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Home Buying While Brown or Black

By Eric Gutstein

In December 2002, I gave my students the mortgage project. (See box for sample questions.) The entire project is available at www.teachersforjustice.org. This lesson was challenging because the article from the Chicago Tribune was confusing, the mathematics was complicated, and terms were used without definition. But it was clear that in Chicago, African Americans were rejected five times as often as whites, and Latinos were rejected for mortgage loans three times as often as whites. This was true across all income levels, negating income alone as an explanation.

The project took almost three weeks of homework and in-class time. Students worked mainly in groups, although all wrote individual essays. I had most of the students rewrite their essays one or two times, usually because they did not adequately support arguments, and most groups reworked other parts of the project as well. We ended with two days of students reading their essays aloud and trying to arrive at individual and group understandings. Throughout the lesson, students were extremely engaged in the project.

When I look at their projects, essays, and journals, several themes are apparent. First, many students learned that it was difficult to know if racism was a factor. Many students changed their minds, often more than once, after rethinking, further questioning and investigating, and listening to their peers' essays. I considered this important, because too often students (and adults) gravitate to simplistic "all-or-nothing" solutions and overlook real-world complexities. Most appeared comfortable with ambiguity and the realization that they needed more data to answer the question. For example, Jesse wrote:

[Racism] is a factor because white applicants no matter what their income was, they were always denied less times than African Americans and Latinos. And it is also is a factor because the ratio of applicants denied between African Americans and whites is 5:1 and between Latinos and whites is 3:1. That data shows that racism is a factor.

There are always two sides to a story. Racism is not a factor because we do not know whether or not those people had bad credit or were unemployed. It could be possible that a lot of those people could have been in debt. Even though the banks want to make loans they also want to make sure that they get paid.

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