Beryl Satter

Beryl Satter

Fellow: Awarded 2015
Field of Study: U.S. History

Competition: US & Canada

My work has a dual focus: analyzing the history of psychologically-based approaches to reform, on one hand, and uncovering the structural, institutional mechanisms that create inequality on the other. The two are intertwined. Institutions are run by people who have their own complex allegiances, needs and understandings of the problems they confront. Yet given Americans’ tendency to favor personalized over structural analysis, I believe that elucidating the differences between the two is crucial to our future as a nation.

I trace my intellectual development to my discovery of feminism as a teenager in the 1970s. Feminism made immediate sense to me as a lens through which to understand my world. I went to graduate school so that I could uncover the history of women as thinkers and activists. My first book, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875-1920 (University of California Press, 1999), described the national scope of a now forgotten religious movement led by women and showed its complex impact on Progressive Era reform. It also interrogated the alternatively self-aggrandizing and self-blaming tendencies of the “New Thought” belief that one’s mental outlook was responsible for one’s situation.

My next project began with my curiosity about my father, attorney Mark J. Satter, who died in 1965 at the age of 49 (when I was six years old). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father had fought real estate speculators who exploited black homebuyers by selling them properties on harsh terms and at grossly inflated prices. His papers revealed a world of activists – attorneys like my father, but also journalists, community leaders, religious leaders, and even the occasional reform organization — who focused on the structural causes of racism and economic injustice. I connected my father’s activism to that of brilliant community organizers such as Saul Alinksy, Monsignor John J. Egan, Clyde Ross, Jack Macnamara, Henrietta Banks, and Ruth Wells. I also traced the activities of speculators who learned to game the system and thereby shaped the city at the same time as learned professors at the nearby University of Chicago were propounding theories of urban decline that bore little relationship to on-the-ground realities. I looked at other vectors of power in Chicago, including the Daley Machine, the judiciary, the mainstream bankers and realtors who tried to shape housing and urban renewal policies, and various reform organizations. My Chicago research culminated in my book Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

Family Properties won the Organization of American Historian’s Liberty Legacy Award for best work in civil rights history, and the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award in history (both 2010). It was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize (2010) and for the Ron Ridenhouer Book Prize (2009). In manuscript form, it had also been a finalist for the Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for Exceptional Works of Non-Fiction (2004). It was designated an “Honor Book” by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (2010) and as one of the top ten books of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Booklist, the Newberry Library, and the Progressive magazine. It also led to my winning the Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research from Rutgers University (2011).

The people I wrote about in Family Properties taught me a lot about community organizing and social change. From their example, I realized that academics could be responsive to community needs (as opposed to using surrounding communities as “subjects” for academically-defined research projects). One result was my creation, along with activist and writer Darnell Moore, of the Queer Newark Oral History Project. It was launched after Moore and I held a community meeting in 2011 to see what Newark’s LGBT leaders most wanted from Rutgers University-Newark. For my work on the Queer Newark project, I received the Hetrick-Martin Institute’s “Bridge to Brick City” award for advocacy on behalf of LGBT youth in Newark (2014), as well as several awards from Rutgers University for service to the school’s LGBT community.

I’m delighted that the Guggenheim Foundation is supporting my third book project. It examines the relationship between capitalism and racism via the history of ShoreBank, a bank holding company that tackled the problem of African-Americans’ historic exclusion from fairly priced credit. Obviously one bank or institution could not overcome the multiple ways that the drive for profit makes use of and solidifies racial discrimination. My hope is that the story of a bank that tried to overcoming credit discrimination can highlight the structural blocks that we need to confront in order to take the profit out of racism. I am also committed to treating the people involved as three-dimensional human beings who, like any other, faced limitations and possibilities as they attempted to negotiate the complexities of their personal and structural situation. This sensitivity to individual characters is how history as a discipline differs from economics, sociology, political science, or other approaches one might take to my topic. Attention to human relationships is what made Family Properties the success that it was. If the ShoreBank project succeeds in illuminating dynamics between racism and capitalism for a wider audience, that will be why; because it includes the human complexity that characterizes the historical discipline at its best.

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