While working on this post, I found myself struggling to explain to an elderly white friend that a certain young black right-wing icon is either an idiot or a con artist, and that she really did say that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and that it actually does. (She also says that global warming doesn’t exist.) He wasn’t having any of the facts I put in front of him. The conversation was quite a shock, as he is educated and intelligent, and I had not heard this sort of thing from him before. I wonder if he is consuming questionable news sources that he didn’t in the past.
Old white people, and everyone else, systemic racism is just not in question. It’s not abstract and it’s not theoretical. It’s right there in front of your face if you would only dare to look. And if you think only the South is the problem, I have two words for you: sundown towns.*
Americans are tragically ignorant about history. And if it’s history that makes us uncomfortable or asks us to do something differently, forget it. I mean we literally forget it.
I am asking you to remember a few things.
A very daunting recent article explained that the wealth disparity between white and black American families has not gotten any better over the course of more than 40 years. Not any better. We all know that economic inequality has gotten worse in our country, but we white folks may not realize how much harder our black neighbors have been hit. I hope the paywall doesn’t make it impossible for you to see it, because its 14 charts will hit you square between the eyes.
Here is what I particularly want you to look at: “In 1968, a typical middle-class black household had $6,674 in wealth compared with $70,786 for the typical middle-class white household, according to data from the historical Survey of Consumer Finances that has been adjusted for inflation. In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household, an even larger gap in percentage terms.”
My own family’s economic path
You can skip this next section and all its details if you like. I’m going to outline how things have gone for my own family’s finances over the past century. My point is that we have had the benefit of some built-in advantages as well as a good deal of dumb luck and a few smart decisions. Many of these advantages have been denied to black families.
My mother was born in 1924. Her parents were both immigrants from Slovakia with little education. My grandfather worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine. After his death, during the Depression, my grandmother worked as a live-in domestic, leaving her eldest daughter to take care of the other children. They didn’t have much. Most people didn’t.
My mother was the valedictorian of her high school class. To the best of my knowledge, her siblings did not finish high school. Her brother, like many teenage boys at the time, left home to wander and find work, so that he would not be a burden on the family. He ended up as a Navy pilot.
During WWII, my mother got a job at US Steel in the Youngstown, Ohio area. Due to a severe allergic reaction to the tiny bits of steel that flew around in the air in the mill, she was moved into an office job. This was a lucky fluke that let her keep her job when the men returned from the war and most of the women were laid off.
At that time, it was common to find a good middle-class job with benefits with no more than a high school education. My mother became an accountant, training on the job, and worked in that capacity at US Steel for 37 years, until the mid-1970s when the plant closed. She had enough years in to retire early with a pension, something that is no longer common. It wasn’t very much, but it made a huge difference to the rest of her life.
For many years, US Steel routinely paid women less than men for similar jobs, but the union negotiated equal pay, which as the sole breadwinner my mother needed badly. The union also provided a scholarship which covered almost all of my bachelor’s degree.
As a single mother, she needed child care. My grandmother moved in with us, which was another crucial factor for our survival. Gram was not particularly warm and fuzzy, but she did take her job of caring for me seriously, and I was kept safe and well fed. Working a reasonable schedule and having this help, my mother was able to pay attention to reading to me and taking me on outings and trips.
In 1962 or thereabouts, my mother bought a house for about $10,000. That house went for only $13,000 when she sold it in 1987, the area was so depressed, but that gave her a little something to work with when she moved to Albuquerque to be near my husband and me and our soon-to-be-born daughter. She eventually bought a house here. Through some rather complex circumstances, I inherited it, and the tenant who lived there at the time of her death is still there. He can’t pay the full market rate, but the house is paid off and it works out.
You see where I’m going with this— the sums of money are small, but they accumulate and build financial stability and family wealth.
My husband’s parents were also second-generation Americans whose parents had a similar background to my mother’s. My father-in-law worked in the mill, and my mother-in-law had worked at a china factory for a while. Most people we knew were like that, working in manufacturing, usually at the same company for decades, ending up with decent pensions.
Now, to the next generation. Despite two degrees, I never had a reasonable income till I was in my 40s and had established my acupuncture practice; before that, I was a starving teacher of private music lessons. My husband taught school most of his working life. At first he was a band director, but the music programs kept being cut, and he ended up doing special ed. We were lower middle class for the majority of that time, I would say.
We left the extremely depressed Youngstown area, where my husband first band director job had been destroyed by cuts to school budgets, and moved to Albuquerque in 1984. We had almost nothing, but we were both able to get low-paid jobs in a music store and that got us started. That company went out of business due to extremely poor investment decisions on the part of the owner, again leaving us bereft. By that time we had enough private students and gigs to tide us over. Eventually my husband was able to get another job as a band director.
These jobs remained shaky. When our daughter was born in 1988, my husband had only a half-time position. We were trying to buy the house we had been renting, and the owners were willing, but the bank that held the underlying mortgage wouldn’t even return our phone calls, and loans were not easy to come by. Parents to the rescue! My in-laws, who had long since paid off their own modest house, gave us the $18,000 needed to pay off that mortgage so that the owners could then take back a real-estate contract and sell the house to us. That $18,000 doesn’t sound like much today, but back then it was a fortune equal to a year of our gross income. And it was another absolutely crucial step.
We lived in that house till 2002, at which time we moved into our present house, with my mother following a few months later. We rented our old house out, and she sold hers to a friend, also on an REC. That deal came to a bad end, and as I said, I inherited the house.
Late last year the tenants at our old house had to move— the same tenants all that time, who we were so fortunate to have— and we sold the house this spring. We put a lot into it over the years, but still came out well ahead.
Another stroke of good fortune was that my mother never needed to go into a long-term care facility. My husband was retired by the time she began to need serious care, and he was a wonderful help to her until she passed in early 2017. She had told us that she didn’t have much in the way of assets, but somehow, amazingly, she had managed to save about 4 times the annual sum of her meager pension and Social Security. (She had done some part-time accounting work into her late 70s, so had a bit of extra income, but even so, this was quite impressive.) I think she expected to need that money for medical costs and/or a nursing home, so she didn’t count it as disposable and was careful not to touch it. Between Medicare and the health insurance she still had after all those years from her US Steel job, most everything was covered, and we had no financial worries in wrapping up her estate.
The result of all this, thus far, is that although none of us ever had high incomes, we are living in a state of relative wealth and financial stability and are able to help others a bit. A major illness or other disaster could change all that, but we do have a cushion. In contrast, we’re all told that the majority of American families could not cover a $400 emergency expense. There are all sorts of factors that could be involved, but let’s think about some specific things that might have happened to a black family over time that would prevent them from accumulating wealth.
Did you know that the Social Security program left out huge swaths of the population when it was originally designed? Social Security was not extended to some of the people who needed it the most, domestic and agricultural workers. It has often been written that this was intentionally done to exclude people of color.
This second article argues that the decision to exclude such workers was not racially motivated, since self-employed and government workers, as well as employees of churches and nonprofits, were also excluded. Perhaps, but whatever was in the minds of the designers, the effect was still to deny this income to a great many black and brown families, while most white families could receive it.
Domestic and agricultural workers are now covered, at least in theory, but for decades their families were further impoverished by the exclusion, over and above the fact that their incomes were low to begin with.
Home ownership is the main way families in the US build wealth. Black families have been consistently and systematically hampered in their ability to buy and keep houses and to choose where they want to live.
In case you are not convinced of that, here is a quick summary of the history of redlining, predatory loans and other ways African-Americans have been prevented from getting in on that vaunted American Dream:
The report states, “If white wealth remained stagnant, it would still take black families 228 years and Latino families 84 years to gain parity.”
“‘Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,’ said economist Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.”
But what if, against the odds, you did build up some wealth? Say you’ve managed to put together a nice place to live, along with your family and friends. Then someone comes and simply tears it all down.
Or, as happened in the Tulsa massacre we’ve been reminded of this week, white people who resent your success can come and kill you and burn everything.
This is long enough already, so for now I’ll leave out other factors like health disparities, mass incarceration, and the effects of the so-called War on Drugs, which has been more like a war on poor people.
In many ways the ladder to success in this country has gotten slipperier and tougher to scale, and some of the rungs that used to exist have been broken. Insane health care costs, unaffordable higher education, the gig economy, and jobs without benefits, predictable schedules or sufficient hours to get by— all that hurts everyone except those at the very top (and if they thought more about it they’d realize it’s not great for them either). It’s not like any racial or ethnic group has it easy these days. It’s just that anything that whacks the population as a whole, like COVID-19, tends to whack black Americans harder.
We’re so used to this that it all seems normal and inevitable. It’s not, and it never was. If you can step outside your unconscious expectations for a moment, maybe you can begin to see the craziness. Imagine that you are visiting from Alpha Centauri, planning to have a look at the Grand Canyon. Someone tells you that an Earth person’s chances of living a decent life in many parts of the planet depend on the amount of pigment in the outer covering of their body. You say, “Get outta here! You’re kidding, right?” You can’t imagine that happening on your own planet (where everything sensibly depends on the number of tentacles on one’s head). You make a mental note to avoid this bizarre place for future vacations.
Humans take any excuse to look down on other humans. It seems to be ingrained. I suppose that at some time very, very long ago it was good for our survival and so the trait stuck. It is exceedingly bad for our survival now. We’ve got to stop it, and we’ve got to do that first within ourselves. But even while we’re struggling with that challenge, we can create systems that are more equitable and increase opportunity.
*And one more word: Levittown. “As well as a symbol of the American Dream, Levittown would also become a symbol of racial segregation in the United States, due to Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement signed by the first residents of Levittown, who had an option to buy their homes. This “restrictive covenant” stated in capital letters and bold type that the house could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”
“Such discriminatory housing standards were consistent with government policies of the time. The Federal Housing Administration allowed developers to justify segregation within public housing. The FHA only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments which discouraged developers from creating racially integrated housing. Before the sale of Levittown homes began, the sales agents were aware that no applications from black families would be accepted. As a result, American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were black.”