Category Archives: race

Memo to My Fellow Americans

Better police, protest marches and T-shirts with militant slogans on them is not going to cure racism. Nor will passionate condemnations of White Supremacy, the Legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow. Ditto for the defacing and pulling down statues of Confederate generals and American presidents who owned slaves and genocided Indians. Instant history and quick fixes won’t result in meaningful change. As long as we Americans remain pig-ignorant of the more recent and more important causes for how we ended up in this situation, the future will look pretty much like the present. And those causes occurred not in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries but during the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents.

America is more segregated today than it was fifty years ago. We live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate and unequal schools despite the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with young black men. The rest mostly live in urban and suburban ghettos. Black net worth per capita is less than 10% of white wealth, its income about half of White. This is not because of slavery and Jim Crow and color prejudice. Those were necessary but insufficient reasons. African American poverty and segregation are the consequence of mandated federal policy from the 1930s on by successive Democratic and Republican administrations, not by racist banks and individual prejudice. That government policy deliberately excluded “Negroes” from American society as surely as the Dalit, India’s so-called Untouchables, were deliberately relegated to lives as collectors of human waste whose shadow must not fall upon that of any of the higher castes. What we call Race is not a biological or even matter of personal prejudice or even of “systemic” discrimination in this country. It is a social caste, and only one group of people belong to it: Blacks. It existed before the administration of FDR, but it was only then that the death blow to African American inclusion occurred, the wilful and public exclusion by law that condemned Americans of African descent to an economic and social status beyond the pale.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Redlining Map, 1936

The decision not to afford home ownership to people of African descent under FDR’s Federal Housing Act of 1935 and its broad implementation for tens of millions of new, White home owners after the second world war, divided the nation into two groups: White and Black. And so it remains. The euphemism “people of color” is not just inaccurate, it’s misleading and dangerous. No other group, not Mexicans, not Japanese, not East Indians, were denied the right to home ownership under the auspices of the FHA and VA without whose underwriting virtually no mortgages for new or refinanced housing were granted. Only Negroes were denied. It was a requirement laid down not by men in white hoods but by acts of Congress signed into law by presidents whose political base lay in the segregated South and the segregated North. It remained the law of the land for several decades. The stipulation not to sell or rent to Negroes was written into the deeds of those homes, built by the millions for working- and middle-class people, especially after the second world war for those who had themselves been considered less than White until then, though their status had little or nothing to do with skin color. By making Negroes foreigners in their own country, our parents and grandparents were transformed overnight into honorary Whites. What made them so was just one thing they all shared in common: they were not Black.

Had there never been slavery or Jim Crow, if African Americans had been allowed to buy into residential neighborhoods like other Americans, that period of history would be just that: history, not a living reality. But if we keep focusing on Black slavery and Jim Crow, we will never overcome their true legacies: the economic and social exclusion that occurred by laws enacted in the 1930s and beyond, laws that established today’s segregated nation more effectively than slavery or Jim Crow were able to do.

It’s a lot easier to see today’s dysfunctional Black communities, whether we call it the result of “racism” or “black-on-black” crime, as the legacy of horrors perpetrated by people who lived in the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries rather than the responsibility of our parents and grandparents. After all, how many of us are direct descendants of slave owners? But 1935 and 1947 are too recent to be called “history.” If centuries of African American oppression could have been overcome so recently by including Blacks in the so-called American Dream instead of legally excluding them from it, that’s hitting a bit close to home when it comes to this generation’s responsibility for the present situation.

A house bought for $8,000 in 1947 ($100,000 in 2020 dollars) is now worth $400,000-$500,000. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to borrow against for a child’s education or invest in a new or existing business or to will to that child to secure and improve their own life. But, even more importantly, the value of that house is dependent on its location in a desirable neighborhood, meaning one with good schools, home-owner-friendly zoning laws, good libraries, supermarkets and medical care, all of which are necessary to a middle-class life. Force African Americans into ghettos, at first urban but now more and more suburban zoned for manufacturing, with third-rate schools and other essential amenities, and you have a country of South Sides and Fergusons on your hands, if not on your consciences.

So-called Whites and Blacks, at least working-class ones lived together in cities all across America (even in the South until after the Civil War). They attended the same schools, made friends, fell in love. They had to be forceably separated by federal, state and municipal law. Those old “mixed” neighborhoods were demolished (think “urban renewal”), with Whites moved into Whites-only public housing and then into Whites-only suburbs, and Blacks left in what rapidly deteriorated into Blacks-only public housing and neighborhoods that deteriorated into urban slums after the industry and jobs that city-dwelling folk of all backgrounds used to rely on departed, creating Black slums in their place. The idea that racism is about color prejudice is just not true. It wasn’t even true in the Old South, except as a marker, after the fact, of social status.

Let people of African and non-African descent live together with no financial disability for either and within a generation or two we wouldn’t even be using the absurd phrase “mixed race.” What grandparent thinks of their grandchild as anything other than their beloved grandchild? What parent strives less to give their child less than the best possible advantages no matter what their ancestry?

What’s to be done? Street protests brought on by the flagrant murder of yet another Black man by a policeman is only a beginning and will be all there is unless a new Civil Rights movement at the grassroots level follows. America must be integrated residentially. There is no other effective way to level the playing field.

To do that ways must be found to make homes affordable to Blacks who otherwise would not have the cash to purchase them at today’s prices. A government subsidy could be one way to do this. Also and essentially if we are to break undo the lies we have been brought up on, textbooks in our primary and secondary schools must be revised to tell the real history of African Americans, the history that explains and takes responsibility for what our parents and grandparents benefited from to the detriment of their African American fellow citizens. Today’s texts pretend that present-day segregation is the result of private prejudice. That’s a lie. American apartheid in 2020 is the consequence of law, acts of Democratic and Republican administrations through the Federal Housing and the Veterans administrations. It was our moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers that allowed it to happen, and now we ourselves for perpetuating it and adding to it during our own lifetimes with “prison reform” and the criminalization of Black poverty.

To remedy these evils will take more than one generation, just as the Civil Rights Movement took many generations to achieve its modest goals of ending the legal segregation of schools and public accommodations. Will we accept that responsibility or settle for the feel-good but by themselves ineffectual street protests and destruction of the images of long-dead slave-holders?

Checkpoints and Mister Charlie: Are African Americans Our Palestinians?

My first substantive encounter with the oppressive Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories came several years ago at an event held in the local Dutch Reformed Church here in Brooklyn, New York. Till then, what I knew about Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank and in Gaza had relied heavily on mainstream media reports. But the event that night featured two speakers, both Israelis, one an 18-year-old about to be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, the other a middle-aged American who had lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to Israel. The younger man intended to refuse service in the Israeli army and expected to receive a jail sentence in consequence. The older man had already served time in the reserves. The church was mostly full, the pews largely filled with people sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But a substantial contingent critical of what the speakers had been saying later turned up in the rear of the church and made themselves heard. One woman was especially vocal, shouting “cal-UM-ny! cal-UM-ny!” in an attempt to drown out the speaker. A lone policeman assigned to the event restored order….

Read the rest of the essay.