From LBJ to Reagan and Beyond. “Why America Is Still a Deeply Racist Country”
This piece from Alternet – an excerpt from The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America byDavid Dante Troutt gives first a good rundown of what happened after the civil rights acts were passed, the Reagan reaction and after. Then where we are now and how it has effected the cities, suburbs and municipal areas in general.
The impatience that characterizes discussions of race and racism in our so-called color-blind society has its roots in the momentous legislative changes of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 reached into nearly every aspect of daily life—from segregated facilities to voting to housing—and represented a long overdue re-installation of the equality principle in our social compact. The question was what it would take—and from whom—to get to equality.
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People don’t live in policy and statistics as much as they do through anecdote and personal burdens. A riot here, a horrific crime there, a job loss or perhaps the fiery oratory of a public personality could tip a liberal-leaning person’s thinking toward more conservative conclusions—or at least fuel her impatience. Impatience would ossify into anger, turning everything into monetary costs, and making these costs the basis for political opposition to a liberal state. As it happened, this process moves the date of our supposed final triumph over racism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1980s. In the end, impatience won.
Initially the reaction of course was greatest in the south but it slowly spread. With segregation – even de facto segregation – now illegal, it was also reaching into the suburbs of the historically white northern areas.
What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.
This I think is one of his crucial points. The anger and resentment was already there and Reagan knew how to make the most of it. Winning two terms and then passing it on to GHW Bush who also made use of it. By the time Reagan was running against Mondale and Ferraro these white [former] Democrats were reading their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.”
In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”
By the late 1980s these same suburbanite voters were raging tax revolts.
What’s important to recognize in this transition is how as recently as twenty years ago, Americans’ social lives were very much embroiled in racial controversy—despite the obfuscatory veneer of colorblind language to the contrary. Our politics followed. The election of Bill Clinton represented a distinct centrist turn among Democrats toward Republican language and themes and away from rights, the “liberal” label, and the federal safety net. The question we might ask about our current race relations is, only a couple of decades removed from this political history, what would compel us to assume that we are beyond the legacy of our racial conflicts?
This is an excellent question and the answer may surprise you. This racial polarization what was used by Republicans to install “supply side economics.” Only racism – as he puts it – could force a union of the rich and the working man. But, as he shows, this trickle down never happened. And the middle class just sunk.
But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,” “law and order,” “special interests,” “reverse racism,” and “smaller government.” This was pure okey doke based on an erroneous notion of zero-sum mutuality—that is, that whatever “the blacks” get hurts me.
A mantra the Tea Tarty still holds onto, by the way. Here David goes on to show how localism “or local control expressed formally through home rule grants, as it’s sometimes known” kept white communities white even after segregation.
While voters opposed to civil rights remedies and Great Society programs followed Republican leadership toward fiscal conservatism at the national level, they maintained their fiscal liberalism at the local level. The tax base they created for themselves through property taxes in suburbia could be contained and spent locally. Edsall describes the irony this way: “Suburbanization has permitted whites to satisfy liberal ideals revolving around activist government, while keeping to a minimum the number of blacks and the poor who share in government largess.” Of course, all of this worked best when “suburbs” meant middle-class white people and “cities” (or today’s “urban” areas) always signaled black and brown people. There was no mutuality of interests between the two kinds of places. It also worked when low property taxes—together with generous state aid—could reliably pay for great local public services like schools, libraries, and fire protection. It was a terrific deal. But that was then. Now, neither is true.
And thar me hardies, be the rub. Since the meltdown, cities and suburbs are hurting for money. Services are being curtailed, malls are closing, schools are closing, etc.
The line between cities and suburbs has blurred into regions, and minorities and whites are busy crossing back and forth to work, live, and shop. Most of the fragmented municipalities that sprawled across suburbia are no longer able to sustain their own budgets, threatening the quality of their services, despite unimaginably high property taxes. The assumptions have not held.
Perhaps now we should consider the racially polarizing policies that became the norm under Reagan’s failed experiment. We tried them. Some believed fervently in them. But it is clear that they didn’t work and are not in our long-term national or local interest. There remains a legacy of racism, however, that continues to harm some of us disproportionately and all of us eventually. It’s to those three examples that I now turn.
And turn he does. Giving examples of how he – David – sees racism still in what is done to keep minorities from advancing.
Environmental Racism: Through where you and your children live. Giving examples of how low income housing has been established in some of the worst and most polluted parts of the metropolitan areas where even crossing the street can get you killed.
Predatory Lending: Not just for mortgages but for nearly everything.
Then came the direct marketing by home repair contractors, nonbank lenders, and mortgage brokers—often door to door. Offering equity lines and refinancing against the inflated value of the house, the now-familiar practice became routine. The offers contained either terms too good to be true or fees, charges, and accelerators that were not disclosed to the borrower. Sometimes the roofs got fixed. Often they did not. But the refinancing contained usurious interest rates, unexplained balloon payments, surprise fees, and the prospect of either speedy default or expensive litigation.
. . . .
We know by now that millions of Americans of all stripes fell (or marched greedily) for this good life. The subprime mortgages that swamped Vailsburg and thousands like it affected most of us. But it was the dream of minority home ownership and opportunity that died first.
This, too, is the story of an okey doke. The sale of mortgage instruments at rates the customer could not hope to afford over time is a classic example of swindling the gullible. The mass suckering of so many produced the potential for more suckering, as home buying became the investment rage across the globe. Banks dropped their lending standards and oversight. First and second mortgages like those written in Vailsburg were bundled and securitized into shares, sold and traded by equity investors like, well, widgets. But that doesn’t make it racism.
Then he goes on to explain how Clinton and Bush both thought their policies aimed all of this toward minorities all in the name of “home ownership.” That economic racism is still racism.
Only a handful of cases have produced evidence of a conscious desire to defraud minority buyers, of course. Yet despite the lack of smoking racist guns, there are ways to unearth the clear racial dimensions of the fraud. The key evidence they reveal is racial targeting.
Subprime lenders specifically targeted minorities not because they were unsophisticated or earned a lower income. They were marked for their race and ethnicity. All else being equal, black and Hispanic loan applicants got bad loans relative to their white counterparts in the mortgage market—something people like Kathe Newman knew years before the housing crash. In 2000, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a study that showed that black borrowers were five times more likely than white borrowers of the same household income to receive subprime loans.
Criminal Justice: We all know and it has been pointed out here and elsewhere that minorities are much more likely to be arrested and jailed with longer sentences than whites in any given situation. No big revelation here.
Circumstantial Evidence of a Racist System: What it says. That black and brown men in poor areas have very different experiences with the justice system.
Thanks to racial and economic segregation, we already know that they are not hard for the police to find. In ghettos and barrios across the nation, much higher proportions of young men are routinely stopped and searched by police, arrested or detained, released or charged, and if charged, then usually pleading to something that stands as a conviction on their records. A great many are then incarcerated. The cycle then starts over as they become unemployable, uneducated, and part of an insidious interdependency on one of the best-financed arms of government—law enforcement and the courts. Once they have served time for a felony conviction, they are persona non grata in most job settings, denied housing benefits and student loans, disallowed on juries, and, in many states, even lose the right to vote. Many states have elaborate laws that make the ex-offender a debtor responsible for paying many of the costs of his legal assistance, jail book-in fees, court costs, and child-support enforcement—all on penalty of being returned to jail if he doesn’t pay. The pariah status of ex-offenders ripples out in permanent multiples as these are the sons, husbands, and fathers of whole communities. This draconian state of affairs ought to be justified. The first question we should ask is whether the focus on people from these areas and not others is supported by facts on the ground.
Then he sums it up rather nicely.
Why would our politics allow us to continue spending so lavishly to lock up so much human capital when the results are so racially skewed and offer so little evidence of crime-fighting success? Alexander’s answer is that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, a deliberate form of social control over racial minorities. It may be. Certainly, the policies that gave rise to these funding priorities, exercises of discretion, and constitutional interpretations followed a clear “law and order” path that began after the 1960s urban riots, but reached full steam under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. For politicians everywhere, presenting oneself as tough on crime has been a cherished virtue among voters for decades now, a sure way to prevent us from slipping into lawlessness. What is odd, however, is the concentration of crime. Here again, segregation plays a hand. Since crime is concentrated in areas of concentrated poverty, the broader public’s willingness to fund tough and expensive policing seems irrational. That same public expresses no such desire to fund schools in areas of concentrated poverty at higher levels, for instance.
That is unless you are fairly well-off financially, which most minorities are not. David does not bring up how capitalism itself plays into this and indeed needs it now more than ever to survive. Or that how these capitalists need this kind of division to maintain their total control.
The elites did not invent racism, that has been around a long while. But they feed into it at every opportunity and use it for all it is worth. These elites are, after all, very good at this and tossing things aside. Especially people when they have no further use for them.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
? F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Photo by Mark’s Postcards from Beloit, used under Creative Commons license