Let me begin this discussion by admitting that communication is hard. Words mean different things to different people in different contexts, which is why consultants like Frank Luntz have made lots of money teaching Republicans to use phrases like “Death tax” rather than the demonstrably more accurate “estate tax.” (What the government is taxing, after all, is the estate–the assets left by the decedent–not the death.)
Understanding the power of language both to illuminate and confuse helps us recognize the problem with clumsy and misleading slogans (i.e. “defund the police.”) There are also terms, however, that are arguably appropriate and/or accurate, but that nevertheless raise the hackles of folks who (intentionally or unintentionally) interpret them differently.
One of those is “privilege.” White privilege. Male privilege.
Evidently, a lot of people hear the word “privilege” and assume it refers to luxury, or at least ease. What it actually is intended to convey is the absence of a barrier–White people don’t get followed around in shops by clerks convinced that Black people are likely to be shoplifters; men don’t face “casting couch” situations when they apply for jobs. They have the “privilege” of being judged on the basis of relevant credentials and behaviors.
I’m not sure what other word we might use to convey that absence of added burdens.
Gallagher explained that, in the 1930s, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and its operational arm, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., were established to stabilize the real estate market as the Great Depression was ending.
They are also responsible for creating the maps that ultimately gave the discriminatory practice of redlining its name.
To encourage “responsible” lending practices, working with local real estate professionals, financiers and appraisers in communities across the nation of more than 40,000 people, Home Owners’ Loan Corp. created color-coded reference maps investors could use as a standard to determine the “security” of their investments. Based on their assessments, the “best” neighborhoods were graded “A” (in green). “B” (in blue) were “still desirable” and those given a “C” were considered “definitely declining” (in yellow). The neighborhoods given the lowest grade of “D” were regarded as “hazardous” and were, of course, colored in red.
The idea of a locally based, data-informed basis for decision-making was a good one. The problem arose in the values applied to the assessments. There was a clear bias toward newer and more spacious development, for example. Most shocking was that the residents were being graded, perhaps more than the real estate itself, not in terms of their credit value or economic viability but in terms of the “kind of people” they were. The Mapping Inequality project points out, “HOLC assumed and insisted that the residency of African Americans and immigrants, as well as working-class whites, compromised the values of homes and the security of mortgages.” To be sure, the maps didn’t create prejudice, but they did codify and normalize it.
As Gallagher and many others point out, the practice of redlining resulted in a “systematic and fundamental restructuring of our cities to favor the privileged and divert opportunities for wealth from those deemed unworthy.” It has had a lasting effect on the health and wealth of communities of color.
The Brookings Institution dubbed those effects the “destructive three “Ds.”
Black neighborhoods are denied the opportunity to build wealth through housing (which is the predominant mechanism through which White folks amass assets); they experience the systemic devaluation of their existing assets (both residential and business/commercial properties); and thanks to the results of redlining, banks frequently deny loans, which leads to disinvestment that undermines efforts to arrest and reverse decline.
To those three “Ds,” Gallagher adds two others: asset devaluation, which leads to a drop in prices and allows outside investors to step in, acquire property “on the cheap” and displace long-term residents and small businesses.
It seems accurate to describe those of us who don’t have to deal with the consequences of those racially discriminatory policies as privileged.
It also seems appropriate to note that redlining and its persistent after-effects are an excellent example of what we mean when we talk about structural/systemic racism–one of the “built into the law” systems that are the focus of Critical Race Theory studied by law professors.
I don’t know whether Frank Luntz or one of his clones is responsible for turning that example of relatively arcane graduate-school study into a phrase meaning “hey, White people, ‘they’ are coming for you..,” but Republicans do have a genius for turning descriptive words into weapons.