The Persistence of Structural Racism

These days, American racism seems pretty easy to spot. Trump has legitimized White Nationalism, the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras has allowed witnesses to document horrific (and sometimes fatal) episodes of bigotry, and the media is filled with stories of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant vandalism and violence.

The good news–and there really is some–is that these despicable attitudes are held by relatively few of our fellow-citizens. They’ve just felt safe lately crawling out from under their rocks.

The bad news is that minorities– especially African-Americans–are still disadvantaged by longstanding cultural and structural barriers that are much harder to see. Those disadvantages are hard to eradicate because, unlike police shootings and/or racist behaviors at the corner Starbucks, they tend to be invisible.

The Brookings Institution recently addressed one of those “invisible” barriers: the devaluation of black-owned assets.

Homeownership lies at the heart of the American Dream, representing success, opportunity, and wealth. However, for many of its citizens, America deferred that dream. For much of the 20th century, the devaluing of black lives led to segregation and racist federal housing policy through redlining that shut out chances for black people to purchase homes and build wealth, making it more difficult to start and invest in businesses and afford college tuition. Still, homeownership remains a beacon of hope for all people to gain access to the middle class. Though homeownership rates vary considerably between whites and people of color, it’s typically the largest asset among all people who hold it.

If we can detect how much racism depletes wealth from black homeowners, we can begin to address bigotry principally by giving black homeowners and policymakers a target price for redress. Laws have changed, but the value of assets—buildings, schools, leadership, and land itself—are inextricably linked to the perceptions of black people. And those negative perceptions persist.

The Brookings report focused on the question of how much value black homeowners and majority-black communities are losing in the housing market as a result of racial bias. The research concluded that owner-occupied homes in predominantly black neighborhoods are undervalued by an average of $48,000 per home; that brings the cumulative loss to a staggering $156 billion.

Some of the research findings:

  • in the average U.S. metropolitan area, homes in neighborhoods where the share of the population is 50 percent black are valued at roughly half the price as homes in neighborhoods with no black residents.
  • differences in home and neighborhood quality don’t explain the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods.
  • Metropolitan areas with greater devaluation of black neighborhoods are more segregated and produce less upward mobility for the black children who grow up in those communities. This analysis finds a positive and statistically significant correlation between the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods and upward mobility of black children in metropolitan areas with majority black neighborhoods.

The link will take you to the full report, including an interactive feature that allows readers to examine the indicators in various neighborhoods and states.

What is truly insidious about the widespread assignment of lower values to homes in majority-black neighborhoods is that it is essentially invisible. Unlike white hoods, brown shirts and burning crosses, most of us simply don’t see the assumptions that operate to diminish the fiscal benefits  of homeownership for black families. Those of us who are horrified by videos of overtly racist incidents are largely unaware of the ways that deeply embedded attitudes inform a variety of systems, including real estate markets. Those attitudes continue to disadvantage people–white and black–who live and own property in majority black neighborhoods.

I’m willing to believe that the devaluation of homes in majority black neighborhoods isn’t usually deliberate, that it reflects attitudes about valuation formed in more segregated and racially-polarized times. But that’s not an excuse for continued failure to address the problem.

Many white people who would never shout a racist epithet, or cast a vote for a White Nationalist, nevertheless pooh-pooh the continued existence of structural racism, because they erroneously think it requires active racist intent. It doesn’t.

It just requires indifference.


  1. Structural racism is built into our capitalistic economic system. Don’t forget, our economic roots were built upon the model of slavery.

    Quite frankly, workers are still forced to work with shackles (healthcare and higher education debt coupled with low wages).

    If we look closely at the Yellow Vest movement and listen to their complaints, Americans should be acquiring the yellow safety vests en masse and hitting the streets.

    Why doesn’t our free press, the constitutionally allowed media, sound the alarms sending forth black, brown and beige brothers and sisters into the streets?

    As for “structural racism”, how many Banksters were jailed for hate crimes when they overloaded African-American homes with debt and then sold those toxic assets to pension investors around the world?

    Better yet, after the great economic collapse, what did our black president do for his brothers and sisters who lost their homes?

    Nothing. He didn’t bail out homeowners–he bailed out the banks after slapping them on the wrist with fines.

    Until we democratize our institutions, structural racism will continue right along with class warfare. Capitalism must have winners and losers to survive. The majority of white people have decided that people of color are expendable as losers in our economy.

    Just look at all the white people in Hamilton County and the rest of the all-white communities surrounding Indy who drive through black communities in Indy on their way to work. 😉

  2. Todd, reading several of your opening paragraphs I thought “this Todd guy is a mensch” but reading on to the last four paragraphs I thought, like Reagan, “there you go again”. Is it your style, your selection and use of words or do you get a kick out of hopelessly spewing venom?
    I think you show progress to be an instructive writer and golly, we sure need to learn,
    When you wax bitter I’m not learning anything because I’m pretty good at that style myself.
    Please figure out a way to make your prose useful. I’m sure some of us will express our appreciation rather than grumble.
    The pundits last night were on a roll about the cadre of lawyers that will soon be needed by the Orange Ogre. They counted 17 investigations underway not including what the House is starting next month. Have we taxpayers already paid those salaries by the tax cuts or will The Ogre resort to another bankruptcy before he carts off his family to Moscow?
    I think he shouldn’t swipe a 747 but go he must and by scheduled slow boat.

  3. As Americans, we haven’t yet dealt with overt racism. We fail to acknowledge it in ourselves and until we do that we won’t be able to effect the changes necessary to eliminate it. How do we eliminate structural racism without addressing overt racism first? Too many of us smugly assumed that the election of Obama meant we were a “post racist” society. It is clear today that that couldn’t be further from the truth.

  4. OMG; thank you again. Guess we both got out of the wrong side of the bed – figuratively speaking – and decided to speak out! I find myself being irritated by pettiness and repeated negativity much faster these days. Todd’s posts often remind me of a line by Olympia Dukakis from the movie “Steel Magnolias”, “If you can’t find something nice to say about someone, come sit by me.”

    Racism under Trump has escalated in a surprising area (not belittling the blatant centuries old anti-African-American version); today’s Republicans seem to view Democrats, Independents, non-voters or anyone who doesn’t openly support Trump, as a separate race…including some of their own family members.

    “The bad news is that minorities– especially African-Americans–are still disadvantaged by longstanding cultural and structural barriers that are much harder to see. Those disadvantages are hard to eradicate because, unlike police shootings and/or racist behaviors at the corner Starbucks, they tend to be invisible.”

    Three years ago, my beautiful 15 year-old great-granddaughter Kiera was working as a photographer at the Indianapolis Zoo. As she had been trained to do; she asked the middle-aged white woman if she could take her picture as a remembrance of her visit to the zoo. The white woman responded, “You could if you weren’t trying to be white.” Not only was her racism showing but her stupidity was as obvious as Trump’s. This verbal attack left Kiera in tears; when a co-worker asked what was wrong, Kiera repeated the comment which was then reported to her manager by the co-worker. The manager confronted the white woman; told her they do not allow abuse of any kind of their employees, and escorted the woman out of the Zoo. While I applaud the manager’s actions; I wonder if they were legal…this country has difficulty seeing or knowing the difference between legal and moral rights and wrongs against minorities.

    After suffering through centuries of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Laws and the Civil Rights Movement; we seem to have made little headway to ever ending racism. And now, Trump has made White Nationalism his own private Rule of Law in this country.

  5. White people’s fear of Minorities moving into White areas is what devalues Black investment in homes. It is known as “White Flight”. I had a listing which was sold to an African American family. The white neighbor across the street came over as I was putting on the sold sign and said “you might as well come across and list my house now that you have sold to “coloreds.” I went to his house and told him “It is not Black people moving in that causes problems. It is white flight. Get together with your neighbors and resolve not to move unless it’s a really needed move, not because you are afraid….and I believer nothing will happen to your home values.” This area was Broad Ripple. It has probably had the most appreciation of any Indy Neighborhoods. Agents attitudes are everything in the stability of neighborhoods.

  6. Marsha,

    “White Flight” is nothing new. I grew up in East Cleveland. I am white and everyone on my street (4th Avenue) was white. Then, a home two blocks away was sold to a black family. For Sale signs started popping up like crocuses in the spring. Six months later, my grandfather who owned the house we were living in, sold our house and loaned us the money for a down payment on a newly built home in the all white suburbs. This was in 1953, the year Elvis made his breakout tour.

    After WW II, the influx of GIs coming home from war and wanting to start families were looking for the American dream. The real estate and development moguls answered their prayers. So, it wasn’t purely a racial thing, but inherent racism ended up being the engine for expediting the new American concepts that included tract homes and exploding suburbs and their attendant needs for shopping malls and freeways.

    White Flight is still going on, of course, but occasionally we see the reverse happening with the gentrification some inner cities. Detroit, Denver and, Cleveland are three that I personally know of doing this.

    Irrespective of Todd’s usual whine about the media (the media that sells while his paper doesn’t), when black people take to the streets, very, very bad things happen and those black people in the streets get screwed even worse than before.

  7. First, JoAnn, love your comments. Right on target!

    Over the past few decades Indianapolis has done a great job of re-vitalizing some old inner city neighborhoods to bring life back to the city… for whites. Too bad we do not have the drive to re-vitalize the lives of our black neighbors by putting the same effort into the public schools, expanding adult education, expunging arrest and conviction records for minor crimes, and offering a hand up instead of a hand out.

  8. Re Todd. We shouldn’t be expected to all spew in the same bucket. I mean we are all spewing venom, right?

  9. Socialism would be not a total solution but it would go a long way to eliminating the class differences based upon economics and other cultural divides. Universal Single Payer Heath Care, Free Higher Education or Trade Schooling, $15.00 an hour minimum wage would be three of starting points.

    How many of the working poor struggle everyday, being forced to make decisions to put food on the table, fix an old car, or go to the doctor??? The working poor cannot afford day care, health care or higher education, these are the dead end streets of Capitalism.

    The Steroid Capitalist System creates a class system, where the minorities are in a perpetual state of struggling just to exist. The class system exploits prejudice and racism to keep us divided.

  10. There are two independent variables at work in creating today’s racial situation. One is cultural, the other economic. The cultural problem which is very difficult to affect is made worse by the economic problem. An example is the difference between the situations of dark skin and light skin minorities.

    I can’t claim to have data but my perception is that anti semitism is not economically based. In fact it was clear in pre WWII Europe it was the opposite. Jews were more economically successful than the average. In today’s world it seems clear that the darker one’s skin is on the average they are poorer, in fact I would guess much poorer. That adds to the cultural racism.

    If we make the liberal assumption that we are born equal in abilities, meaning that we are born on the same normal distribution curve but with our different ablities averaging out, we have to ask why is persistent poverty more prevalent in dark skinned people? Why is it not apparent in light skin minorities?

    One explanation is that there is more (to coin a term) cultural friction between high contrast skin color societies. The Semitic culture coexists with the white European culture with a higher degree of collaboration than the Latino culture or the African American cultures do. That doesn’t address the cultural racism among “tribes”, but the economic racism.

    When I was in school at Virginia Tech in the early 60s southern skin color racism absolutely appalled me but in general wasn’t much worse than the racism exhibited about West Virginia “hillbillies” who were also perpetually poor, just harder to ID.

    None of this rambling leads to easy solutions, it may well be that there aren’t any. Cultural racism has very deep roots and persists over much longer times than we can understand. Economic racism is the easier to solve but still there are no quick solutions the problem being that poor parents more often than not raise their children to be poor. Once in a while eduction intervenes in that process and while those exceptions are very rewarding for everyone, they don’t elevate the average much.

  11. Please, Todd, no more criticism of the democratic party. You’re like the guy that points out the hypocrisy of religious people. Your criticisms really give all of us a sad. We are all here to bob our heads in unison and dance to the tune of the DNC. Also, only our host and her most cherished acolytes = sycophants are allowed to propagate venom.

    Please,get with the program. Or,we may cast your aspersions upon our wonderful party as nothing more than the rantings of a professional Russian spy!

    The country was perfect until Donald Trump became president.

  12. My support of the DNC is based on more practical considerations. It’s the only party that offers alternatives to the Republican Party that are electable.

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