The Role of Whiteness as Property in Today’s Segregation”

by: Ji Ho (Geo) Yang, PHD Candidate at the University of Washington

Whiteness as property is a key concept within Critical Race Theory (CRT) which was developed by Dr. Harris (1993).  The concept describes whiteness as an identity marker for access to rights, resources, and power.  According to the concept, whiteness has become systematized as a means of accessing key political, social, and economic resources.  This concept connects the history and ideals of “inalienable rights, particularly property rights to whiteness.  Within education, we can see this concept manifest through the ways educational opportunities are hoarded, and how, despite best intentions, supposedly equitable policies become inequitable.  

As with previous blog posts, we will contextualize this concept through the setting of school desegregation.  We have previously discussed how Brown v. Board did little to make explicit how the U.S. was to desegregate its school systems.  The lack of explicitness in the process of desegregation led to dominant white interests pervading.  Whiteness as property is an analytical tool to help better understand how those interests pervaded and continue to pervade.  

Milliken v. Bradley (also check out the article by Green and Gooden referenced below!) is a critical 1974 Supreme Court case post Brown v. Board that cemented implicit and covert (yet still institutional and systemic) educational segregation.  The case did not find the Detroit school district and its surrounding suburban districts to be complicit in racial segregation because race was not explicitly used to determine or inform development policies (i.e. housing and education).  In short, this case condoned a new wave of segregation.  The case is emblematic of the issue of modern segregation throughout the U.S.  How did it get to this point?  Exploring this history through the concept of whiteness as property can shed some light.  

Conceptually, whiteness as property is an idea reflecting how racial identities are foundational to one’s freedom through means such as access to resources and legitimacy.  In a recent post-Brown v. Board U.S., whiteness as property meant that whiteness and (middle/upper) class were identity markers allowing for access to land and development while having the choice to desert the city proper.  The system of federal and local development policies (i.e. federal renewal, housing initiatives, school construction) served the interests of suburban development at the expense of citizens of color and low-income citizens.  For example, the consolidation or separation of municipalities creates political environments that are more accessible and exploitable for white middle/upper-class citizens (i.e. not having to participate in democracy fairly; e.g. gerrymandering).  Another example is how seemingly benign federal guidelines for school construction are used by white middle/upper-class constituents to justify creating schools in suburban areas.  These examples highlight how whiteness and class are critical identity markers determining who can legitimately claim something as a right.  

Whiteness as property can also refer to the ways race affects how one participates in a racial market, capitalist society.  For example, city planning commissions are often composed of white capitalist stakeholders, such as real estate agents, developers, and bankers.  These commissions determine where future development and resources go, including new schools, and who gets to participate.  In essence, they were determining the marketability of neighborhoods.  White families can exercise choice in determining what markets they want to live in; and what property is rightfully theirs.  

Ultimately, these environments allowed white families to optout of desegregation, which most importantly shifted and imbalanced school resources still to this day.  Milliken v. Bradley has further embedded and institutionalized whiteness as property.  We are seeing the same playbook play out in the U.S., such as in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where a wealthy neighborhood is trying to annex away from the majority Black city.  This would further segregate resources away from families of color.  Class is hugely influential to the concept of whiteness as property and its analyses.  What will be curious to explore in Seattle is how the process of SPS reckoning with its budget issues will leverage whiteness as property to justify segregation in budgetary decisions (and more importantly inequitable outcomes from those decisions, like busing in the past).  


Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 1707-1791.

Erickson, A. T. (2012). Building inequality: The spatial organization of schooling in Nashville, Tennessee, after Brown. Journal of Urban History, 38(2), 247-270.

Green, T. L., & Gooden, M. A. (2016). The shaping of policy: Exploring the context, contradictions, and contours of privilege in Milliken v. Bradley, over 40 years later. Teachers College Record, 118(3), 1-30.

Juhasz, Aubri. (2024).  Louisiana court says mostly white enclave in Baton Rouge may secede and form its own city. NPR