Remember that sarcastic insult–born too soon, smart too late, or something along those lines? I think I plead guilty.
I took the usual number of American history courses in high school and college, and thought I was at least superficially acquainted with the arc of American experience. But over the years, I began to realize that my knowledge of history was more superficial than informed. Visits to museums added uncomfortable details to the story of how European “settlers” and their progeny dispossessed Native Americans, and how administration after administration refused to honor treaties. Perhaps it’s the faulty memory of an older woman, but I don’t remember ever being taught about the Trail of Tears.
I was already teaching at the university level before I learned about the deliberate American housing policies that are largely responsible for the continuing disparities between White and Black household wealth. I was serving on the dissertation committee of a social work student who was researching housing policy, and I was appalled to learn that redlining was official FHA policy for more years than we might imagine, effectively preventing Black Americans from building equity and security.
A recent book by Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law examines the local, state and federal housing policies that didn’t just allow, but actually mandated segregation. The Federal Housing Administration not only refused to insure mortgages in (or even near) African-American neighborhoods, it subsidized builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions–if those builders would ensure that none of the homes would be sold to African-Americans.
For the past several years, I, along with my Yale colleague Michael W. Kraus and our students, have been examining perceptions of racial economic inequality—its extent and persistence, decade by decade. In a 2019 study, using a dozen specific moments between 1963 and 2016, we compared perceptions of racial wealth inequality over time with actual data on racial wealth inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents in our study significantly overestimated the wealth of Black families relative to that of white families. In 1963, the median Black family had about 5 percent as much wealth as the median white family. Respondents said close to 50 percent. For 2016, the respondents estimated Black wealth to be 90 percent that of whites. The correct answer for that year was about 10 percent.
Trump’s recent tweets warning suburban dwellers that Biden and Harris will “wage war on the suburbs” is rooted in that history of American housing policy. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times,
Now, as the Trump campaign desperately searches for political avenues of attack, we’re hearing a lot about the “war on the suburbs.”
It’s probably not a line that will play well outside the G.O.P.’s hard-core base; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris don’t exactly come across as rabble-rousers who will lead raging antifa hordes as they pillage America’s subdivisions.
Yet it is true that a Biden-Harris administration would resume and probably expand on Obama-era efforts to finally make the Fair Housing Act of 1968 effective, seeking in particular to redress some of the injustices created by America’s ugly history of using political power to create and reinforce racial inequality.
Fred Trump was one of the developers who profited from the segregationist policies of the FHA and VA, and his son Donald clearly believes that the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream is basically a walled village that the government built for whites, whose gates were slammed shut when others tried to enter.”
If facing these and other previously. unrecognized aspects of American history wasn’t unsettling enough, the pandemic quarantine has given me time to read. From Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths to Ron Chernow’s turgid Hamilton to Isabel Wilkerson’s lyrical and unsettling Caste, my last few months have been eye-opening, to say the least.
I remember when Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States was dismissed as “anti-American.” But genuine patriotism needs to be based on an accurate understanding of our country’s flaws as well as its strengths. If we are ever going to create the America I used to think I inhabited, we need to know what we need to know.
But I am drinking a lot more these days….