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The Equity Challenge: Government made it hard for Blacks to buy homes
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The Equity Challenge: Government made it hard for Blacks to buy homes

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I've been hearing the term "systemic racism" a lot recently but what does it mean? Give me an example.

Housing, it turns out, is a stellar example, and through information conveyed in the Equity Challenge, I finally understand another term I never fully grasped: red-lining. It was a government policy whose negative effects reverberate to this day. 

In 1934, Congress passed the National Housing Act, a Franklin Roosevelt, Depression-era program designed to promote home ownership by providing federally insured loans.

BUT, to decide who got those loans, the government, through the Home Owners Loan Corp., created maps that divided cities into color-coded neighborhoods of high and low risk. 

The best areas in which to make loans were green; if you lived in a green neighborhood, it was easy to get a loan. Blue was good, yellow was declining and red was at the bottom. These were areas populated by poor whites, Blacks and foreign-born people, and it was really hard to get a loan if you lived there.

People living there were "red-lined." They were stuck.

Between 1934 and 1968, 98% of home loans went to whites, according to "The Color of Law: How Our Government Segregated America," by Richard Rothstein.

At the same time, some subdivisions where new homes were being built were governed by covenants, or rules, that forbid sales to Black people. So even if a Black person had the money, they couldn't move there, Rothstein explains.

These differences in the ability to buy a home had a couple effects I hadn't thought of: first, in buying a home, whites were able to build wealth.

And, because of this wealth, white people could help the next generation of kids by sending them to college, providing a down payment for a first home, or capitalizing a new business. 

Second, white neighborhoods tended to get "better," with better schools and access to medical care, libraries and grocery stores.

That's because as home-buyers put money into new areas, the neighborhoods drew investment from others as well.

Red neighborhoods, on the other hand, became "worse." And because Blacks were concentrated in these areas, schools became segregated. And because schools are funded by property taxes, Black schools received less money than white schools, Rothstein states.

That most suburbs are white isn't an accident; it is the result of decades of racist federal policy that was legal. It was part of the system.

Red-lining and covenants prohibiting sales to blacks were unconstitutional, violating the 5th Amendment in which all citizens are to be treated fairly, the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that also was to banish its effects, and the 14th Amendment in which citizens are to be treated equally, Rothstein states.

But they happened.

It wasn't until 1968 — which I still think of as relatively recently — that the Fair Housing Act was passed, forbidding the "red-lining" practice.

But the act did little to fix the damage that had already been done. Whites already had a large leg up on home ownership and building wealth.

Nationally, Black income is 60% of white income and Black wealth is 10% of white wealth. 

In the Quad-Cities, statistics provided by United Way state that:

• Two-thirds (67.3%) of African-Americans rent rather than own their own homes, while only one-quarter (27%) of white Q-C residents are renters.

• African-Americans are more than twice as likely to have experienced ongoing problems with leaks, rodents, insects, mold, or other housing conditions in the past 12 months. (White: 12.6%; African American: 30.9%)

Many people (whites and Blacks) think the disparity of home ownership and wealth between whites and Blacks is the result of individual life choices and personal achievement. 

Not so, say researchers at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, who explored a number of popular explanations for the racial wealth gap. They looked at individual differences in education, family structure, full- or parttime employment and consumption habits. 

What they found is that "in each case ... individual choices are not sufficient to erase a century of accumulated wealth: structural racism trumps personal responsibility.

"Drawing on data from the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, we find that white adults who don't graduate high school, don't get married before having children and don't work full time still have much greater wealth at the median than comparable Black and Latino adults.

"Thus the educational and wealth-building opportunities directly denied to people of color in past generations continue to reverberate in the lives of their children even those whose educational achievements open up opportunities for well-paid employment opportunities," the paper states. 


• The Equity Challenge readings and talks introduced the concept of "social capital," a term we're all unconsciously familiar with even though we may not know it has a name.

It is defined as "a set of connections that ease a person's way through the world, providing support and inspiration and opening doors."

We have all seen it. Dad worked at Deere, so his son got a job there, too, and it's as true in white-collar jobs as blue-collar. A new grad is hired because he has the qualifications, but he also has "relative ability."

Who you know growing up can have lasting effects. There is a link between opportunity and social networks.

• Along these same lines, whites have greater access to a network of well-off people. That is, not only may a Black person be poor, but everyone he or she knows also is poor. So if something comes up such as a $500 car repair, whites are more likely to know someone who can bail them out.

But if you don't know anyone you can borrow the money from, then perhaps you lose your car and, consequently your job, because you can't get to work. Or, you pay for your car repair, but get behind on rent.


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