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).

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13 thoughts on “When the Lights Went Dim

  1. Pingback: When the Lights Went Dim « The United States of Jamerica

  2. “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.”

    ” because Americans simply don’t understand the role government has had in creating those problems, and the responsibility we all bear for solving them.”

    Are you saying the New Deal solved problems and created propsperity, and government after the New Deal created our present problems, by going against New Deal principles and allowing too much sel-reliance and independence? If so, are you saying our government, now, should adopt a New Deal approach?


  3. “Name a massive government investment, and you’ve got an initiative that explicitly or implicitly excluded people of color.”

    War on Poverty
    Food Stamps

    I am sure these don’t cancel out the other programs. But the govt has made some serious efforts to ameliorate “urban” poverty. Not sure I trust or want them to do a lot more of that.

    See, for instance, Pittsburgh throughout the 60s. That’s when we saved balsk neighborhoods by bulldozing them and building hockey arenas.

    As wrongheaded as these projects might have been, they were quite often sincere.

    Similarly, the War on Drugs is often sold as a way to protect balck communities from the ravages of the drug trade. As much as I hate the War on Drugs, I don’t think this is a racist plot to imprison huge swaths of young black males. I think most people honestly think these policies help people.


    • Sam,

      I think you’re missing a critical part of Wright’s (and my) argument. The difference between the measures you list and the Homestead Acts or the New Deal, or the G.I. Bill, is that the latter were direct wealth investment, intended to help (white) families build wealth and become self-sufficient. Food stamps are great, but they are meant to alleviate poverty and not to create wealth.


      • Which I think speaks directly to the question of how to best implement welfare. Food stamps, social security, and more than likely shoddy government-run health care are all better than nothing, but they do little to increase actual wealth in communities, or to allow poor people to have much of a say in their own direction. As a strong supporter of safety nets, I think I find that it is often not the goal, but rather the implementation of those nets that seems to put distance between myself and liberals. When the implementation is more of a life-line rather than any meaningful step toward actual wealth creation or self-sufficiency then I think we begin to perpetuate poverty rather than actually constructively address it.

        Great post, by the way.


      • Hmmm . . . I think you have a point here, Jamelle, but when I think about trying to implement wealth-creating measures for urban blacks in today’s political culture, I think another problem might be ahistorical: jealousy and feelings of supremacy among poor or middle-class whites. I can’t imagine the vocal, right rump of republicans and the most blue-collar democrats standing for urban wealth-creating policies while THEY are poor or not well off. Anything that helps them is what they deserve, and anything for minorities is tax money they should be getting back.
        As a tangent, this illustrates a problem with the word ‘minority’. It gives whites the feeling that they are a bigger constituency than they are, so they see the whole tax base of the country as coming from them. Therefore, they get to decide what to do with it – and it should benefit them, first and foremost.
        It’s true, all of this is based on the history of the country and more people should understand it. But even if people understood it, I think some would still consider it the natural order unless they had a better understanding of how small a majority whites are in the country. But they don’t want to hear that – it scary to see your power eroding.


  4. I don’t have the faintest idea what you mean by “generational black poverty.” The Homestead Act was in place before any of my ancestors got here. And at the end of all those other federal government programs, my mom found herself growing up in housing projects in Oakland. But as soon as she graduated high school at 17 she left and got a job and a couple years later married my dad, also with nothing more than a high school education, and with their respective jobs as telephone operator and mail carrier, made a nice life for themselves. I cannot jam into my brain’s belief center the notion that their being white saved them from what otherwise would have been “generational white poverty.”

    There is perhaps a culture, a mindset of failure that is causing something like “generational black poverty.” And maybe that is what is meant by the author. But that is a problem that simply cannot be ameliorated by government. Particularly federal government. Granted, the federal government made quite a mess of things in its romp through two centuries of American history. But there’s no good to come from insisting the bull march back into the china shop and tidy up after itself.


    • I recognize we all have different political views and we have different facts, ideas at our disposal. However the idea that the federal government can do nothing about poverty is wrong, wrong, wrong. Poverty rates dropped by about half during the Great Society years. The New Deal work programs like the WPA obviously created work and lessened poverty. What the gov can’t do in a capitalist society, that has little drive towards economic equality like countries like the Nordic countries, is end poverty. Our economic system and priorities essentially insist on a certain amount of poverty.

      Poverty creates many disablities. Some peopple will overcome them but the margin for error is much less. In the middle class town i grew up in college was a given and it took quite a bit of cluelessness and bad luck to fail to move into a decent adulthood. In despretly poor places there is simply a lot more deficits and ways to go wrong. that leads to families being stuck in a bad place. This is by no means solely a black, urban problem. Appalachia or Native American reservations are examples.

      To put it another way if you raise 100 kids in a harsh, poor neighborhood and 100 identical kids in a nice middle class suburb, far more will come out of the suburban neighborhood successfully. That doesn’t mean individuals won’t screw up in both places through their own faults. But environments have predicable and , to a degree, solvable problems.

      Insert standard liberal disclaimer: gov in often inefficient , screws up and far from perfect. I know.


  5. Setting aside the fact that the risen Christ himself couldn’t get a reparations bill through Congress and then Senate (without even touching on how you arrange that only the descendants of slaves receive it and only the beneficiaries of slavery pay it) I have another concern.

    I’m less confident that the government even has the ability to produce the level of wealth creation you’re suggesting. I mean the Homestead Act gave people sections of vacant land that was taken from thin on the ground Native Americans. In the agrarian industries that the world was at the time that was a significant leg up. But the country doesn’t have that kind of vital resource lying around now. Nor would giving people a chunk of land in modern times is equivalent to handing them the tools to succeed. Land just isn’t the key to success any more. Nor is a wad of cash. The economy is so much bigger, so much more sophisticated than it used to be. It seems to me there isn’t some sort of magic wand we can wave that’d cure or even significantly ameliorate the phenomena of racial poverty we’re talking about. If you gave them land most of it would simply be ineffectively converted to cash. If you handed out wads of cash then there’d be a spike in the price of consumer goods and college tuitions and then it’d be gone and it’d be business as usual. If you’re talking about something more complex than that I’d be interested to hear what it is.


  6. Pingback: When the Lights Went Dim. « PostBourgie

  7. Jamelle: are you familiar with “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America” by Ira Katznelson? It documents in infuriating detail the policies and actions you are writing about.


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