Politics / The Color Line

The Recession’s Racial Divide

So, school has started back and I’m trying to learn biblical Hebrew as a language that’s long be defunct.  It’s so outdated that this type of Hebrew consists of an alphabet with no vowels.  So the Masoretes came in between A.D. 500 and 1000 and created a “pointed text” in other words creating vowels, for the simple sake of pronunciation.  All that means that I’m learning a WHOLE new language with a new set of symbols that are actually letters–in other words, I’m not going to be blogging like I would like to be.  That being said, here’s an article some of you all may have come across in the New York Times from September 12, 2009 as an Op-Ed piece written by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad entitled “The Recession’s Racial Divide” so I’m shamelessly re-plugging it because I think it’s dead on the money. I’m posting it in two parts, here’s part one.  Enjoy. Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

recession gapWHAT do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as a populist revolt. An article on the Fox News Web site has put forth the theory that health reform is a stealth version of reparations for slavery: whites will foot the bill and, by some undisclosed mechanism, blacks will get all the care. President Obama, in such fantasies, is a dictator and, in one image circulated among the anti-tax, anti-health reform “tea parties,” he is depicted as a befeathered African witch doctor with little tusks coming out of his nostrils. When you’re going down, as the white middle class has been doing for several years now, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s because someone else is climbing up over your back.

Despite the sense of white grievance, though, blacks are the ones who are taking the brunt of the recession, with disproportionately high levels of foreclosures and unemployment. And they weren’t doing so well to begin with. At the start of the recession, 33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of falling to a lower economic level, according to a study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.

In fact, you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over. It occurred from 2000 to 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During those seven years, one-third of black children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.

That was the black recession. What’s happening now is more like a depression. Nauvata and James, a middle-aged African American couple living in Prince Georges County, Md., who asked that their last name not be published, had never recovered from the first recession of the ’00s when the second one came along. In 2003 Nauvata was laid off from a $25-an-hour administrative job at Aetna, and in 2007 she wound up in $10.50-an-hour job at a car rental company. James has had a steady union job as a building equipment operator, but the two couldn’t earn enough to save themselves from predatory lending schemes.

They were paying off a $524 dining set bought on credit from the furniture store Levitz when it went out of business, and their debt swelled inexplicably as it was sold from one creditor to another. The couple ultimately spent a total of $3,800 to both pay it off and hire a lawyer to clear their credit rating. But to do this they had to refinance their home — not once, but with a series of mortgage lenders. Now they face foreclosure.

Nauvata, who is 47, has since seen her blood pressure soar, and James, 56, has developed heart palpitations. “There is no middle class anymore,” he told us, “just a top and a bottom.”

Plenty of formerly middle- or working-class whites have followed similar paths to ruin: the layoff or reduced hours, the credit traps and ever-rising debts, the lost home. But one thing distinguishes hard-pressed African-Americans as a group: Thanks to a legacy of a discrimination in both hiring and lending, they’re less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy relatives or well-stocked savings accounts. In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family. Only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.

Racial asymmetry was stamped on this recession from the beginning. Wall Street’s reckless infatuation with subprime mortgages led to the global financial crash of 2007, which depleted home values and 401(k)’s across the racial spectrum. People of all races got sucked into subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, but even high-income blacks were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime home-purchase loans as low-income whites — even when they qualified for prime mortgages, even when they offered down payments.

According to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, a research and advocacy group, from 1998 to 2006 (before the subprime crisis), blacks lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. The researchers called this family net-worth catastrophe the “greatest loss of wealth in recent history for people of color.” And the worst was yet to come.

In a new documentary film about the subprime crisis, “American Casino,” solid black citizens — a high school social studies teacher, a psychotherapist, a minister — relate how they lost their homes when their monthly mortgage payments exploded. Watching the parts of the film set in Baltimore is a little like watching the TV series “The Wire,” except that the bad guys don’t live in the projects; they hover over computer screens on Wall Street.

t’s not easy to get people to talk about their subprime experiences. There’s the humiliation of having been “played” by distant, mysterious forces. “I don’t feel very good about myself,” says the teacher in “American Casino.” “I kind of feel like a failure.”

Even people who know better tend to blame themselves — like Melonie Griffith, a 40-year-old African-American who works with the Boston group City Life/La Vida Urbana helping other people avoid foreclosure and eviction. She criticizes herself for having been “naïve” enough to trust the mortgage lender who, in 2004, told her not to worry about the high monthly payments she was signing on for because the mortgage would be refinanced in “a couple of months.” The lender then disappeared, leaving Ms. Griffith in foreclosure, with “nowhere for my kids and me to go.” Only when she went public with her story did she find that she wasn’t the only one. “There is a consistent pattern here,” she told us.

Mortgage lenders like Countrywide and Wells Fargo sought out minority homebuyers for the heartbreakingly simple reason that, for decades, blacks had been denied mortgages on racial grounds, and were thus a ready-made market for the gonzo mortgage products of the mid-’00s. Banks replaced the old racist practice of redlining with “reverse redlining” — intensive marketing aimed at black neighborhoods in the name of extending home ownership to the historically excluded. Countrywide, which prided itself on being a dream factory for previously disadvantaged homebuyers, rolled out commercials showing canny black women talking their husbands into signing mortgages.

At Wells Fargo, Elizabeth Jacobson, a former loan officer at the company, recently revealed — in an affidavit in a lawsuit by the City of Baltimore — that salesmen were encouraged to try to persuade black preachers to hold “wealth-building seminars” in their churches. For every loan that resulted from these seminars, whether to buy a new home or refinance one, Wells Fargo promised to donate $350 to the customer’s favorite charity, usually the church. (Wells Fargo denied any effort to market subprime loans specifically to blacks.) Another former loan officer, Tony Paschal, reported that at the same time cynicism was rampant within Wells Fargo, with some employees referring to subprimes as “ghetto loans” and to minority customers as “mud people.”

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the forthcoming “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” Dedrick Muhammad is a senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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One thought on “The Recession’s Racial Divide

  1. I do not know how to link President Jimmy Carter’s response to the incivility show to President Obama. He affirms that white people feel that a black man in not qualified to lead this country; thus the racist attitudes displayed by some whites in general and far too many whites in the south.

    Maybe on youtube?
    MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, 9-15-09 countdown #5.

    It ain’t easy being uppity…

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