Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America

Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America
Hardcover, 6 x 9, 480 pages.
ISBN: 9781597145442.

By Gene Slater

Freedom to Discriminate uncovers realtors’ definitive role in segregating America and shaping modern conservative ideology. Drawing on confidential documents from leaders of the real estate industry, Gene Slater reveals how realtors systematically created and justified residential segregation.

To defend all-white neighborhoods against the civil rights movement, realtors put the right to discriminate at the center of individual liberty, effectively redefining and weaponizing “freedom” and providing a roadmap for conservatives nationally. This far-reaching strategy reached its peak when realtors successfully campaigned for a California constitutional amendment that would permanently prohibit fair housing. In the process they created the script of color-blind freedom that polarizes America on issue after issue today.

Slater reveals how California and its powerful realtors would shape segregation for years to come. He shows why one of the first all-white neighborhoods was created in Berkeley, why the state was the perfect place for Ronald Reagan’s political ascension, and how Reagan’s early career—drawing on the realtors’ arguments—would lay the groundwork for current conservative narratives.

A landmark history told with supreme narrative skill, Freedom to Discriminate traces the increasingly aggressive ways realtors justified their practices, and how America’s divides and current debates are rooted in the history of segregated neighborhoods. Slater makes a case that shatters preconceptions about American segregation, connecting seemingly disparate features of the nation’s history in a new and galvanizing way.


"This is an inside tale of how real-estate brokers broke America and fueled division, one subdivision and unanswered call at a time." Anand Giridharadas
"In Freedom to Discriminate, Gene Slater, who has spent four decades as a consultant to states and municipalities on housing policy, makes a powerful case that California’s real estate brokers not only originated a system of residential segregation that became a model for the entire nation, but also effectively mobilized support for Proposition 14 by invoking the central idea in America’s political vocabulary: freedom. [...] Providing a template for opposition to an overbearing liberal state, Slater argues, the successful campaign for Proposition 14 laid the foundation for the rise of modern American conservatism." Los Angeles Review of Books
"A book of housing history that is meticulously sourced, fast moving, and well argued." Michael Lens, Journal of American Planning Association
“Slater’s richly researched and persuasive account of planned housing segregation in the United States opens the door to a shameful part of our history, the effects of which reverberate to this day. This work should be read by all who are interested in America’s current racial predicament.” ANNETTE GORDON-REED, author of On Juneteenth
“They told a Big Lie—that Black neighbors lower property values—then made it true. They forged an iron cage of legal and institutional restriction, then called it ‘individual choice.’ They invented an ‘American dream’ they systematically denied to millions of Americans. The endless resourcefulness of America’s real estate industry in building and maintaining a racist system in the twentieth century is an astonishment to behold. Slater tells the story with brilliance and clarity.” RICK PERLSTEIN, author of Reaganland
“A fascinating and timely look at how the seemingly innocuous idea of consumer choice can fuel insidious racism and discrimination. Slater’s rigorous analysis is an excellent addition to the history of the United States, before and after Martin Luther King implored the nation to dismantle its racial hierarchies.” MARCIA CHATELAIN, author of Franchise, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History
“Although I’ve been writing about issues of racial justice much of my life, this remarkable book taught me things I didn’t know. Slater shows how the seldom-scrutinized real estate industry is as powerful as the police and the prison-industrial complex in denying Black Americans their rights.” ADAM HOCHSCHILD, author of Bury the Chains
“Revelatory. By reframing the segregation debate through the lens of the realtor lobby, Slater offers new insights into well-known practices and deepens our understanding of how property rights became sacred in California—with consequences that are all too evident today.” MIRIAM PAWEL, author of The Browns of California
“This breathtaking book finds the demons of twenty-first century America not in our nation’s founding documents, but in our very own houses. Slater unearths the history of how California realtors—of all people—redefined the meaning of freedom in ways that still segregate and polarize the entire country today.” JOE MATHEWS, California columnist and editor, Zócalo Public Square
“A searing account of how the professional gatekeepers of America’s neighborhoods—realtors—constructed and reconstructed the ideas that anchored the gates of residential segregation, as told by someone who spent a career trying to tear them down. Mining the largely unexcavated records of realtors themselves, many of them smoking guns, Freedom to Discriminate offers a critical perspective on the history of housing discrimination: how its ostensibly race-neutral defense helped shape American political conservatism and, ultimately, underpin the yawning contemporary racial wealth gap.” MARK BRILLIANT, Associate Professor, Department of History, and Director, Program in American Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Freedom to Discriminate shows us in lucid detail how the marketplace of property shapes the everyday economics of racism, and how the discourse of property enables the politics of racism.” TONY PLATT, author of Beyond These Walls
+ Show all reviews
Categories History | Social Justice

About the Author

Gene Slater

Gene Slater

Gene Slater has served as senior advisor on housing for federal, state, and local agencies for over forty years. He cofounded and chairs CSG Advisors, which has been one of the nation’s leading advisors on affordable housing for decades. He has advised on housing issues in thirty states. His projects have received numerous national awards, and in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009 he helped design the program by which the United States Treasury financed homes for 110,000 first-time buyers. He received degrees from Columbia, MIT, and Stanford, as well as a mid-career fellowship from Harvard. He has lived and worked in New York, Boston, rural Wisconsin, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently resides.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


P.O. Box 9145Berkeley, CA 94709(510) 549-3564

vertical logo for Heyday Books

Newsletter Sign Up




Use code heyday20 at checkout!

click here to copy code

Privacy Preference Center