When the Lights Went Dim
When you get the chance, you should check out Kai Wright’s terrific piece in the American Prospect on the decline of the black middle class. The short of it is that widespread “wealth poverty” among middle-class black families (“By 2007, black families had a dime for every dollar of white family wealth, and Hispanics, 12 cents.”) coupled with the importance of housing equity to black wealth has – with the collapse of the housing market – dealt a serious blow to the black middle class. There’s actually far too much in the piece to adequately summarize (the above is just a snippet of the broader argument), and so instead, I want to focus on this passage, as it fits in with something I’ve spent a lot of time writing about:
The Homestead Acts of the 1860s, for instance, took vast swaths of land from Native American tribes and gave it away in 160-acre plots to white settlers, to jump start the agricultural sector; for freedmen, land never materialized. More than a century later, 400 black farmers won a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture for its systematic racial bias in providing loans and other assistance to farmers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Lo and behold, at the turn of the 21st-century, white Americans still held 97 percent of the nation’s agricultural land value.
The New Deal programs that created today’s middle class, meanwhile, are also directly responsible for today’s wealth gap. Name a massive government investment, and you’ve got an initiative that explicitly or implicitly excluded people of color. By 1965, 98 percent of the 10 million homes public money had helped buy through loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration were owned by whites. Government then spent years more ignoring private lenders’ redlining of black neighborhoods.
The proven racial bias in today’s sub-prime lending, then, is more normative than exceptional. As Lui wrote in a March Washington Post op-ed, “The chips on the table reflect the fact that the game was fixed. It’s time to start an honest game with a new deck.”
One of the more cliche’ criticisms of American political discourse is that we have an utter disregard for history. I don’t think that’s true; on any number of issues, we rely on history’s lessons to guide or inform our actions (see: stimulus package). I think it’s far more accurate to say that we have an incredibly selective historical memory, which is in effect most especially when it comes to talking about race and its various policy dimensions. That is, we spend a lot of time talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks, or even Malcolm X (though the mainstream conversation still isn’t at a point where it can acknowledge the – many – positive contributions of Malcolm X to the “dialogue). And likewise, we spend a fair amount of time on racism as an individual affliction, or on the long-term effects of slavery and segregation on the black family and black communities.
By contrast, we devote little – if any – time to examining the concrete realities of racial apartheid, and specifically, the implicit and explicit support of the federal government in denying African-Americans a chance to build their communities and build their wealth. It simply isn’t talked about. In fact, of the many hilarious experiences I’ve had in college classrooms, one of the most hilarious was in a racial politics course, where most of my white classmates were visibly shocked at the extent to which the federal government went out of its way to deny African-Americans a place in the economic life of the United States. Judging from the various looks of skepticism/disbelief, most of them had gone through the bulk of the American educational system without any knowledge of African-American life during Jim Crow, outside of the standard curriculum of Rosa Parks, buses, MLK Jr., and water fountains.
Policy-wise, this is kind of a…problem. There are a constellation of problems – hyper-segregation, extreme inner-city poverty, the black urban underclass, hell, affirmative action – which don’t make any sense unless you have a firm grasp on the policy history of African-Americans and the federal government’s refusal to invest economically in African-American communities. Inner cities desperately need targeted programs to alleviate black unemployment and create educational and employment opportunities. But those won’t happen, in large part, because Americans simply don’t understand the role government has had in creating those problems, and the responsibility we all bear for solving them.
For what it’s worth, I don’t expect that to change; if we acknowledge the federal government’s role in creating generational black poverty, then necessarily have to acknowledge the federal government’s equally direct role in building the wealth of middle-class white America. As Wright notes, the Homestead Acts, the New Deal and the G.I. Bill all but created the white middle-class. To acknowledge that – to really, truly take it and its implications seriously – is to directly undermine the myth of self-reliance and independence that we cling to as Americans. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that a full public account and understanding of the government’s role in hampering black progress will probably put us on a path towards something approaching reparations*, which – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – aren’t terribly popular.
To get back to my original point though, I agree wholeheartedly that “It’s time to start a new game with an honest deck.” But unless we are willing let go of certain myths and embrace certain facts about our country and its treatment of African-Americans, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.
*I’m not actually a fan of reparations at all, I just think that the logic leads and that direction.
**Sorry for the poor video quality. It’s a great song though (from a pretty fantastic album).