Triple Whammy For African-Americans

If for some reason you woke up today with an irrational spring in your step, or a sense of optimism about your country’s present and future direction, and feel you need a course correction, I’ve got just the medicine for you: read Ylan Q. Mui’s long piece from the WaPo business section about the financial damage wrought by the housing and financial collapses upon African-Americans.

To make a long story short, Mui chronicles the disproportionate impact of subprime lending terms combined with collapsing home prices, the subsequent decimation of individual credit ratings accompanied by massive credit restrictions and rapidly rising unemployment, and a cumulative loss of wealth and of the ability to generate wealth, with respect to this long-suffering segment of the U.S. population. A snapshot:

A Pew Research Center analysis last year found that the wealth of blacks plunged 53 percent during the recession, driven by falling home prices. The average net worth of a black household in 2009 was $5,677, according to the study, the lowest of any racial group. After years of record prosperity, homeownership rates among black Americans have plunged to the lowest level in 16 years. Unemployment has reached levels not seen since the 1980s.

In a word, thanks to these multiple plagues “the black middle class is shrinking.”

But Mui is only looking at the private-sector side of the situation, bad as it is. Consider also the de facto austerity policies in place among most state and local governments, and increasingly the federal government, which are rapidly eroding the social safety net most important to people without wealth or jobs. And then add in the powerful belief among older, whiter, wealthier Americans that the most conspicuous victims of the economic tragedy of the last few years–minority folk and those struggling to join or stay in the middle class–are in fact the villains of the story, deserving open contempt and further punishment for their alleged irresponsibility.

It is this last factor that is most depressing, to me at least. I know I’ll be accused, perversely, of racism for saying this, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the most prevalent attitudes towards African-Americans among grassroots conservative activists these days (aside from rage at the African-American president and the African-American Attorney General) are anger that they don’t pay enough taxes on their increasingly meagre incomes; fury that efforts to help them might affect how Medicare operates; and fear that they might thwart radical changes in public policy by exercising the one resource left to even the most destitute: voting.

I suppose you could add to these baleful attitudes genuine puzzlement among conservatives that black folk don’t understand the real solution to their economic problems is to support tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, along with “entitlement reform” to reduce the temptation of dependence on government; labor policies focused on reducing those job-killing high wages; educational policies aimed at privatizing schools; and social policies designed to bring back the God-given patriarchal family structure of that apex of American history, the 1950s. But then again, sadly, African-Americans can’t see beyond their racial identification with Barack Obama, and the familiar hell of the Democratic Party “plantation” that offers them the fool’s gold of material sustenance while robbing them of the priceless asset of self-reliance.

All in all, it should be clear that while these are not good times for African-Americans, they can without question get worse.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.