Structural Disadvantages

Today is Martin Luther King Day. It’s an appropriate time to think about where the nation has been on issues of race–how far we’ve come, and how depressingly far we still have to go.

I’m obviously not the only person who has been astonished and disheartened by the outpouring of overt racism that erupted in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. It’s not just the ugly emails, the public use of the “N” word, the “birthers,” and the unprecedented volume of assassination threats; no fair-minded person can seriously argue that the rampant characterization of the President as “Muslim” “Kenyan” “Socialist” or (my personal favorite) “Socialist-Nazi” is not part of the frenzied effort of none-too-bright bigots to stamp him with the label “Other.”

On the other hand, there is another hand. We did elect and re-elect a black President. And maybe the outpouring will lance the boil–we can hope that we are seeing the last gasp (the ‘last throes,’ as Dick Cheney might say) of this sickness.

If that optimism is warranted, if what we are seeing is the rage of the losers, the resentment of those who have lost dominance and privilege as they exit into the more embarrassing precincts of history, the challenge will be to root out and eradicate the considerable structural disadvantages that persist even when the animus that created them is gone. I was reminded of those structures the other day, when I was reviewing a scholarly paper by a PhD student. She is doing her dissertation on American housing policy, and this initial paper was a meticulous history of that policy. At one point, she reproduced a part of an instruction manual prepared for FHA appraisers, circa the late 1930s/early 1940s. The manual dictated a reduction in value if the property was in a “changing” neighborhood, or a neighborhood geographically close to areas where blacks lived.

There it was, in (pardon the phrase) black and white.

The lesser value assigned to homes occupied by African Americans reflected an economic reality–those homes were very difficult to sell–and that reality has had far-reaching effects. The most valuable asset owned by most middle-class American families is their house. (Whether this is a good idea or not, and how our culture has elevated the ideal of homeownership are interesting subjects, but not relevant to this post.) For many years, especially during the post-war housing boom, generations of Americans used homeownership to build an asset base and leverage their own financial improvement. At least, white Americans did.

White Americans would buy a home that (until the recent collapse of the housing bubble) reliably appreciated in value while they occupied it. Black Americans would buy a home and watch it decrease in value while they lived in it. The single most reliable way to build financial security was simply not available to blacks, no matter how hardworking, thrifty and self-reliant. That disadvantage has largely disappeared, but the effects of the disparity still linger. It is one of many so-called “structural” disadvantages that most of us who are white simply don’t see, because we have had no reason to confront or encounter them.

On Martin Luther King’s birthday–and Barack Obama’s second inauguration–we might spend some time thinking about ways to rebuild those structures to achieve that level playing field we so often reference.


  1. In large part, it will just take the passing away of the older generation to really change the country. Many of them have hated “the Blacks” and “the Gays” , the Women’s Lib gals, etc etc etc for 70-80-90 years. They are NOT going to change. We are making great progress with the younger folks. Sad to say, but the bigot block will just have to pass. As monitored by the SPLC, there are record number of HATE groups (many based in some religious doctrine or another). The numbers exploded when President Obama was elected. Connection? Ah…..yes. BUT there are also many thousands of GSA groups making schools safer for ALL kids. I think time is on the side of progress. You mentioned Home Values: A friend of mine was on a volunteer fire department in a VERY white Chicago suburb. My friend told me that the local realtors would explain to a black family that the fire department sometimes gets lost when there is a fire at a black persons house. I hope they have a paid force there now. (I was born in that town. )
    Keep up the good fight Prof. . We have miles to go.

  2. In 1991 Mayor Hudnut asked Gene Lausch, Deputy Director of Department of Metropolitan Development, to investigate the situation regarding abandoned buildings, primarily houses. Thinking this would be a brief, short-lived and easily investigated situation we scheduled a meeting with contractors, sub-contractors, business leaders, schooland church authorities, etc., and DMD staff from all Divisions. The meeting scheduled for 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. finally ended past 6:00 and they could have gone on. When asked what attendees believed to be the primary cause of nearly 5,000 abandoned houses in Marion County, school busing was the first cause brought up and dealt with in depth. This escalated to the fact that people began moving around to get their children into best school districts – which was fruitless. Due to transcient wave throughout the county; neighborhoods began disintigrating. Then came “white flight” and it got worse. When Goldsmith took office in January 1992 the entire abandoned housing issue was dropped so it worsened. Racism was the primary reason for this deterioration and now many of these neighborhoods are almost beyond repair. Racisim in one of it’s many forms has resulted in thousands of abandoned homes and businesses, crime has escalated as neighborhoods continue going downhill. I am 75, I do have a few friends who still carry racist attituded but for the most part, we are more intelligent, more enlightened and we are a big factor in the reelection of President Barack Obama who is being inaugurated this morning. I am proud to be part of the history in this country who helped bring this about.

  3. I watched the official inauguration on Jan. 20 and the inauguration for the masses today. Both were just magic! The hard-bitten bigots in the room and on the dais were barely civil. I could read it from across the room in my recliner. They won’t be happy until they capture the White House again by whatever means necessary.

  4. Oh dear. While there is unquestionably some degree of truth to your premise, when folks operate under that as a sole assumption, choosing to attack people instead of analyzing policy positions, they convict themselves of the same accusations they’re making.

    My father is an independent liberal and says the same thing on a regular basis. He is completely unaware of what President Obama’s policy positions were before he entered the oval office. When I tell him some of the hateful and divisive things that our President has said in the past or show how uncannily similar his current policies are to those of President Bush, he thinks it’s all made up because President Obama is black, or suggests that it’s okay for him to say it because he’s not white. I think that’s strictly an older generation thing.

    I’m guilty of it as well, nobody’s immune, but it’s funny how we can become narrow-mindedly comfortable with our “open-mindedness.”

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