Nothing Reminds You That You're Black in White America Like Trying to Buy a House

Illustration for article titled Nothing Reminds You That You're Black in White America Like Trying to Buy a House
Photo: fizkes (iStock)

Five weeks ago, moments after landing back in Pittsburgh after a two-day long trip to Chicago, I switched off airplane mode, checked my phone, and saw a transcribed voicemail from my mortgage consultant, asking me to call him back. We were 11 days away from closing. The loan and the interest rate had already been locked in, so I hoped maybe he was calling because of a form I forgot to initial or an issue with the home inspection.


The plane was too loud and busy, so I waited until I got back to the terminal—the food court, specifically (I was hungry)—to call back.

“Hey, man. Saw I missed your call. What’s up?”

“Hey Damon. So ... there’s really no good way to say this, but your loan application was denied.”

“Wow. OK.”

“Honestly, man, I’ve never seen anything like this before. Been doing this for 10 years, and I can’t remember a time when the lender denied an application as strong as yours. And so damn fucking late in the process. I wish I could give you a reason why this happened, but I’m stumped man. I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool.”

The original working title of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker was Nigga Neurosis. We (my editor, my agent, and I) decided to change it a few months ago after receiving confirmation that it would be awkward—and, in some cases, impossible—for certain sellers to carry and, most notably, promote a book with that title. Although I believe the current title is much, much better, what made Nigga Neurosis so initially compelling was that this term encapsulates what’s been my existential state of being since becoming aware, as a child, of what it means—and what it’s supposed to mean, and what it’s assumed to mean—to be black in America. Ultimately, it’s what happens when something unexpected happens, and I’m left to wonder if this thing happened because I happen to be black.


Sometimes it’s amusing like when I go to a gym I’ve never been to and I’m still one of the first players chosen in a pickup. I’m tall-ish, athletic-ish looking, and black, so I must be able to hoop. (I can, but that’s beside the point.) And sometimes the question it raises is life-threatening, like when I look in my rearview mirror and see a police cruiser following me.

Of course, in neither of these circumstances—and in dozens more similar circumstances—can I say with 100 percent certainty that my blackness is why what’s happening is happening. But I believe it. A lifetime worth of evidence tells me that not believing it would be silly and stupid. And the tiny distance between that belief, that feeling, and the chance that maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe my race has nothing to do with this at all, is where the neurosis exists. You know, but you’re just never really sure. 


When my mortgage consultant was trying to find the reason(s) for why I was denied, of course I knew exactly what it was. I can’t prove it. The lending process is based on so many seemingly arbitrary variables and algorithms that it’s near impossible to make a definitive and damning determination about a singular case. But I know, in my bones, that a 39-year-old white man with my income, my credit (good, not great), my bank statements, my tax returns, my wife, my life, wouldn’t have been denied by that bank. And he wouldn’t have had to provide that bank with multiple handwritten letters verifying his employment. And he wouldn’t have had to wonder if there was a way to complete the loan application without noting his race.

As disappointing as it was, being denied by that bank wasn’t a surprise. In June, I wrote an essay for the New York Times about the surreality of having some money now after spending the first 35 or so years of my life either broke or broke-adjacent. While I should be able to enjoy this new status—and my sneaker purchases over the last year should let you know I definitely have—I still feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. And much of this anxiety is due to the experience of living-while-black in America.

Even now, as I’ve evolved from ashy to nasty to classy enough to shop at Whole Foods instead of going there only for the free samples, I’m the sole person in my immediate family to experience such a change. This makes my new status even more surreal, as if I’m getting Punk’d, which is not an uncommon feeling among black people who’ve undergone similar financial changes.

Hundreds of years of structural and intentional anti-black bias have left us with a race-based financial dichotomy so stark that the racial wealth gap looks like a typo. For every $100 in white family wealth, for instance, black families hold just $5.04. (Those four cents feel insulting. We couldn’t even get a full nickel?)

In this context, success feels fake. And also tenuous, because it’s often accompanied by an expectation that you have to assist friends and family who are less fortunate.


There are few things I’ve done that have made me as hyper-cognizant of my blackness than the entire home-buying process. I went in with trepidation, knowing the history of homeownership-while-black and the obstacles America places in your way. I predicted that my relatively nontraditional means of income would be an issue, and it was. I wondered if my type of work—which often involves me saying things many white people find uncomfortable and insulting—would be an issue. And I watched and waited and cringed and winced as these collections of white people—the real estate company, the mortgage company, the settlement people, the bank—went through my records like a butcher inspecting and vetting a porterhouse steak.

My story—this story—had a good ending. After being denied by the bank he usually works with, my mortgage consultant told me about another consultant who worked with a bank that might be able to do my loan. He passed me on to them and it worked. We were even able to meet our original closing date. We moved into our house last weekend. I am writing this, in fact, while sitting at a countertop in my new kitchen.


This is a good thing. But sometimes, existing-while-black means that even sometimes good things come attached with sour aftertastes. I check every box that you’re supposed to be able to check. I have a generous and steady income, plus multiple revenue sources to supplement it. I have a sizable amount of money in savings. I have money in escrow, and I don’t even know what the fuck escrow means. I am married to an entrepreneur with an advanced degree. We have one child. And none of this mattered. 

Or, better yet, none of this mattered enough to negate that one other thing. It wasn’t enough for them to trust me. And If I didn’t get lucky—if I didn’t happen to work with a mortgage consultant who happened to be kind enough to connect me to someone who might be able to do my deal—you wouldn’t be reading about this, because I’d still be too sore about my loan falling through to write about it.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Redlining still exists, but they now have “data points” to explain it away. Even if we were able to leave out race/ethnicity, if you chose to live in a “black” neighborhood or “black neighborhood adjacent”, that alone would check the non-existent box for you. It’s always something.