Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Margalynne Armstrong:

Owning Up To Racial Disparities

The U.S. Census Bureau has documented a tenfold difference between the wealth of white and African American families during the 1980s and 1990s. Santa Clara University Associate Professor of Law Margalynne Armstrong is investigating the role of law and property in creating this disparity.

With help from a Markkula Center for Applied Ethics grant, Armstrong is researching various approaches to property ownership generated from within the African American community, from rent parties to income sharing.

Property ownership is an ethical issue, she says, because it "has a profound effect on the ability of minorities to participate in the civic life of the country."

Originally, ideals of U.S. citizenship were tied to property, Armstrong points out. "The founders had a concept of citizens as invested in society, and part of that investment was based on the ownership of property," she explains.

Armstrong believes property still functions as a powerful way to tie people to the future of their communities; not owning property, on the other hand, can preclude participation in important decisions.

As an example, Armstrong points to the California law that allows cities and towns to vote whether low-income housing will be built in their communities. If those cities are made up primarily of single-family, individually owned houses, those who do not own property will not live in these communities and, thus, will not have a voice in the decision. Since nonowners comprise households disproportionately headed by women, African Americans, and immigrants, such exclusion has the most severe impact on these groups.

In addition to her research, Armstrong—with Philip Kain, chair of the SCU Philosophy Department, and Calvin Stewart, professor of philosophy—is a discussion leader for the Center's Racism Study Group, which brings faculty and staff together for a cross-disciplinary look at current research in the field.

"There's usually at least one person who has a very different take on what's being read than I do," she says. "It's very enriching."