Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apologies For Slavery: But, Where Are The Reparations?

Almost 150 years after the Civil War, and the day before Juneteenth – which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in Texas who did not know that the Civil War had ended two years earlier – the U.S. Senate finally approved a resolution apologizing for slavery.

The resolution passed in the Senate on a voice vote, said it was important for Americans to apologize for slavery “so they can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people of the United States.”

The Connecticut General Assembly recently adopted its own apology for slavery. The General Assembly’s resolution:

urges schools, colleges, universities, religious and civic institutions, businesses and professional associations to do all within their respective powers to acknowledge the transgressions of Connecticut's journey from a colony to a leading state in the abolition efforts and to learn the lessons of history in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past and to promote racial equality and reconciliation; and

calls on all Connecticut residents to recommit their state, their communities and themselves to the proclamation of their nation's Declaration of Independence that "all persons are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" and to work daily to treat all persons with abiding respect for their humanity and to eliminate racial prejudices, injustices and discrimination from our society.

While I think that both of these resolutions are important steps in acknowledging what the Connecticut resolution describes as “the history of wrongs inflicted upon blacks,” neither will do much to really repair harms caused by centuries of chattel slavery followed by decades of state sanctioned discrimination.

Reparations are the only way to repair the harms.

Unfortunately, neither resolution calls for reparations (indeed, a disclaimer tacked on at the end of the U.S. Senate’s measure said nothing in the resolution authorizes or supports reparations for slavery).

Back in 2000, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant about a growing call for reparations. Nearly 10 years later, the need for reparations are perhaps more urgent than ever.

Below is my letter to the editor, published June 17, 2000 in the Hartford Courant:

“With city councils across the country -- most recently, Chicago and Dallas -- passing resolutions in support of a congressional bill that would spend $8 million to study reparations for slavery, it seems as if the movement for reparations is finally being taken seriously.

Cities across Connecticut should embrace this movement by passing a resolution calling for the U.S. government to pay reparations to African Americans for work their forebears did during approximately three centuries of forced servitude and for their subsequent subordination under the weight of discrimination.

Many people may object, however, claiming that reparations for the descendants of slaves are a farfetched idea. But there are a number of precedents.

For example, even though international law did not require Germany to compensate the victims of the Third Reich, in 1952 Germany began making reparation payments to survivors of the Holocaust, totaling more than $58 billion in present-day dollars.

And approximately 46 years after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the evacuation, relocation and internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry by the U.S. military, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, setting in motion the statutory means by which Japanese Americans would receive reparations.

The moral basis for reparations for African Americans is clear.

First, the trans-Atlantic African slave trade was one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity in the last 500 years. Tens of millions of human beings were forcibly removed from their homeland and sold into slavery in the Americas.

Although the estimates vary, anywhere from 10 million to 25 million Africans died in the bowels of slave ships in route from Africa to the Americas.

As a result of this holocaust of enslavement, African people in the Americas lost their religions, languages, histories, customs, cultures and families.

Second, because of the social and economic injustices they have experienced since the end of the Civil War, more than a century after the end of slavery, compared to whites, African Americans are poorer and less educated and earn less income. Indeed, on nearly every measure of mainstream life in American society, African Americans lag behind whites.

A trust fund should be created and money from that fund should be distributed for programs designed to improve the standard of education, health and housing for black people.

The payment of group reparations would create the need and provide the opportunity for institution building in the African American community that individual compensation would not.

What would it take to adequately compensate African Americans for more than 380 years of exploitation and mistreatment? Estimates of the dollar amount of reparations vary widely.

However, even after subtracting the value of welfare programs in recent years, it would still cost America several trillion dollars to adequately compensate African Americans for damages caused by slavery and years of racism and discrimination.

Unfortunately, African Americans may never receive reparations because whites either do not know or simply refuse to acknowledge that America's economic evolution once depended on slave labor and that their white ancestors participated either in selling and buying Africans or in owning them.

If America is to bridge its racial divide, it must accept responsibility for the horrors of slavery and the century of systematic and government sanctioned oppression that followed. Reparations contain within them the seeds for that closure.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

Systemic Racism In The Housing Market: How Reverse Redlining Works

During the past couple of weeks, I read several articles that really made me think a lot about racial inequality in our country.

One article that really caught my attention appeared in the New York Times.

I like the Times article, "Bank Accused of Pushing Mortgage Deals on Blacks," because it sheds light on a key, yet rarely spoken, reason behind the collapse of the nation's housing market in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana.

Though they don't name it, the problem identified by the Times is systemic racism.

It is really rare for me to find in the mainstream media – unless I am looking especially hard – reporting that focuses on how race continues to shape outcomes and opportunities in America.

But, before I dive into the Times article, I have to write a little about my home town, the Motor City.

How bad are things in Detroit?

A January 29, 2009 article in the Chicago Tribune reported that the median price of a home sold in Detroit last December was $7,500.

Yeah, $7,500! That is not a typo.

For those who may not know what the median means, let me put it another way: half the homes being sold in the "Big D" sell for less than $7,500.

Not $75,000 – that's seven thousand five hundred dollars, far below the asking price for the lowest-priced car on the new-car market.

"Detroit has been quietly slipping into social and economic crisis for 40 years," writes the author of the article, Tim Jones. "One-third of the population lives in poverty, and almost 50 percent of children are in poverty, according to data from the Detroit-Area Community Indicators System. Median household income has dropped 24 percent since 2000, according to the Census Bureau."

The City of Detroit, which has lost half of its population over the last 50 years, is deeply in debt, has a gutted tax base, is deceptively large (covering 139 square miles, you could fit Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco inside the city borders), and is completely dependent on a deeply troubled automobile industry.

The last thing Detroit needed was predatory lenders rooming its struggling neighborhoods singling out blacks for high-interests subprime loans.

According to the Times article, predatory lenders roomed the neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland. They found plenty of victims.

The City of Baltimore has launched a federal lawsuit against banking giant, Wells Fargo, for a systematic pattern of predatory lending in black communities which has contributed to thousands of homes sliding into foreclosure costing the city millions in tax dollars and city services.

A former loan officer for Wells Fargo, Beth Jacobson, has spilled the beans.

Once the banks top-producing subprime loan officer nationally, "Wells Fargo, Ms. Jacobson [who is white] said in an interview, saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation's home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages."

According to the article, her testimony, along with that of another former loan officer, Tony Paschal [who is black], "provide the first detailed accusations of deliberate racial steering into subprimes by one of the nation's top banks."

According to Paschal, in 2001, Wells Fargo created a special unit to push subprime loans on black customers, particularly those living in Baltimore, southeast Washington and Prince George's County, Md.

Paschal said in his affidavit, "They referred to subprime loans made in minority communities as ghetto loans and minority customers as 'those people have bad credit', 'those people don't pay their bills' and 'mud people.' "

This form of reverse redlining, that is specifically marketing black (and Latino) communities for expensive and overburdening loans is not confined to Wells Fargo. The N.A.A.C.P. has filed a class-action lawsuit charging systematic racial discrimination by more than a dozen banks.

Baltimore is not as economically and socially depressed as Detroit. But, like Detroit, it suffers from the consequences of decades of White Flight, de-industrialization, and systemic racism.

The New York Times article should be mandatory reading for policy makers in Washington and should help put to rest the idea that the subprime meltdown is primarily the result of greed and mismanagement by bankers and mortgage companies on Wall Street.