Sed Valorem

Harrison Kinnane Smith2021

Mattress Factory

Mattress Factory
Pittsburgh, United States

Long before ratification of the Constitution, racialized economic practices were written into American law through slave codes and legal rulings. Black people in the American colonies were officially, explicitly and selectively stripped of their humanity and converted into commodities. Whites, though often subjected to exploitative labor contracts, were protected by their race from such commodification and therefore excluded from the economic systems in which Black people were readily exchangeable.

American slavery came to an end when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, advancing approximately four million Blacks from a state of objecthood to subjecthood. No longer were Black people property — instead, they could own it. However, the entanglement of race, law and economics has persisted through emancipation to the present day. Legal scholars including Pittsburgh’s own Derrick Bell have demonstrated this persistence in manifold areas of law and society, but in few places is this fact more poignantly realized than at the site of the home.

There are two methods by which the value of a home is measured and integrated into larger economic systems. In the private sector, companies estimate the market value of property through appraisals. These valuations are used to determine listing prices, mortgage amounts and refinancing rates. They may also influence the terms of loans or lines of credit that position home equity as collateral. In the public sector, counties estimate the market values of homes through assessments and apply fixed rates to these estimates to determine annual property taxes.

Today, the Blackness of a homeowner has been shown to decrease the appraisal value of real property by dramatic margins. Meanwhile, counties across the country continue to rely on outdated and bureaucratically insulated assessment practices that systematically overtax low-income and minority homeowners. As a result, Black people remain subjected to an economic system distinct from that of Whites — a system in which homes are commercially devalued and subject to higher taxation. When compounded with research on racial lending disparities and the lingering effects of redlining on homeownership, these contemporary inequalities reveal how the “bedrock of American wealth” is designed to erode under Black feet.

The research, material artworks, financial interventions and public outreach that constitute Sed Valorem seek to reveal, interrogate and redress, in part, certain discriminatory tax- and sale-based aspects of homeownership and the housing market in Pittsburgh while situating them as a continuation of the longstanding American legacy of racialized property law and valuation.


  • Title: Sed Valorem
  • Creator: Harrison Kinnane Smith
  • Date Created: 2021
  • Location Created: Pittsburgh, PA

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more


Google apps