January 26, 2013

WE STILL OWE THEM THOSE 40 ACRES:

A House Divided : Why do middle-class blacks have far less wealth than whites at the same income level? The answer is in real estate and history. (Thomas J. Sugrue, January/February 2013, Washington Monthly)

Every once in a while, a scholarly book fundamentally shifts how we understand a problem. One of those books was published in 1995, two years after my parents sold their house. Sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro's Black Wealth/White Wealth stepped into a stale debate about race, class, and inequality in the United States with new data and a fresh perspective. The authors acknowledged the gains of the civil rights era: Black-white income gaps had narrowed. Minorities were better represented at elite institutions of higher education than could have been imagined in 1960. And while in the '60s the most prominent black elites were car dealers or owners of "race businesses" that catered to black customers, by the end of the twentieth century the number of black engineers, lawyers, and corporate executives had grown. Newsmagazines trumpeted the high incomes of black sports stars and celebrities. "The New Black Middle Class" became a tagline. African Americans might not have wholly overcome the legacy of centuries of slavery and segregation, but they had come a long way.

But Oliver and Shapiro told another story, a sobering one about the persistent gap between black and white wealth. They methodically gathered and analyzed data about household assets, like real estate holdings, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, cars, and other property, that constitute a family's portfolio. Their findings were staggering: despite all of the gains of the previous quarter century, the median black family had only 8 percent of the household wealth of the median white family. The asset gap was still strikingly wide among middle-class and wealthy blacks, who, despite their high incomes, still had about a third the assets of comparable whites.

The racial wealth gap has several specific causes beyond the broad legacy of systematic racial segregation, discrimination, and unequal opportunity. Wealth is passed down from generation to generation--even if only modestly. But going back generations, blacks had little opportunity to get a stake hold. Upon emancipation, they were mostly penniless, without land or access to credit (see Reid Cramer, "The American Dream, Redeemed," page 45), and almost all blacks were excluded from the various Homestead Acts that, beginning in 1862, allowed so many poor white families to accumulate land and, with it, wealth.

Meanwhile, most African Americans earned too little to save; most lacked access to the loans and capital necessary to start a business or buy stock or own their own homes. Lack of financial assets made African Americans more vulnerable to unemployment and medical emergencies, less likely to be able to pay for their children's college education, and more likely to be stuck with the burden of supporting impoverished parents or to face poverty themselves in old age.

Even with the coming of Social Security and stronger protections for organized labor under the New Deal, most blacks were excluded from the benefits because they worked as tenant farmers or domestics who were not covered by the new plans. Two other Depression-era federal programs--the Home Owners' Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration--encouraged homeownership and bankrolled suburbanization, but in the North and South alike, whole neighborhoods were redlined, many of them black.

Many African Americans lost out on the benefits of the post-World War II GI Bill as well. As Ira Katznelson points out in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, of the 3,229 home, business, and farm loans made under the GI Bill in Mississippi during 1947, black veterans received only two. Until 1968, it was virtually impossible for blacks to get access to the kinds of long-term, low-interest mortgages that made wide-scale homeownership possible.

Even after the passage of civil rights laws, dozens of studies showed that minorities had a harder time getting access to market-rate mortgages. Moreover, black home buyers were likely to be steered to neighborhoods of older housing stock, often in declining central cities, places where housing values often depreciated rather than appreciated. This meant that blacks, if they were lucky enough to be homeowners, were often trapped in neighborhoods on the margins, economically and politically. As it turns out, the Sugrues and the Smiths were fairly typical of the black and white families that Oliver and Shapiro studied in the mid-'90s. And what has happened since then is even more disheartening.

Beginning in the '90s and lasting until the bursting of the real estate bubble, some progress was made. The percentage of black households that owned their own homes increased from 43.3 percent in 1994 to 47.2 percent in 2007. Partly this reflected a still-growing black middle class; partly it reflected important government efforts to end racial discrimination in mortgage lending, along with the arrival of new, responsibly crafted forms of mortgages for which more people, particularly African Americans and Latinos, could qualify.

If we'd had a white president he could have used the stimulus bill to pay off or down these mortgages. Posted by at January 26, 2013 6:43 AM
  
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