Tag Archives: wealth gap

Defining Privilege

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.

The Indianapolis Business Journal recently ran a column by Tom Gallagher that struck me as a perfect example of White privilege. It was about redlining.

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.

 

 

Inequality–a Rumination

Over at Political Animal, David Atkins has reported on another recent, depressing study of the economic status of American families; as he notes,

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

Atkins discussed the dimensions and effects of the steady escalation of this division between rich and poor Americans, and his analysis is definitely worth a read. But I had just completed a 15-hour drive back from the beach when I read his post, and it made me think about a companion question, one I often ponder when–as on this drive through back roads, trying to avoid congestion–the landscape shows me a kind of American life that I can’t imagine living.

That certainly isn’t a moral judgment; it isn’t even an aesthetic one. It’s simply recognition that the lives of folks who inhabit the very small towns, or who live in the middle of broad fields miles from a grocery store or corner bar, live a life unfathomably different from my downtown urban neighborhood existence. I can’t help wondering how my opinions on matters of politics and policy would differ if I lived in a small house or converted double-wide on a lightly-traveled county road. Who would I talk to? Would we even discuss political issues beyond the most local concerns? Where would I get my civic information? Would I think of myself as a “have not,” or would I be satisfied with my situation? Would isolation bother me? What would I read, and why would I choose to read it?

Surely so incredibly different a life would have created an incredibly different me.

Us “city folks” who have trouble understanding why people don’t see things that seem so glaringly obvious to us need to take a drive across the back roads of rural America from time to time. Despite the country’s increasing urbanization, a lot of our fellow-citizens still live there.

I don’t really know where their “there” is. But then, I imagine they don’t relate very well to my life experience, either. There’s no right or wrong here–just difference.

The mutual incomprehension probably explains a lot, but it makes communication pretty tough.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

This video–demonstrating visually the current distribution of U.S. wealth–has recently gone viral.

The Gilded Age seems positively egalitarian by comparison.