Why are the black brownstone owners in Harlem and Brooklyn disproportionately West Indian? The landlords, West Indian-American? The tenants African-American? These are tough questions. For students of housing discrimination, West Indian Americans have long presented a quandary. If it is reasonable to assume that racial exclusions are being consistently applied to persons who are dark-skinned, one would expect to find that housing discrimination has had similar effects on West Indian-Americans and African-Americans. Yet this is not the case: West Indian-Americans generally own and rent higher quality housing than African-Americans.
Moreover, these advantages began long ago. For example, when racial covenants, that is, restrictions barring racial and ethnic groups from owning real property in particular neighborhoods were rife in New York, they were not consistently applied against West Indians, who were sometimes able to buy into tony neighborhoods. While it is true that such covenants were also inconsistently applied against other ethnic and religious groups such as Jewish New Yorkers, West-Indians still stand out. Since West Indians are overwhelmingly dark-skinned persons of African descent they typically did not have the option of "passing" that may have been available to other groups.
Eschewing more traditional explanations in the civil rights literature, I apply the literature in which racial segregation in real property ownership is conceived as a racial monopoly in which racial cartels appropriate anti-competitive techniques to monopolize access to real property. Maintaining a racial cartel is dependent on white owners maintaining a united front, that is, they must uniformly refuse to sell. Importantly, realtors play a gate keeping role in real estate and West Indians dominated the realtor sector. As realtors, they were expert at finding defectors, namely, whites willing to break norms of racial exclusivity, in exchange for their ability to extract a premium for selling to blacks early. Brokers then proceeded to buy significant numbers of titles, which were then off-loaded to fellow West Indians. West Indian brokers could act in confidence because they had cash-rich clients and were often buying in trust (de facto if not de jure) for fellow West Indians.
In so doing, West Indian brokers in New York were simply replicating techniques that had been utilized by their land-brokering ancestors. I discuss the history that "previews" this period in New York, albeit in a different context: in the British West Indian islands from the migrants originated. There are repeated instances of blacks "busting" white monopolies in land-ownership, throughout the West Indian colonies in contravention of racial norms in the British colonies of who was allowed to own land where. Upon arrival in New York, West Indians encountered another racial monopoly in real property ownership, namely Northern racial segregation. They essentially appropriated the same techniques that they had utilized in the West Indies to break into white neighborhoods in New York.
GW Paper Series
GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-23; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-23
Brown, Eleanor Marie, Why Black Homeowners are More Likely to Be Caribbean-American than African-American in New York: A Theory of How Early West Indian Migrants Broke Racial Cartels in Housing (June 23, 2016). GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-23; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-23. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2799698