symbolized by a peaceful, comfortable home of one’s own is striking. Advertisements have regularly used a combination of light, familial bonding, and warm colors to depict the home as a sanctuary. Other works, ranging from Frank Capra’s progressive film It’s a Wonderful Life to contemporary reality television shows focused on real estate, present the home as a way to transform one’s life and ascend personally and socially.[2]

In more recent history, expanding homeownership has been central to the campaigns of a bipartisan array of politicians. In 1995, Bill Clinton proudly cited homeownership as a cornerstone of the American Dream as he promoted a new strategy to create eight million new homeowners by 2000. Promising that “The National Homeownership Strategy: Partners in the American Dream” would “address the practical needs of people who are trying to build their own personal version of the American dream,” he announced his plan with a commonplace recapitulation of recent American history, citing the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill as key predecessors. Wistfully describing these as generators of “the greatest period of expansion of middle class dreams any country has ever seen anywhere in human history,” he credited them with creating an era where “home ownership expanded as incomes rose, jobs increased, [and] the educational level of the American people improved.” For Clinton, homeownership was not only a cornerstone of the American good life, but crucial to the cultivation of American morality. Adopting a moralizing nostalgia reminiscent of the Reagan administration, he declared:

We just had a report come out last week asserting that it may be that up to one-third of our children are now born out of wedlock. You want to reinforce family values in America, encourage two-parent households, get people to stay home? Make it easy for people to own their own homes and enjoy the rewards of family life and see their work rewarded.[3]

He further expounded upon this connection in the strategy’s introduction, promising:

Expanding homeownership will strengthen our nation's families and communities, strengthen our economy, and expand this country’s great middle class.[4]

Clinton’s message was clear: homeownership was an essential part of the American good life, vital to advancement, and an essential tool for cultivating American virtue. Shortly thereafter, the subprime lender Ameriquest, which dubbed itself “Proud Sponsor of the American Dream,” had its loans financed by the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae).[5]

Clinton’s successor George W. Bush used similar rhetoric:

We can put light where there’s darkness, and hope where there’s despondency in this country. And part of it is working together as a nation to encourage folks to own their own home.[6]

Clinton and Bush proudly claimed that fulfilling middle-class Americans’ desire for homeownership would productively spur other kinds of economic growth. Clinton happily described how “new homeowner consumers” would “need more durable goods.” Bush plainly stated,“[H]omeownership is also an important part of our economic vitality.”[7] This seamless linking of American virtue, homeownership, and consumerism draws upon rhetoric that began to rise in the postwar period when the perceived moral benefits of the family home became crucial to stoking mass consumerism. Efforts to encourage purchasing among homeowners was so effective during this period that in the first five years after World War II spending on household furnishings increased by 240%, compared to just a 60% increase in overall consumer spending.[8]

    General Electric, 1943

In the years following the 2008 housing crisis and Great Recession, political and public discourse shifted from promoting the expansion of the American Dream to decrying its loss and demanding its retrieval. In the wake of research disseminated by Trulia and Zillow, articles such as “Why Millennials are Shut out of The American Dream: Buying a house isn’t as easy as it used to Be” in Huffpost Business or “Why millenials are staying away from homeownership despite an improving economy” in the Los Angeles Times have portrayed declining homeownership as a break from historical precedent, alluding to a past where American wealth and ideals were intact.[9] This nostalgia is equally evident in popular and political culture, both of which draw upon and reinforce myths about American history.

In his first campaign ad of 2016, Ted Cruz promoted himself as a traditional candidate with footage of his family gathered around the dining room table in prayer. An adaptation of bountiful image of Freedom From Want, Cruz’s ad anticipated the reactionary nostalgia that dominates political discourse on the right.

In 2013, speaking in Phoenix in the wake of the deflated housing bubble, President Barack Obama said:

Today I’ve come to Phoenix to talk about the second component, which is the most tangible cornerstone that lies at the heart of the American Dream, at the heart of middle-class life—and that’s the chance to own your own home.[10]

He rehearsed a history of American homeownership similar to the one traced by Bill Clinton eight years prior, describing the GI Bill and FHA as the creators of a generation for whom a “home was more than just a house. It was a source of pride and a source of security.”[11] Yet, while stoking patriotism and celebrating the federal government’s past triumphs, references to post-war policy risk suggesting a false history of American equity in which homeownership functioned as a broadly beneficial aspect of American life.

The description of the “home” as “more than just a house” is particularly apt in its acknowledgement of houses as evoking a disproportionate degree of gauzy sentimentality. As a home (residential property with a high level of emotional attachment), houses are powerful tools for evoking nostalgia, substantiating historical fictions, propelling reactionary rhetoric, and promoting traditional values. This emotional impact is buttressed by the received wisdom that owning property is one of the best ways to build and bestow wealth.

During the years following the World War II, the United States underwent substantial suburban expansion. Particularly famous amongst these suburban developments were William Levitt's Levittowns—planned communities of rapidly constructed, single-family dwellings.

Absent from romantic recollections of the mid-century American home is the extent to which federal, state, and local governments deliberately invested in homeownership as a way to entrench segregation—a historical omission that is central to both American nostalgia and home ownership’s ongoing cultural prominence.[12]

The resulting myth has been so influential that it resonates across the political spectrum. Politicians, filmmakers, and advocates speak of the home as something that is more than mere property. Even when not intended to contribute to a reactionary political project, romanticizations of the American home fuel a nostalgia that upholds the American Dream as a reality, and in doing so conceals its racially exclusionary underpinnings. One of the few pieces of popular cinema to consider the impact of the housing crisis on working-class Americans, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, is a particularly compelling example of how depictions of American homeownership can simultaneously critique contemporary policy and insulate its foundational mythology. Told from the perspective of a working-class white man, it is both a powerful post-Great Recession indictment of capitalism run amok and an emotional homage to the family home.

Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a recently evicted construction worker who goes to work for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the corrupt real estate broker who repossessed his house. The men hold strikingly different views on homeownership, with Carver, a ruthless individualist, insisting that houses are just property.

A sensitive single father committed to caring for his mother and son, Dennis expresses a different set of ideals. Pleading with a judge in order to keep his home, Dennis says, “I was born and raised in this home, he [his son] was born and raised in that home too…we’ve lived there our whole lives.” His (ultimately disregarded) appeal places value on the American past, arguing that his family’s longstanding relationship to property should have moral and legal relevance. 

99 Homes, 2014

The home in question is a ranch-style suburban dwelling set behind a green lawn, crowded with children’s toys and located amidst other “family homes” populated by friendly neighbors and their children. As depicted in establishing and interior shots, the design of the residence and neighborhood are consistent with notions of suburban living associated with postwar prosperity.[13] This neighborhood is posited as the appropriate and natural setting for Dennis’ personal narrative, and is starkly contrasted with the racially diverse, crowded motel to which his family is forced to relocate after being evicted, “They’re not like us,” Dennis tells his son and his mother at the motel.

The home is the film’s dominant symbol of affluence, power, and familial stability, with its loss portrayed as a source of degradation and emasculation. The lost home demonstrates that within the recession economy, Dennis cannot provide for his family. His mother must relocate her home business, his son is forced out of school, the family’s treasured possessions are abandoned curbside, and Dennis can no longer find honest work. But the film carefully and consistently situates Dennis’ struggles in relation to the broader erosion of the social and economic safety net, and the film’s primary narrative is interspersed with depictions of its crumbling: crowded dockets at foreclosure court, an aging man being forced from his home, construction crews being sent home without pay, and a desperate homeowner taking water from a nearby residence. Though acknowledging the struggles of Dennis’ and Rick’s fathers, the film’s depiction of the (inherited) family home as a site rich with memories and history, and particularly worthy of salvation, is suffused with nostalgia for a time of domestic stability.

In contrasting the sympathetic Dennis’ belief that his house is more than equity with Rick’s cynical insistence that houses are just “boxes,” the film echoes both Barack Obama’s declaration that a “home was more than just a house” and Bill Clinton’s promise that increasing American home ownership was “about more than money and sticks and boards and windows.”[14] Unable to comprehend that houses are homes, Rick is a corrupting force living in a sterile McMansion, a heartless villain who lacks the emotional intelligence to value the wellbeing of others over the bottom line.[15]

99 Homes, 2014

The film’s sentimental take on the American home, rich with emotionally charged depictions of lovingly decorated domestic space, is of a piece with the political claim that homeownership is at the core of the American Dream, and must therefore be expanded and protected from decline. Yet, in focusing on the experiences of two white, male protagonists and assigning heightened emotional significance to the (inherited) family home, 99 Homes also largely sidesteps the housing crisis’ devastating and disproportionate impact on minority homeowners. 

For decades prior to the subprime crisis, segregation had left minority homeowners vulnerable to discriminatory pricing and loans, as well as rejection by leasers, banks, and neighborhood associations. Combined with targeted, predatory lending, a long history of homeownership functioning as a method to stratify power led to Black and Latino Americans’ being disproportionately devastated by the housing crisis.[16] In Orlando, where only 47% of Black residents were homeowners compared to 74% of white residents, massive foreclosures dealt a crippling blow to the community’s primary source of wealth.[17]

A former slave state, Florida’s discriminatory housing policies developed during reconstruction. In an effort to maintain the appearance of racial homogeneity, Orlando civic leaders advertised the city as predominantly white, with one 1881 promotion declaring: “This is white man’s country, there are but few negroes among us.”[18] In reality, the Orlando of that time was increasingly diverse, and creating a veneer of whiteness required the establishment of racially segregated residential neighborhoods. Speaking in 1925, and acknowledging the difficulty of legally enforcing a “Negro Zone,” the city commissioner observed:

Of course I fully realize that any action the city may take in thus segregating the negroes would have no standing in court. But I believe the negroes will cooperate in observing these boundaries, and public sentiment will or should secure the cooperation of all whites who do not put the almighty dollar ahead of the welfare of their city. (Orlando City Council Minutes, book 10, 292).[19]

Though not legally enforced, segregation was entrenched enough that between the 1920s and 1950s the city council regularly referred to neighborhoods as  “colored zone[s]” and their demarcations as a “negro zoning line.”[20] In the 1940s, Orlando’s Zoning Commission meanwhile discovered a more effective and legally permissible method for maintaining residential segregation: racially restrictive covenants.[21]

Restrictive covenants, racial restrictions on who can buy, sell, or reside on a piece of land, gained popularity following a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found government-instituted racial segregation unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. However, as the Orlando Zoning Commission would discover, restrictive covenants, because they were deeded restrictions on private property, could be defended on the grounds that they were not subject to the same limitations as public zoning regulations.

Bolstered by a cultural and legal valuation of the benefits of private property, racially restrictive covenants, encouraged though not enacted by the government, played a key role in sustaining housing segregation.

Developed in response to the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was built on the promise of “equitable opportunity” and played a tremendous role in shaping American homeownership. The cornerstones of New Deal housing initiatives were the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC), established by Roosevelt in 1933, and the National Housing Act, which passed in 1934 and created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Prior to these initiatives, prospective homeowners often had to accept a “balloon mortgage,” paying fifty percent up front, interest over the course of five years, and the principal at the end of the loan period. While the high down payment reserved homeownership for the wealthy, the interest-only payments increased the likelihood of default. Intended to revitalize the housing market, the HOLC and FHA encouraged banks and lenders to invest in the housing market and offer long-term, self-amortizing mortgages. In order to protect lenders’ investments, they also developed standardized methods for appraising homes and predicting their future value. The resulting criteria privileged construction over renovation, favored single-family houses, deemed racially diverse neighborhoods unstable, and openly endorsed racially restrictive covenants as a way to prevent “undesirable encroachment.”

Neighborhoods were ranked based on their value. Dense, racially mixed, and aging communities received the lowest rating of “D” and were color-coded red on Residential Security Maps—a practice now known as “redlining.”[22] By directly linking the value of homes—and, by extension, personal wealth—to neighborhoods’ racial homogeneity, the federal government provided homeowners with an economic, and therefore only implicitly racist, justification for maintaining segregation that could thrive in the American north and west.

Home Owners' Loan Corporation Security Map of Philadelphia, 1936

By controlling access to homeownership while situating the American home as essential to building wealth and power, the New Deal and an array of subsequent policies and legislation virtually ensured the calcification of traditional power structures privileging white Americans. Selectively expanded homeownership was additionally supported by the 1944 Serviceman’s Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to as the GI Bill, which provided support for returning veterans by subsidizing loans for homes and education, and by providing unemployment benefits. The act was tailored to primarily support the upward mobility of men, both because men constituted the majority of returning servicemen, and because they enjoyed the position of provider in the postwar American imagination. As Lizbeth Cohen has noted, female veterans were less likely to enjoy the fruits of the GI Bill than the heterosexually coupled military wives who shared in their husbands’ benefits.[23]

Subsequent changes to the tax code and zoning endowed American homeowners with greater political influence, access to civic resources, and economic opportunity. The Revenue Act of 1951 enabled homeowners to retain wealth by exempting from capital gains tax the reinvested profits from the sale of a home. Large lot zoning limited the numbers of residences in a community. Incorporation ensured that homeowners’ tax dollars primarily subsidized infrastructure reserved for themselves and their neighbors.[24] Given that the populations of many suburbs were shaped by restrictive housing covenants, incorporation contributed to a widening gap in resources and infrastructure between diverse urban centers and white suburbs.[25] This gap was compounded by affluent homeowners’ disproportionate influence in local government, an imbalance evident in the construction of freeways and placement of polluting and toxic facilities near neighborhoods heavily populated by renters, low-income residents, and people of color.[26]

Like 99 Homes, the home and homeownership are the emotional core and narrative impetus for Walter Mosley’s 1990 noir Devil in a Blue Dress. The novel takes place in 1948, amidst the post-WWII housing boom and the same year that the Supreme Court found racial covenants on housing unenforceable.[27] Yet, the novel’s protagonist Easy (Ezekiel) Rawlins continually endures nakedly and tacitly racist assaults on his property. 

The novel takes place in historically Black South Los Angeles, traversing Watts, Compton, and the jazz clubs of Central Avenue. Set during the period tenderly described by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as the heyday for homeownership, Devil in a Blue Dress scrutinizes the era’s alleged promise. Informed by Mosley’s knowledge of the long history of trauma and institutional racism connecting the fictionalized past to the present (1990), Devil in a Blue Dress is the story of the American Dream’s inherent limitations. Easy’s attempts to keep his home force him into a world of white, political corruption and racial violence. Subject to the white gaze, he slips from precarious respectability to criminality—a transition that bespeaks a broader synchronicity between the simultaneous production of mass homeownership and ghettos, poverty, and mass incarceration.

Mosley introduces Easy as a veteran on the book’s first page, briefly evoking the standard narrative of postwar prosperity in order to undermine it. He served in a segregated division in the army, and, like thousands of others, was drawn to Los Angeles by the promise of employment in its burgeoning manufacturing industry. However, despite his skill, he is discriminated against at work and eventually fired after a long day on the job—a narrative turn that reflects the lack of recourse available to industrial workers following the dismantling of the FEPC in 1946.[28] Formerly running with a rough crowd in Houston, Texas, Easy followed the path of thousands of southern Blacks west in search of economic opportunity and social mobility.[29] Acknowledging the scale of this postwar migration, Mosley describes a bar on Central Avenue where half the people hail from Houston.

Walter Mosley grew up in Watts at the intersection of 76th and Central, and the book frankly acknowledges the racialization of the postwar cityscape. The story begins when Dwight Albright, a white man in a Panama straw hat and white linen suit, enters a bar in South Los Angeles. Easy observes, “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s Bar.” Albright’s appearance in Black Los Angeles sets the rest of the narrative in motion, as he draws Easy into a scheme to locate Daphne Monet, a beautiful woman with light hair, whom, Albright says, “likes jazz and pigs’ feet.” Albright says that Daphne travels through spaces where he cannot follow because of his “persuasion.” Though initially retained to locate Daphne within Los Angeles’ Black community, Easy’s case soon draws him to Alvarado Street, Santa Monica, and Hollywood. Easy’s forays into these neighborhoods expose him to condescension and intimidation, with each interaction foregrounding unofficial methods for maintaining segregation.

Easy takes the case to pay the mortgage for his little house on 116th street, a home that makes him feel “as good as any white man.”[30] However, after accepting Albright’s offer, Easy’s homeownership immediately becomes precarious. Official channels (banks, government, and law enforcement) of power pay no mind to his legal ownership of the property, repeatedly representing themselves as exclusively serving white citizens. He is regularly violated at his home, first by police officers who threaten to put “a bullet in his head” and then by Albright who declares: “You take my money and you belong to me…When you’re in debt you can’t be your own man. That’s capitalism.”[31]

Having traveled north from Texas to rescue Easy, his friend Mouse notes: “You learn stuff and you be thinkin’ that what’s right for them is right fo’ you.” Mouse’s analysis echoes Easy’s own observation that “when I got that mortgage I found that I needed more than just friendship.”[32] The men are describing Easy’s attempt to participate in white society, to physically and socially transcend Los Angeles’ spatial segregation in order to attain a broader respectability.[33]Yet, the unjustified and brutal violence Easy repeatedly endures during his journey suggest that the American Dream isn’t actually reserved for the respectable (employed, responsible), but instead for white Americans hiding behind a mantle of respectability.

Analyzing the novel in the context of a broader history of detective fiction, Theodore Mason observes that while Devil in a Blue Dress parallels other detective novels’ exploration of social transgression, Easy’s primary transgression is quest for a stable middle-class life and racial equality.  Or, as Mason explains, Easy “[violates] the ‘inviolable’ metaphorical and literal spaces and categories a racist society requires to get on with its business.”[34]

Devil in a Blue Dress was published the same year as City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, author Mike Davis’ history-cum-scathing critique of the consequences of privatization. On the precipice of “the developer’s millennium,” Davis observed that throughout the city’s history, each reorientation of power had been defined by “restructurings of the political economy of land development.”[35] Charting a path from nineteenth-century boosterism to 1980s police militarization and violent anti-gang initiatives, Davis reveals the relationship between the city’s foundational land boom, the subsequent consolidation of power amongst landowners, and the marginalization and criminalization of everyone else—particularly people of color. Davis attributes the city’s “spatial apartheid” to a combination of propaganda, architecture, planning, and policing, describing a city where police enforce racialized geographic boundaries and serve homeowners.

Both authors’ historical perspectives were undoubtedly informed by recent police action within the residences of Black Angelenos. In 1979, Eulia Love, a recently widowed mother living in South Central Los Angeles was shot eight times by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department following a dispute over an unpaid $22.09 gas bill.[36] Following her husband’s death, she depended on $680 a month in Social Security checks to pay her $192.18 mortgage and other living expenses. When approached by the officers over the unpaid bill, Mrs. Love hacked a tree in her front yard with a knife and was subsequently shot. A money order for $22.09 was found in her purse.[37] Instead of providing her with sanctuary, Love’s home became the basis for Love’s criminality, imbricating her into a system of undue financial burden and unrelenting disciplinary retaliation. Nine years later, in August of 1988, a news crew captured the aftermath of a raid conducted by eighty-eight police officers on the apartments at 39th and Dalton, located in South Los Angeles near Exposition Park.[38] The raid was conducted under the auspices of Operation HAMMER, an aggressive police initiative against gang violence. Officers punched through walls, tore apart furniture, ripped down cabinets and scrawled “LAPD Rules” on the walls. For the dozens of residents forced from the building, the cavalier raid revealed the penetrability of the home and the ongoing legacy of segregation. Residing in a racially fortified community produced by segregation, the tenants at 39th and Dalton were particularly vulnerable to police action deliberately designed to target and discipline the city’s Black population.

Aftermath of LAPD raid at 39th and Dalton, as reported by K-CAL, 1988

The arbitrary criminalization of Black homeowners reoccurs throughout Devil in a Blue Dress, which acknowledges the police and government as systems intended to control instead of disperse access to power. The novel ends somewhat ambivalently with Easy keeping his home through assistance from Mouse and Mr. Carter, a powerful white politician. As he leaves City Hall, having been cleared of all charges, he has a last encounter with a police officer and then observes, “It might be that the last moment of my adult life, spent free, was in that walk down the City Hall stairwell.”[39] While attaining friends in high places and learning to game a system that has repeatedly abused him, Easy also perceives his respite as precarious. It is notable that the novel’s sequel, Red Death, sees Easy picking up a case in order to save his house from the IRS.

Released in 1995, the film adaptation of Devil was a lusciously shot prestige picture starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. The film was produced after the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King and subsequent Los Angeles Uprising. Though lacking some of the novel’s grit, and visually rendering historic Los Angeles in a seductive palate, the film also complicates the salvation of Easy’s home by including the newspaper headline “Negroes Angered by New Property Restrictions” in its final scene. The sequence ends with an idyllic portrait of Easy strolling through his neighborhood, observing via voiceover, “I sat with my friend on my porch at my house and we laughed a long time.” Considering the film in relation to the city’s recent unrest, author Vincent Brook observed that though at first blush the ending “can only be taken as highly ironic,” it can also be analyzed as evincing a survival tactic informed by Du Bois’ double consciousness—an evaluation of the self through the eyes of others.[40] As an idyllic image that fails to truly mask underlying corruption, the shot is also an exemplar of the trope of “sunshine noir.” At the film’s conclusion the viewer has already witnessed the vulnerability of Easy’s status as a homeowner and the city’s crooked political systems.

Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995

In a culture gripped by a fervor for reactionary nostalgia, critical depictions of home ownership offer vital opportunities to disentangle American property from the accompanying web of mythology and idealism—to sever the tangible house from the emotionally laden home in order to more clearly see home ownership’s relationship to economics, race, and power. It is a way to push the past off its pedestal and to acknowledge how promises made to the many regularly served the few. Redressing the history of homeownership also productively chips away at the political force of nostalgia by acknowledging how appeals to historical legitimacy—particularly in the form of sunny recollections—effectively shield corrosive policies from critique.

In many ways the GI Bill and FHA were flawed and deliberately discriminatory, expanding homeownership while demarcating its boundaries and consistently granting white Americans the opportunity to acquire and bestow equity. Devil in a Blue Dress’ historical fiction productively contributes to an expanded political imagination— demanding that readers conceive of the possibilities of homeownership within and beyond systemic racism.

Bringing historical footage to bear on contemporary political rhetoric, Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th pairs statements by Donald Trump with historic footage of racialized violence. It demands the viewer acknowledge the actual past evoked by nostalgic rhetoric, laying bare what writers for The Atlantic Peter Beinart and Robert P. Jones have observed as nostalgia’s deliberate appeal to white male voters who fear their power is waning.[41] Considering the importance of history, scholar William Deverell once observed that in order to change the future we must “[dig] into the soil” of the past. As general appeals to nostalgia, generated within, and intended to perpetuate, white supremacy threaten to eclipse historical reality, we need to dig more than ever.


Alison Kozberg
is a writer, researcher, and programmer who specializes in alternative cinema and the relationship between media and history. She holds a M.A. in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California and is currently Program Manager of Moving Image at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and a Board Member and Project Curator for Los Angeles Filmforum. Her essay “The Cost of Landscape: Looking Back at Some of Southern California’s Lawns ” appeared in our fall2015 issue. Her essay “Bergman in ‘68: Envisioning Disaster in Shame” appeared in our winter2014 issue.



[1] Histories of American mythology regularly link property’s central position in the American imaginary to Thomas Jefferson’s endorsement of prosperity as achieved through the acquisition of land. This passion for the pastoral laid an ideological foundation for the suburban fantasy of the private residence flanked by well-maintained greenery. Nineteenth century writers Catherine Beecher and Andrew Jackson Downing’s subsequent endorsements of the private home expounded upon the fantasy of private property, domestic space, and controlled contact with nature as sources of virtue and wellbeing; See Kenneth T. Jackson Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; Lawrence R. Samuel The American Dream: A Cultural History, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012; Analyzing the relationship between the American Dream and fictional histories of Los Angeles, Karen Voss observes that such stories routinely spatialize the American Dream through property ownership. Karen Voss “Replacing L.A.: Mi Familia, Devil in a Blue Dress and Screening the Other Los Angeles,” Wide Angle 20.3 (1998), 2.

[2] Drew Harwell, “How ‘House Hunters’ became the most unstoppable juggernaught on tv,” The Washington Post, 25 January 2016.

[3] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The National Homeownership Strategy: Partners in the American Dream,” May 1995.

[4] William J. Clinton, “Remarks on the National Homeownership Strategy,” 5 June 1995. For analysis of Clinton’s policy see Peter Coy, “Clinton’s drive to homeownership went way too far,” Bloomberg News, 25 Feb. 2006.

[5] Kate Aaron and Michael Lawson, “Timeline: Homeownership in America 1995-2010,” Mother Jones, 29 July 2011.

[6] George W. Bush, on October 15, 2002, quoted in Jo Becker, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Stephen Labaton: “Bush Drive for Homeownership Fueled the Housing Bubble,” New York Times, 21 Dec. 2008.

[7] George W. Bush, “Conference on Minority Home Ownership,” 15 October 2002.

[8] As Elaine Tyler May notes, homeownership was also promoted as a safeguard against communism. See Elaine Tyler May “The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home” in Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (ed. Lawrence B. Glickman, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[11] Ibid.

[12] In a recent article published in Hyperallergic, Lenore Metrick-Chen uses an analysis of nineteenth-century American advertising cards to demonstrate the long history of using idyllic, domestic imagery to promote white supremacy. Lenore Metrick-Chen, “How Trump Trades on Nostalgia for a Mythic White America,” Hyperallergic, 17 August 2016.

[13] See Witold Rybczynski, “The Ranch House Anomaly: How America Fell in and Out of Love With Them,” Slate, 17 April 2007; Katherine Salant, “The Ranch an Architectural Archetype Forged on the Frontier,” Washington Post, 30 December 2006.

[14] Obama, “Remarks by the President on Responsible Homeownership”; William J. Clinton, “Remarks on the National Homeownership Strategy,” 5 June 1995.

[15] When Dennis’ corruption finally comes, it is in the form of his own sterile McMansion. In recent years the McMansion has emerged as a dominant symbol of excessive consumerism, particularly strikingly in Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Queen of Versailles (2012), a critical depiction of David and Jackie Siegel’s quest to build one of the largest single-family homes in the United States. In contrast to portrayals of the home as sanctuary, depictions of expansive mansions—with Citizen Kane as a notable example—present excess as an isolating force.

[17] Jeff Kunerth, “Foreclosure Crisis Hits Hard in Black Communities,” Orlando Sentinel, 4 May 2008.

[18] Kristen Larsen, “Harmonious Inequality? Zoning, Public Housing and Orlando’s Separate City, 1920-1945,” Journal of Planning History, May 2002, vol. 1 no. 2: 159.

[19] Ibid., 177.

[20] Ibid., 170.

[21] Ibid., 172.

[22] Jackson, 193-197; Cohen, 227.

[23] Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003; 138.

[24] Ibid.,146.

[25] For a study on how incorporation allowed suburbs to benefit from county resources at a lower tax burden see Michan Andrew Connor, “‘Public Benefits from Public Choice’: Producing Decentralization in Metropolitan Los Angeles, 1954-1973,” Journal of Urban History 39; Cohen, 232.

[26] Pulido, Laura (2000) “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 90, no. 1: 12-40

[27] Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) held that courts could not enforce racially restrictive covenants.

[28] The FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Committee) was created to enforce Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order banning discrimination in hiring for jobs in defense and government.  Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present University of California, 2004: 60.

[29] Between 1940 and 1950 an influx of migrants caused the African-American population of Los Angeles increased from 75,209 to over 200,000. Susan Anderson “A City Called Heaven: Black Enchantment and Despair in Los Angeles,” The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996: 343.

[30] Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress, New York & London: Washington Square Press, 1990: 94.

[31] Ibid., 147-148.

[32] Ibid., 66.

[33] Easy’s struggle to attain legitimacy parallels Daphne’s, who, like Easy, attempts to transcend spatial segregation. While initially confounding the novel’s racial categorizations, Daphne is revealed to be a Black woman named Ruby. Yet, despite the revelation, Daphne still upsets Easy’s expectations, challenging his ability to recognize her race.

[34] Theodore O. Mason Jr., “Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction,” The Kenyon Review, New Series,vol. 14 no. 4 (Autumn, 1992): 179.

[35] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London & New York: Verso, 1990, 2006: 105.

[37] “Concerning the Shooting of Eulia Love,” Crime and Social Justice No. 14 (Winter 1980).

[38] Davis, 276.

[39] Mosley, 260.

[40] Vincent Brook Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles, New Brunswick, New Jersey, London; Rutgers University Press, 2013, 178-179. References to Du Bois appears throughout  Mosley’s cycle of Easy Rawlins novels with Easy reading The Souls of Black Folk in White Butterfly.

[41] Peter Beinart, “The Republican Obsession with ‘Restoring America,” The Atlantic, 13 November 2015, Ronald Regan is particularly important to the history that Beinart maps out: See, for example, To Restore America, Ronald Reagan’s Campaign Address, 31 March 1976.