5 Questions with Gene Slater, Author of Freedom to Discriminate

Sep 22, 2021

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 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.

Gene is in our virtual events series discussing his new book, Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America (published by Heyday Books). The event is Wednesday, September 22 at 6PM PT, in conversation with Emmerich Anklam.

Where are you writing to us from?                  

Foster City. I lived on the border of Noe Valley and the Mission for decades, and then joined my wife who is a social work supervisor for San Mateo County.

What’s kept you sane during the pandemic?   

We purchased a neighbor’s little electric boat that goes about 5 knots an hour on the lagoon in Foster City, so those brief trips have been our vacation travel.

The essence of being sane is visiting with our five-year-old grand-daughter, Nadia, and our eighteen-month-old pandemic grandson, Timmie.

Overhearing my wife’s recordings of Pema Chodron, the addictive daily Spelling Bee from the online New York Times puzzles, dog walks, low-grade tennis, and our local library.

What books are you reading right now? Which books do you return to? 

I’m reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy, and recently finished Ayad Akhtar’s terrific Homeland Elegies, Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War and Jane Harper’s mystery The Lost Man

What I’ve returned to the most over the years has been Moby-Dick and its Melville-influenced descendant The Invisible Man; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as well as Tolstoy and the lesser known Dostoevsky book, Demons; John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and when it comes to cities, all of Jane Jacobs.

Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a model for telling a vast history through a few families. David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln shows how to write a history through what was known to decision-makers at the time, forcing yourself to see the challenges they faced. Frederick Douglass’ speeches and writings, especially his brilliant, little-known speech, “Our Composite Nationality” powerfully affected me.

Key influences on Freedom to Discriminate also include James Baldwin; Eric Foner on American freedom; and Daniel Martinez HoSang’s eye-opening Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California. 

If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be? 

Next to City Lights, with a branch at the Ferry Building that I advised on the renovation of: it would be called The Books You Dreamed About, and the offbeat best-sellers would be Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams about a dictator who collects, and has his staff analyze, the dreams of all the inhabitants, and Emmett Grogan’s autofiction Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps about the Diggers in San Francisco in the 60s.


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