It was great to see the always kind, brilliant, and gracious Professor Michael Dawson taking some heads Ghost Dog style in today's NY Times as part of its series on the perils facing The Black Middle Class.
These economic trends bear potentially dire political consequences. Public opinion data collected by my colleagues and me over the past 20 years demonstrated that black disillusionment with the prospects for racial equality had grown from the early 1990s to the point that by 2005, four out of five blacks believed that racial equality would not be achieved in the foreseeable future. After two decades of growth, this percentage declined by 30 percentage points by October 2008 and the eve of the election of Barack Obama. For the first time since we started collecting data on this question, more than half of blacks believed that racial equality for blacks would be soon achieved or had already been achieved.
This relative level of euphoria was short-lived and plummeted with the onset of the economic crisis. Once again, half of all blacks believe that racial equality either will not be achieved in their lifetimes or not at all within the U.S.
The combination of blocked roads to social mobility, continuing economic crisis, the near unanimous belief among blacks that racism remains a major problem in the United States, and the consequent widespread and growing despair about the prospects for racial equality provide the grounds, if not the inevitability, for an ever more volatile and conflicted racial landscape.
The Great Recession has brought questions about the extreme wealth inequality in the United States to the forefront of the national conversation on the economy. Once the stuff of old Lefties, it is a pleasant surprise--nevertheless tragic because of the macro level changes and destroyed lives and careers which have brought these issues front and center--that a basic threat to American democracy is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Or stated as a question: When one group has such a disproportionate percentage of resources, in a political system driven by interest group politics, how does their out-sized influence in a post-Citizens United era game the system against the Common Good and the "rest of us" in the service of an increasingly narrow political agenda?
Economists have long studied the increasing gap between the haves and "the have nots" in America. While their analysis was technical, and thus mired in the stuff of gini coefficients and income percentages by cohort as adjusted for inflation, the mainstream media is finally making their work more accessible for a general audience.
Sociologists and political scientists have long thought that the public didn't "get" how extreme disparities in wealth and income were a social ill because our political culture does not have a language with which to discuss class. After all, Americans are not Europeans with all of their fancy third parties, and where "Socialism" and "nationalized health care" are not bad or evil words.
Even more vexing, it seems that a class based politics that speaks honestly about wealth inequality and the income gap remains hamstrung by a logic where voters, especially Conservatives, look at the rich (as opposed to their own families and communities) as proxies for their own immediate economic well-being and the general direction of the nation's economy. In total, the poor and working classes often choose policies that work against their own immediate economic self-interest, and that of the country as a whole.
Given the latter, I am not hopeful that America will see a radical departure from its uncritical, corporate-consumerist model of citizenship. However, perhaps the Great Recession will force a little bit more critical reflection by an occasionally attentive public on these broader economic issues.
Moreover, returning to Dawson's sharp commentary on the perils facing the black community in a time of debt ceiling hostage taking by the Tea Party GOP on the black middle class, I am pleased again that there is some public conversation about the relationship between race, wealth, and politics.
Unfortunately, this is a perennial chat among students of race and politics. Whites have on average at least 10 times the wealth of blacks and Latinos; single white women in their peak earning years are worth approximately 40,000 dollars, black and Latino women about 5 dollars; in the time of the Great Recession the black middle class has seen its average worth fall eighty-three percent to approximately 2,000 dollars. As the great Black Wealth/White Wealth pointed out, upper class blacks are just as likely to fall down the economic ladder as poor and working class whites are to move up it.
In total, the racial wealth gap has existed for decades and is the result of structural policy decisions made by white elites and the federal government. As coverage of the divide gains traction in the days leading up to the debt ceiling vote (MSNBC even had a feature on this "new" story today), how will the media's frame on the story develop?
Some questions and possibilities:
1. Will the long racist history of the VA and FHA home lending programs, as well as redlining be discussed?
2. Will the chattering classes discuss how federal policy created the ghetto and thus systematically devalued the communities which black and brown folks were most likely to find themselves? Is there going to be a mention of "sundown towns" and the efforts of whites through pogroms and other acts of violence to destroy prosperous black communities in places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma?
3. Will there be a discussion of discrimination in mortgage and bank lending practices that continue to the present, and which put blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans into exotic mortgages, with higher interest rates, and thus at greater risk of default, than whites with comparable credit profiles?
4. Will there be a discussion of how when Social Security was established it explicitly excluded large segments of the labor force from benefits because African Americans were concentrated as domestics, farmers, and other laborers in the Jim and Jane Crow South, a class of laborers not included in that benefits program? And even more pointedly, that because of racialized disparities in health care outcomes, blacks effectively subsidize the Social Security payments of white folks because they die earlier and work for more years of their life, unable to retire at a reasonable age?
Historically, the media frame about blacks and the economy has been a racialized one. Poor black and brown folks are depicted by the media as the undeserving poor, as lazy, or welfare queens, irresponsible, and possessed of a questionable morality. The black middle class and their accomplishments are denigrated and always under question as they are the product of "affirmative action" and are "unqualified" for the positions which they have earned.
In the Age of Obama, where white racial resentment is naked and driving the Tea Party GOP, I shutter to think that there may be a segment of the public that sees the racial wealth gap as a non-issue, and perhaps even a good thing, as "blacks" and "minorities" shouldn't be doing too well in a time when White America is struggling.
Alternatively, as Sean Hannity did on a recent radio show, the dishonest and insincere Right-wing will throw the racial wealth gap in President Obama's face as more consternation creating fuel for their perennial question: What has President Obama and the Democratic Party done lately for blacks? Why do they even support him?
Of course, the Black Conservative banjo players will be brought out to back up this chorus.
In sum, race is the modality in which class is lived in America. More evidence then why a white unemployment rate of 8 percent is a crisis, and an under and unemployment rate for blacks of some 20 or more percent is accepted as "normal." Thus, the job death hemorrhage that has afflicted blacks for several decades is not worthy of mainstream media coverage. It is the norm.
I come full circle in these reflections on wealth and race back to the late (and great) Dr. Manning Marable, a friend and colleague of Professor Michael Dawson. I was lucky to have broken bread with them together years back, just as my journey was first beginning. Trust, they made quite a positive and wonderful impression to say the least.
The late Dr. Marable powerfully suggested that the wealth and race gap in the United States was not an unlucky coincidence. It was the result of policy decisions where the racial state, what was America's herrenvolk creed in practice, systematically underdeveloped Black America.
I know that the puzzle of the black/white wealth gap will not be framed in such a way--where it is accurately portrayed as a continuation of long and deep structural policies and State policy--by a mainstream media that is just learning how to have a reasonable discussion about class.
But a brother can hope just a little bit, can't he?