Long before ratification of the Constitution, racialized economic practices were written into American law through slave codes and legal rulings. Black people in the American colonies were officially, explicitly and selectively stripped of their humanity and converted into commodities.1 Whites, though often subjected to exploitative labor contracts, were protected by their race from such commodification and therefore excluded from the economic systems in which Black people were readily exchangeable.

American slavery came to an end when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, advancing approximately four million Blacks from a state of objecthood to subjecthood. No longer were Black people property — instead, they could own it.2 However, the entanglement of race, law and economics has persisted through emancipation to the present day.3 Legal scholars including Pittsburgh’s own Derrick Bell have demonstrated this persistence in manifold areas of law and society, but in few places is this fact more poignantly realized than at the site of the home.4

There are two methods by which the value of a home is measured and integrated into larger economic systems. In the private sector, companies estimate the market value of property through appraisals. These valuations are used to determine listing prices, mortgage amounts and refinancing rates. They may also influence the terms of loans or lines of credit that position home equity as collateral. In the public sector, counties estimate the market values of homes through assessments and apply fixed rates to these estimates to determine annual property taxes.

Today, the Blackness of a homeowner has been shown to decrease the appraisal value of real property by dramatic margins. Meanwhile, counties across the country continue to rely on outdated and bureaucratically insulated assessment practices that systematically overtax low-income and non-White homeowners.5 As a result, Black people remain subjected to an economic system distinct from that of Whites — a system in which homes are commercially devalued and subject to higher taxation. When compounded with research on racial lending disparities and the lingering effects of redlining on homeownership, these contemporary inequalities reveal how the “bedrock of American wealth” is designed to erode under Black feet.

The research, material artworks, financial interventions and public outreach that constitute Sed Valorem6 seek to reveal, interrogate and redress, in part, certain discriminatory tax- and sale-based aspects of homeownership and the housing market in Pittsburgh while situating them as a continuation of America’s longstanding legacy of racialized property law and valuation.

*This statement was first displayed by Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory Museum in making home here, a group show curated by Sean Beauford and Sylvia Rohr Samaniego.


Notes

1 Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property” Harvard Law Review. 1993;8:1716. doi:10.2307/1341787

2 Though enslaved Blacks were permitted a degree of ownership over livestock and goods, de facto and de jure impediments to real property ownership were nearly universal in the antebellum South. See Copeland, Roy W. "In the Beginnings: Origins of African American Real Property Ownership in the United States." Journal of Black Studies. 2013;(44)6:646-664. doi:10.1177/0021934713506010

3 A simple measurement of racial wealth emphasizes the successes of these subordinating entanglements: when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the small population of free Blacks in America owned 0.5% of the country’s total wealth. Today, over 150 years later, Black Americans collectively own little over 1%. Baradaran, Mehrsa. The Color of Money - Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. 2017.

4 Bell, Derrick. Race, Racism, and American Law. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Law & Business, 2000.

5 See Howell, Junia and Elizabeth Korver-Glenn. “Neighborhoods, Race, and the Twenty-first-century Housing Appraisal Industry” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. 2018;4(4):473-490. doi:10.1177/2332649218755178; University of Chicago Center for Municipal Finance, “Property Tax Fairness” March 9, 2021; Avenancio-Leon, Carlos and Troup Howard. “The Assessment Gap: Racial Inequalities in Property Taxation” (Working Paper) Washington Center for Equitable Growth. October 5, 2020; and Kahrl, Andrew W. "The Power to Destroy: Discriminatory Property Assessments and the Struggle for Tax Justice in Mississippi." Journal of Southern History. 2016;(82)3:579-616. doi:10.1353/soh.2016.0165.

6 Ad valorem is a Latin term meaning “according to value” and is used in tax legislation to denote the total market value of an asset from which a percentage in tax can be charged. Sed Valorem appropriates the prefix se- or sed- meaning “without” or “apart” (as in segregation and sedition>) to suggest objects whose value is degraded or inverted. Sed Valorem may thus connote “devaluation,” a concept championed by the Brooking Institute’s Andre Perry to describe the chronic depreciation of Black property, and “anti-value,” coined by geographer David Harvey to describe objects of value removed from capitalist systems of production, exchange or debt.


Acknowledgements

Sed Valorem was realized in collaboration with Jordan Abbott, Claire Gorman and Hayley Haldeman. I would like to thank Richard Ernsberger, Ariam Ford-Graver, Bob Gradeck, Presley Gillespie, Jason Hobbes, Jared Kohler, Clifford Levine, Nick Drain and Annie Rosenthal for their time and advice. Additional thanks to Carlos Avenancio-León, Troup Howard and Andrew Kahrl, whose research inspired this project. Sed Valorem was made possible by the support of the making home here team, First National Bank and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Program, a partnership of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.


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