Archive for May, 2015

Institutional Racism

Friday, May 15th, 2015

In the previous post, I made the claim that institutional racism in the form of asymmetrical law enforcement and judicial bias were two of the three motivating factors driving the current demonstrations and violence in black communities across the country.

I suspect that some might dispute the claims of asymmetrical law enforcement or judicial bias, but the numbers here are undeniable. Blacks have many more encounters with police than whites on a per capita basis. They get arrested way more than whites. They are incarcerated at a much higher rate for the same crimes. They receive longer sentences for the same convictions. Ferguson was just one example of collusion between city government, law enforcement, and the judiciary to extort money from the black community for petty infractions. That’s institutional racism.

Another aspect of institutional racism created the ghettos where the vast majority of the black population live. These communities not only have substandard housing, but also no jobs and a very low percentage of home ownership.

Home ownership is the middle class wealth engine. Blacks don’t have access to that engine because they don’t have access to the middle class jobs that can support home ownership. They also don’t have access to that engine because, until the 70’s, they were not able to get mortgages for houses in middle class neighborhoods. Federal Housing policies prohibited it. That’s institutional racism.

Ned Resnikoff dug into the history in an MSNBC piece.

Disparities in homeownership are a major driver of the racial wealth gap, according to a recent study from Brandeis University. According to the authors of the report, “redlining [a form of discrimination in banking or insurance practices], discriminatory mortgage-lending practices, lack of access to credit, and lower incomes have blocked the homeownership path for African-Americans while creating and reinforcing communities segregated by race.”

For those of you unfamiliar with redlining, banks had different policies for different parts of the city. Those policies effectively priced black consumers out of white neighborhoods by charging blacks more to purchase a home in those neighborhoods than they would charge a comparable white customer.

This practice began in 1934 with the National Housing Act which established the FHA and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. This later agency created “residential security maps” which assessed the risk of real estate investments in different parts of major cities. Black neighborhoods were designated high risk and denied funding. This dramatically reduced both home ownership in black neighborhoods as well as commercial investment.

Speculators stepped into the void left by banks, often with the support of local government.

When selling on contract, the speculator offered the home to a black purchaser for a relatively low down payment – often several hundred dollars would suffice. For bringing the home within the reach of a black purchaser, however, the speculator extracted a considerable price. In the Commission on Human Relations study, the percentage increase in the cost of the home from the speculator’s purchase price to that of the black consumer ranged from a minimum of 35% to 115%; the average increase was 73%.

The next step toward the ghettos that we know today was block busting.

After the riots of the 60’s, whites began to leave inner city neighborhoods for the “safety” of the white suburbs. They took their businesses, jobs, and purchasing power with them. Speculators accelerated that white flight through various tactics intended to convince white home owners that black families were moving into their neighborhood. Realtors and speculators were able to purchase the houses at deep discounts and then convert them to multi-family dwellings that generated significantly more income for their owners.

As neighborhoods transformed from predominantly owner occupied low density to predominantly renter-occupied high density, property values declined. Property tax revenues which are based on property values and which fund local schools also declined. As jobs and purchasing power left neighborhoods, the small business services associated with that purchasing power also left. Neighborhoods that once were vital and sustainable, deteriorated. Whites associated this decline with black pathology. It was in fact a logical result of intuitional racism.

During the 60’s public housing projects were also placed in these same segregated economically depressed neighborhoods as a compromise with conservatives who opposed them completely. These projects were doomed from the start because they also failed to address the fundamental issue of jobs. Instead they simply concentrated all of the pathologies associates with poverty in a smaller geographic area. Gangs, violence, and drug use all became associated with the black family experience rather than the underlying economic conditions that were in fact the root of that behavior.

When you wall-off a whole community from access to the wealth building tools of employment, access to capital, and home ownership – they are unable leave their impoverished areas. Their poverty has a whole set of pathologies that accompany it. This cultural dysfunction and deep generational poverty defines life in the prison that our policies built. Conservative Republican leaders starting with Nixon turned this into a political strategy. Nixon was content to simply play on the same fears of whites that made the block busters wealthy. Reagan was the one who expanded the meme that blacks were dangerous. He convinced angry white voters that the blacks imprisoned in the ghettos that institutional racism created are themselves responsible for the conditions under which our government’s policies have forced them to live.

O brother, where art thou?

Pathology Versus Economics

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Responses to racial unrest, most recently in Baltimore, aren’t surprising given what we know about conservatives and liberals. Conservatives focus on rioters calling them thugs and feign surprise at the violence. Liberals on the other hand point to asymmetrical law enforcement in white and black neighborhoods and question why cops are killing so many unarmed poor kids.

Here’s a little history to try to figure out what is going on.

This country was founded on slavery. The slave trade in North America grew right along with European colonization. It was written into our founding documents right along with inalienable rights. The United States fought a civil war to force an end to slavery in southern states. That ended two hundred years of institutionalized and constitutional slavery.

A war weary country, however, failed to eradicate institutional racism. Whites successfully regained the political and economic power that they lost briefly during reconstruction. They exercised that power with impunity for another 100 years until the civil rights movement began to win a series of Supreme Court victories. The pinnacle of that movement was the voting rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration.

Coincident with that legislation was widespread racial unrest. During that period of time there were two seminal studies on poverty and racism.

The Moynihan Report in 1965 blamed the violence on poverty. They blamed poverty on pathological and cultural deficiencies in black families. This report shifted the onus from institutions and policies to families. It coined the term “benign neglect” in recommending that government had done pretty much all that it could to. Rights had risen as far as the study’s authors felt they could. Fixing families required an attitude adjustment by government and blacks. Government had to stop trying to supplement poor incomes. Instead government should encourage poor black families to fix themselves.

The Kerner Commission Report in 1968 took a much more scientific approach. It was based on extensive interviews of all those involved in rioting – young black men, shop owners, police, citizens, leaders, and elected officials. That report said the root cause of rioting was institutional racism. The solution to racial unrest was simple and obvious – social justice and economic redistribution. People rioted because they felt oppressed by the police, persecuted by the courts, and taken advantage of by the business community. Provide those same people good jobs, fair law enforcement, and color-blind courts; and everyone will happily live a peaceful law abiding life.

The riots of the 60’s also terrified white people. They fled the cities for the suburbs and took their jobs with them. Nixon and Lee Atwater invented the Southern Strategy in 1968. It played on white fears. Republicans successfully mined white backlash and rage right up until Obama’s election in 2008.

Reagan famously put another twist on the Moynihan report when he claimed that poverty itself was the result of dependence. He invented the specter of the welfare queen living large on the state. He based that characterization in a bi-racial con artist who was hardly a black stereotype. But the narrative was more powerful than the reality, and a whole series of reforms all the way through Clinton dismantled the social safety net for the poor that was part of the Great Society’s War on Poverty.

So what is the reality? Pathology or Economics.

As always the numbers give us some insight.

Let’s start at the same place that Reagan started, with the welfare queen. Everyone is familiar with this claim. Poor minority women bear lots of children so that they can live off government assistance rather than work. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact Clinton eliminated this sort of permanent assistance. There is a much simpler way to blow up this myth. If it were true, we should be able to see increases in the birth rates of poor black families during difficult economic times. We have just gone through the most difficult 8 years since the Great Depression. The birth rate in poor black families plummeted just like it did across the rest of the socio-economic spectrum. In other words, while there may be individuals who successfully defraud the government, aid to the poor does not create a pathological dependence which encourages women to, in effect, “live” off their children.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

If that’s true, we should be able to see the same social disruptions in white families over the past eight years. If you go look at the numbers, it’s there. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more across the racial spectrum.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”

The pathology of “bad choices” that conservatives have used to blame the poor for their condition is now being replicated in large segments of the poor white population. They have suffered the same economic displacement over the last eight years that blacks have experienced for generations. That includes shorter life spans, increased violence, broken families, increased drug abuse, less education, decreased home ownership, increased financial instability, and increased chronic illness.

Conservatives cluck about the failure of minority communities to adopt middle class values, but those values depend in large part on access to middle-class jobs. Those jobs are simply not available in poor communities and the poor can’t afford to move to where the good jobs are. Instead you have the spectacle of a Detroit man who spends all his non-working hours getting to and from his minimum wage suburban job.

Finally, you have Republican leaders like John Boehner suggesting that the riots in Baltimore are evidence of the “50 years of failed Democrat policies”. While it is clear that he is reaching back to the Great Society, half of those 50 years Republicans were in the White House. So if policies are to blame, that blame should be shared equally by Republicans and Democrats.

The numbers again come to our rescue here. In this case, Paul Krugman.

Federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.

Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.

In other words, the problem was not too much money. They problem was not enough money, and perhaps money spend on the wrong things.

So where does this leave us?

The “pathology” that has been the mainstay of Republican pronouncements about race and poverty from Ronald Reagan through John Boehner are not supported by the facts. Instead of dependency, we have predictable effects from job loss, mass incarceration, and economic disruption.

Instead of a post racial society, we have the daily experience of young black men who are targeted by the police and persecuted by the justice system.

Instead of confronting the realities of the living conditions that we have forced the poor to endure, conservatives use the myth of pathology to absolve society from taking meaningful action. The myths of the welfare queen, Willie Horton, middle class values, and personal responsibility allow us to ignore the fact that we have effectively walled off poor communities from prosperity.

Baltimore is a good example. It spent $130M over the last 20 years in an attempt to transform one of its poorest neighborhoods. While well intentioned, 1000 new affordable houses, new schools, and new clinics did not attract the employers necessary to support the families in those new houses. Without jobs, the neighborhood eventually reverted back to the same despair, crime, and drug abuse that every other job-poor neighborhood displays. Just fixing housing, schools, and healthcare, regardless of how much money is spent, isn’t enough.

“Having a well-maintained home doesn’t get at the larger issues that prevent self-sufficiency,” said DeLuca, the Hopkins sociologist. “The labor market and drug markets really destabilized Sandtown.”

The problem is institutional racism reflected in over-zealous law enforcement and lack of opportunity in the only neighborhoods that poor black people can afford to live.

The solution is jobs.

The rest is just myth and the conservative pathology of confirmation bias born of moral fundamentalism.