Thursday, May 02, 2013

This was segregation, 2

One of the great racist lies that has distorted North American politics since 1865 is that African-Americans, once they got there formal freedom from exploitation by the masters, suddenly turned into welfare bums, exploiting in their turn the story of past injustices to get handouts from the government. But it would be a brave person who could honestly say that the injustices have even stopped yet. Who got talked into subprime mortgages and then got punished for the crimes of the people who lent them the money? (Before you object read story of contract buying below.) Ta-Nehisi Coates spells out the systematic economic exploitation of the black population by both official and unofficial white actors, in areas where segregation was the law of the land, and areas where it was not on the books. It's one more part of a continuous story reaching back to the first slave sales in Jamestown Virginia.
I spent the last week interviewing men and women, and the children of men and women, who bought their homes on contract in Chicago during the 1950s. Contract buying sprang up in Chicago after the federal government effectively refused to insure mortgages for the vast majority of black homeowners, even as it was insuring the mortgages of white homeowners, and encouraged banks to redline black and integrated neighborhoods. The import of mid-20th century housing policy -- along with private actions (riots, block-busting, contract lending, covenants) -- has been devastating for African Americans. 
Buying on contract meant that you made a down-payment to a speculator. The speculator kept the deed and only turned it over to you after you'd paid the full value of the house -- a value determined by the speculator. In the meantime, you were responsible for monthly payments, keeping the house up, and taking care of any problems springing from inspection. If you missed one payment, the speculator could move to evict you and keep all the payments you'd made. Building up equity was impossible, unless -- through some Herculean effort -- you managed to pay off the entire contract. Very few people did this. The system was set up to keep them from doing it, and allow speculators to get rich through a cycle of evicting and flipping.
I spent some time talking to a 90-year-old man who'd come up from Mississippi. His family had been reduced to sharecropping after the county government took their land. "In Mississippi, there was no law," he told me. There was no law in Chicago either. The gentleman purchased his home for $26,000. He later found out that the deed-holder had purchased the same home -- only weeks before -- for $9,000.
Jim Crow -- Northern or Southern -- is usually rendered to us as an archaic system in which people irrationally decide to separate from each other just based on skin color. There's a reason that so many of us remember Martin Luther King's line about little white boys and little black boys holding hands. It's comforting to us. Less comforting is that fact that Jim Crow amounted to the legal pilfering of resources from the black communities to advantage white people across generations. In Mississippi, it meant the right to reduce someone to sharecropping, or to benefit politically from their census numbers while not giving them any representation, or to tax them for services they did not enjoy equal access to. In Chicago, it meant the legalized theft of black wealth by white agents.
It is very hard to accept this -- the wealth gap is not a mistake. It is the logical outcome of policy and democratic will. From the streets of Cicero on up, the point was to imprison black people in the black belt and then exploit them. The goal was pursued through public policy, private action, and open terrorism. The goal was accomplished.
If you want to know more, see the reading list here, specifically Beryl Satter's Family Properties.
In Canada, we have a similar situation in regard to native peoples, who are treated as outsiders (sovereign nations) only insofar as it benefits everybody else. The vast benefits that we immigrants have gotten in our dealings with native communities are undeniable; benefits for the natives are generally inadequate and hedged around with exceptions and limitations that leave northern communities swimming in sewage. I can American treatment of African-Americans, the impoverishment of native communities is no accident.

1 comment:

  1. I concur. These are our landlords, not a group of welfare bums. I realize that this point of view is not popular, but it is an attitude, which hopefully will lead to viable solutions to these very real problems.