MASON, MICH. - “Foreigners” shouldn’t bother trying to buy James Prater’s house in the Mason subdivision of Coventry Woods.
That’s the toxic message Prater delivers amid a pretty flower bed in his front yard. “For Sale by Owner” is next to “Terms No foreigners Iraq vet.”
Are those five words illegal discrimination or Prater’s right to express himself on his own property?
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights said, in response to questions from the Lansing State Journal, that it violates state and federal laws. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits “any notice, statement or advertisement” in real estate transactions that discriminate based on national origin. Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act has similar protections, said Vicki Levengood, the department spokeswoman.
No one has filed a complaint to challenge his sign and, sadly, the town’s mayor, Russ Whipple, said it hasn’t made much of a ripple in his community. No outrage. Whipple said he hadn’t even heard of it.
I knocked on Prater’s door Wednesday after Nancy Knupfer, an associate broker and Realtor at Keller Williams Lansing-East, forwarded a photo of the sign that was circulating online. She is worried about allowing a message of discrimination to go unchecked.
Prater answered the door and invited me in to talk, although he declined to be photographed or videotaped. He said he’s had his house for sale for about a month but has no offers. He said he’s had several calls from people but he suspects they are not sincere about buying the property, rather just trying to harass him.
“I’m going to put it bluntly. If somebody wants to make an offer, I want to see if they have cash in their bank account,” he said.
Prater, whose brother is a California lawyer advising him, said he’s convinced he’s not violating any laws.
“There’s nothing illegal about it because no one’s made me an offer,” he said.
He has no price tag on his property. Property records show he purchased the two-story home in 2010 for nearly $140,000. When new, in 2001, the house sold for $162,000.
A former Army sergeant, Prater said he did two tours in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He showed me a photo of him inside a palace once owned by Saddam Hussein, the Iraq leader executed in 2006.
Prater made news nearly two years ago when Secretary of State Ruth Johnson suspended a license for his car dealership, the University Motor Mall, known for its goofy ads.
Prater said his idea of a foreigner might not be what you expect, although he didn’t directly answer a question about his definition. He said that those who point out the U.S. is a nation of immigrants should focus more on citizenship. He’s a big supporter of President Trump, who has curtailed immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries.
It’s clear from Prater’s comments and his Facebook page, that he dislikes those from the Middle East. He said he’s feuding with his Pakistani neighbors over painting a sidewalk a light gray in front of their house. Prater said the sidewalks are the property of the neighborhood association.
“In my experience dealing with anyone with a thick, Middle Eastern accent, you can’t talk to them. I know I’m generalizing,” he said.
He said that he’s not a racist. His best friend, an Army buddy, is Hispanic.
I asked him if he would have put up the sign if Hilary Clinton won the election. He didn't answer with "yes" or "no," but said President Trump has helped blue collar people find their voice.
“I do feel that living in a small town, in a blue-collar area with hard-working people, that Trump has given us our freedom back. He’s actually fighting for our freedom,” he said,
Although the sign hasn’t created much of a stir in Mason, Whipple, the mayor, said it’s not indicative of the town.
“It would definitely not represent the views of the city of Mason as I know it,” he said.
The image of the sign popped up on my cell phone around the same time I watched the Detroit Free Press documentary “12th and Clairmount” at the Traverse City Film Festival. It’s about the 1967 Detroit riots.
In 1967, Detroit erupted in one of the worst riots in American history, a rebellion against police brutality and racial inequality in a city where many said it couldn’t happen. (Courtesy of Detroit Free Press)
One of the takeaways was the role that housing discrimination played in inciting the deadly week of unrest. Back then, government-backed loan and insurance programs favored white homeowners and excluded African Americans.
With black residents of Detroit displaced from the Black Bottom neighborhood to make way for a freeway, and then concentrated in another area along 12th, tensions rose.
The federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 after the Kerner Commisison report on rioting in several cities, including Detroit, pointed out the discrimination.
Have we forgotten this? Do people remember the history?
Knupfer said while Prater’s military service deserves thanks, it doesn’t give him the right to discriminate against those born elsewhere.
“Let’s also uphold the laws of this country, and realize we’re a multicultural society and we need to be acting like that and welcoming to people no matter what racial background, no matter what country they are from,” she said.
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© 2017 Lansing State Journal