By Ruby Bolaria
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
“The search for home is the story of America. We cannot talk about equality without talking about that story.”
That was part of the message that Anita Hill delivered at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs on Thursday afternoon to an overflowing room. The event was part of an ongoing Social Welfare Speakers Series at UCLA’s Luskin School.
Hill is a Yale educated lawyer who gave courageous testimony during the 1991 Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. Her testimony sparked a national conversation on sexual harassment and women’s equality. During a Q-and-A after the talk, many members of the audience spoke of how her actions had inspired them to advocate for equality in their own communities. (View photos from Hill's visit)
In her new book, Reimagining Equality, she focuses on how housing and the idea of home relates to identity in a very basic and significant way. She highlights how people continue to be marginalized by race and gender, but now more than ever we as a population have an opportunity to rethink equality and create more inclusive societies.
“There is evidence that we are at a critical juncture in creating a just and fair society for all people,” she said.
Hill’s recent work focuses around how the housing crisis has disproportionally affected minority and low-income communities. According to Ms. Hill, during the crisis and now in the aftermath, the impacts of foreclosures on ethnic minorities and female-headed households are much higher and much more damaging.
“Four years after the crisis, approximately 60-75 percent of accumulated wealth in Latino and African-American communities has now been lost," she said. "Losses among single female headed households [who were the fastest growing homeowners] were the greatest and still not comprehensively calculated."
She described how, in some cases, toxic loan packages were targeted for minority low-income communities, with the evidence seen in the corresponding housing loss and shortage.
Hill emphasized a need to view housing policy within a greater lens to include access to jobs, security and political representation, among other factors. The vision of equality needs to include more than just a series of laws.
“Equality cannot be measured by an accumulation of rights alone," Hill said. "As a lawyer myself I know this is hard to accept, but we must be more holistic in our assessment of equality.”
The lesson about the limitation of laws and contracts became evident to Hill by looking into her own family history and learning about her grandparents' struggle to find "home."
Her grandfather was born a slave in a small town in Arkansas. After gaining his freedom, he was able to purchase, and successfully farm, 80 acres of land through new Homestead laws. While Hill's grandmother was never on any titles, she was able to find records of her grandfather’s titles and debt agreements. Her grandparents were making deals with former slave owners to start a new life.
Growing resentment from white neighbors, lynching threats and mounting debts caused the family to sell their land and move to Oklahoma. The story was passed down in various versions but the common thread was a feeling of exile and a true loss of home.
“One hundred years later and I feel we are still seeing the same kind of dispossession – within communities of color that were or have been stable; decades of economic accumulation being lost," Hill said. "The question now is how do we learn from these lessons to shape future policies?”
Ms. Hill attributed a severe lack of public awareness as a chief barrier to creating more inclusive societies. She also criticized the market approach to housing. People are at the whim of the market and those already marginalized – paying 50 percent or more of their income on housing – are further isolated from affordable housing in the market-based approach, she said.
“We have an economy built on the exclusion of people, and leaders need to think about the real consequences” she said, refereeing to the market-based housing approach.
She stressed the importance of livable wages, opportunity and affordable housing. She admittedly is still learning and working on how to make housing more affordable – a challenge she posed to UCLA Luskin scholars to take on with her.
Her call to action for UCLA Luskin students as leaders was to learn how to connect work with the human spirit. Scholars often question if activists can be scholars or scholars can be activists. According to Hill, the rigor needed today demands diverse intellectual thought.
She concluded that there is no better time to touch humanity with research and scholarly pursuits. She urged students to take calculated and intellectual risk, to think of your career in terms of what you want to learn and do in the long run as oppose to just finding a series of jobs.
The Luskin Lecture Series is designed to enhance public discourse on topics relevant to today’s societal needs. Bringing renowned public intellectuals and scholars together with national and local leaders, the Luskin Lecture Series presents issues that are changing the way our country addresses its most pressing problems. For more information on upcoming Luskin Lecture Series events, please click here.