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New Book on Race and Economic Opportunity in America Resonates with Barack Obama Speech-"A More Perfect Union"

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New Book on Race and Economic Opportunity in America Resonates with Barack Obama Speech—“A More Perfect Union”A new book on race and economic opportunity, titled Segregation: The Rising Costs for America and edited by James Carr and Nandinee Kutty, was published last month by Routledge. This book resonates remarkably with the landmark speech that Senator Barack Obama made last Tuesday (March 18, 2008). Below are excerpts from the Barack Obama speech juxtaposed with excerpts from chapters in the book written by Nandinee Kutty and James Carr. The speech is in blue and the book in black print.  

And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American. Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.  

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“In fact, in only a short period after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, African Americans had achieved a measure of success in resettling their lives. They were farming land, acquiring property, establishing trades and businesses, building or buying houses, getting educated, working jobs for wages, and raising their families. They were on their way to acquiring economic and political power. They had the right to vote, and they became involved in the political process, not only as voters, but also as governmental representatives at the local, state and national levels. ….. African Americans were becoming educated at a rapid rate at the end of the 19th century. While only a small proportion of African Americans had been literate at the end of the Civil War (state laws had forbidden literacy for the enslaved), by the turn of the 20th century, the majority of all African Americans were literate (Library of Congress, 2002). But this remarkable progress was stalled and tragically reversed with a series of private actions, reinforced and institutionalized by public laws, judicial mandates, and regulatory guidelines. Programs and practices that systematically harmed minority households and communities included the use of restrictive housing covenants that limited housing location for minorities; a wide range of discriminatory practices by real estate professionals that further marginalized housing choice for African Americans; lack of government redress against violence to minorities who sought to move out of their segregated communities; biased underwriting policies of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) that further limited minority locational choice, as well as undermined the value of properties in minority communities; urban renewal programs that targeted the destruction of minority communities in several U.S. cities; forced relocation of African American families to isolated, unsafe, and poorly constructed high-rise public housing projects; and inferior treatment of minorities in the GI Bill, New Deal programs, and other public housing assistance efforts.These policies and practices related to housing and other economic areas, as well as the general national climate in which these policies and practices thrived, explain much of the present state of disadvantage faced by millions of American families.  One of the earliest and most important blows to the civil rights of African Americans after the abolishment of slavery came in the form of the1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision which upheld that states could require segregation; and that segregation did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This decision upheld and established the doctrine of “separate but equal” and viewed the segregation of races as merely a matter of social policy; it asserted that segregation did not imply inequality. In reality, however, segregated facilities such as public schools, parks, swimming pools and other recreation facilities, cafes and  restaurants, public facilities, and seating in transportation were systematically and significantly unequal in quality; minority-facilities were rarely if ever even close to the same level of quality. The 1896 Plessy decision marked a significant turning point after which all levels of government passed further segregation laws and expanded segregation practices. By 1900, all Deep South states had passed legislation and enforced social behaviors instituting segregation and the subordination of African Americans by whites (Jaynes, forthcoming). Under these laws, which came to be known as “Jim Crow laws,” African Americans were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, unfair literacy tests, and physical and economic intimidation. Their employment mobility was curtailed by anti-enticement laws that made it a crime for any employer to attempt to hire a worker under contract with another employer. Many agricultural laborers and sharecropper families who had borrowed money from their employer (in order to subsist during the year) were placed in debt peonage for several years. States passed vagrancy laws aimed at restricting the occupational mobility and general free movement of African Americans. One response of some African Americans in the south was to migrate to other parts of the nation (Jaynes, forthcoming). But the discriminatory practices employed in the South followed African Americans to northern cities, in different guises, and continued to expand and proliferate throughout most of the century.   ………………
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

“Re-segregation of the nation’s public schools is a dramatic symptom of the negative impact of continued residential segregation. It is also a litmus test for the significance of studies that purport to show increased [residential] integration. The nation’s public schools are re-segregating (Orfield and Lee, 2004). By 2000, minority students, particularly Latinos and African Americans, were in schools with substantially fewer white students than was the case in 1990 (Orfield and Lee, 2004). And, between 1992 and 2002, the number of minority students attending majority-minority schools also increased. During the same period, the share of minority students attending public schools with white students declined. (Orfield and Lee, 2004).  …… Today, virtually all large school districts have greater levels of segregation of minority and low-income students than in 1986, despite there being modest progress towards desegregation in the 1970s (The Opportunity Agenda, 2006). Thus, although opinion polls show greater racial tolerance and acceptance of integration among white Americans, African American and Latino students today are less exposed to white students than they were in 1990. "

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

 “….Restrictive covenants were a critical tool in the creation of the black ghetto. Restrictive covenants were contractual agreements among property owners to prohibit African Americans from owning or occupying homes in white neighborhoods. After 1910, restrictive covenants were being used widely throughout the U.S.; indeed, they were found to be very effective in maintaining the color line. Other mechanisms to bring about racial segregation included blockbusting, violence and intimidation, a variety of discriminatory practices by real estate agents, and predatory lending to minorities. African Americans who faced violence to their property and person seldom found any redress from the authorities who chose to look the other way. The federal government, in the 20th century, became an instrument of widespread and systematic discrimination in housing through the formal underwriting policies of the HOLC, FHA and VA.  The HOLC, established in 1933 as the first government-sponsored program to introduce long-term, self-amortizing mortgages on a mass scale, institutionalized the practice of redlining. Under its system of rating loan-risks, loans for homes located in older central city neighborhoods, with racially or ethnically mixed populations, were rated as too risky; and therefore, such loans were seldom approved. Under HOLC-criteria, African American neighborhoods were inevitably redlined and not served. The HOLC had not invented these racial standards of evaluating risks; these practices were already widespread in the real estate industry by the 1920s. But the HOLC took the lead in formally institutionalizing these practices. HOLC practices became models for other lending institutions, both private and public.  According to Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, the authors of the book American Apartheid, “It [HOLC] lent the power, prestige, and support of the federal government to the systematic practice of racial discrimination in housing.” (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 52). The FHA and VA (established in 1937 and 1944, respectively) followed HOLC’s precedent; they applied similar racially discriminatory standards on a massive scale in housing markets all across the Nation. The FHA’s 1939 Underwriting Manual stated that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” (Jackson, 1985, p. 208; see Exhibit 3) The FHA recommended the use of racially restrictive covenants in order to maintain the homogeneity of neighborhoods. The result was that the vast majority of FHA and VA loans were for homes in white middle-class suburbs. ………Public housing was built at the most undesirable locations, and frequently at very high density. Poor and lower income African Americans were displaced from the more disperse slums and adjacent black neighborhoods and put into the far more segregated and crowded public housing. (Massey and Denton, 1993). There they lived in overcrowded conditions, removed from the rest of society, in unaesthetic concrete spaces. Living conditions were not only physically undesirable, but were damaging to the human spirit. Residents of public housing projects had few interactions with the rest of society. According to historian Arnold Hirsch, public housing was a federally-sponsored “second ghetto” which was “solidly institutionalized and frozen in concrete,” and where “government took an active hand not merely in reinforcing prevailing patterns of segregation, but in lending them a permanence never seen before.” (Hirsch, 1983, pp. 252-54).”

Against the backdrop of a history of slavery, racial prejudice and discrimination, and Jim Crow laws, modern-day public programs and policies (including an increasingly less progressive federal tax system) have reinforced and enhanced large disparities in wealth between minority and white households. In 1999, the typical African American household had 59 cents of income and only 16 cents of wealth for every corresponding dollar in the typical white American household; and the typical Latino American household had 59 cents of income and less than 10 cents of wealth for every corresponding dollar in the typical white American household (Lui et al., 2006). …. Interestingly, public perceptions do not always match this reality. A 2001 national survey found that four in 10 white Americans believe that the typical African American earns as much or more than the typical white (Morin, 2001). "

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A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods …. helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us. 

“The Complex Economic and Social Impacts of Segregation

Years of ….. policies and practices of denial of opportunity have led to severe wealth disparities, including significant levels of poverty and concentrated poverty, in both black and Latino communities in cities across the nation. Over 18 percent of poor African Americans and almost 14 percent of poor Latinos live in poverty neighborhoods; in contrast, less than 6 percent of poor whites live in such neighborhoods (Jargowsky, 2003). In fact, it is not only poor African Americans, but most African Americans who face a significant likelihood of living in poor neighborhoods. Sociologist Lincoln Quillian has estimated that most African Americans, in contrast with only 10 percent of whites, will live in a poor neighborhood at some point in a decade (Quillian, 2003). Poor black neighborhoods in U.S. cities underwent a transformation from the late 1970s to the 1980s; the black ghetto increasingly became the jobless ghetto and a place with concentrated poverty (Wilson, 1996). Previously, heavily segregated black neighborhoods contained both workers and jobless people. But in the 1970s and 1980s, structural changes in the economy caused cutbacks in certain types of jobs. Low-skilled and less educated workers who lived in such neighborhoods, and who were precluded by discriminatory housing market practices from relocating to areas of new job-growth, were severely impacted by the job cuts. Increasingly, ghettoes became dominated by jobless adults and families. High levels of crime, violence and drug-trafficking created extreme social disorder in America’s jobless ghettos. Joblessness contributed to a decline in marriage and the growth of out-of-wedlock births (Wilson, 1996). A complex web of problems began to grow in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods of America. Hardworking, law-abiding families were not able to find avenues for upward mobility within the desperate conditions of the ghettoes. There was a dearth of positive role models in such neighborhoods. Residents here were condemned to the worst poverty of all—the poverty of hope.  ….In concentrated poverty communities, problems interact with each other and create a complex pathology, far more challenging than the individual problems.  While certain piecemeal interventions to address individual problems could have worked some fifty years ago, they are unlikely to make a dent in today’s neighborhoods of concentrated poverty because an accumulation of layers of problems has resulted in whole new dimensions to the problems that defy piecemeal solutions. Turning these neighborhoods around and providing their residents with hope and a constructive way of engaging in the mainstream economic life of the nation will require holistic, comprehensive approaches. We demonstrate the complexity of the problems facing families in disadvantaged communities by means of two examples: Access to quality education and mainstream financial services. (see details in chapter 1 of the book)” 

What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.

“An interesting and often overlooked trend …….  is the extraordinary number of people incarcerated in the U.S., and the cost of the corrections system; both have increased rapidly over the last quarter century. The U.S. already has the largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in every 32 American adults was behind bars, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006).  …… . African Americans account for the largest share of the growth in the number of persons incarcerated over the past two decades. If present trends continue, by 2020, two out of three African American men between the ages of 18 and 24 will be in prison (Joel, 2000). The nation’s failures in education, integration, and access to jobs have directly impacted the lives of families living in distressed neighborhoods. Residents of such neighborhoods are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, and once having entered, are likely to suffer from life-long negative impacts of it. …… The ever-expanding prison systems have reduced state funds available for programs that promote economic growth such as higher education. 

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.

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“Extreme wealth inequality creates a distortion in political priorities, such that policies get put in place which protect the assets of the wealthy and neglect the concerns of the masses. In this distorted climate, it is the middle classes that have lost the most ground in recent decades.”

[The path of a more perfect Union] …. also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

[M]any of the challenges facing America’s lower-income and minority households are similar to those impacting middle income families. Each day, more families find themselves with diminished employer-provided health care coverage or no employer health care plan at all. …….  And, each day, more employees find their jobs have been eliminated or have left the country. When these challenges are combined with stagnant wages, diminished savings, increasing debt, and rapidly rising housing, health, and transportation costs, a growing number of middle class families are worrying about their futures and the futures of their children. ……  By the middle of this century, half of the U.S. population will consist of people of color. Yet that fastest growing share of the nation’s population is the least well-housed, has the most tenuous connections to the labor and financial markets, has exceptionally low levels of wealth, and is becoming increasingly isolated from quality educational opportunities. These trends do not bode well for America.  Minority households will grow as a share of the nation’s labor force. Their ability to compete effectively in an increasingly competitive global marketplace will impact all Americans. ………  Interestingly, policies to shore up the growing instability of America’s middle class, such as improved access to quality education, good jobs, adequate health care, and reasonable retirement savings are also essential to the upward mobility of lower-income and minority households.…………..many problems that traditionally have plagued lower-income and minority households are increasingly challenging the stability of America’s middle class. The time has come to review our public policy agenda more broadly and comprehensively and take the appropriate steps necessary to ensure our long-term economic competitiveness and social stability. 

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Nandinee Kutty is and economist and a public policy consultant. She has a Ph.D. in economics from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. She served as a faculty member at Cornell University for seven years, where she taught courses on policy (more...)
 

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