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.