Racism as Reflex


If hypocrisy were currency, conservatives would be able to single-handedly bail out the nation’s free-falling financial system in less than a week, without the rest of us having to front so much as a penny.

So on the one hand, folks like this always tell others–especially the poor and people of color–to take “personal responsibility” for their lives, and not to blame outside factors (like racism, or the economic system) for their problems. But on the other hand, these same persons then demonstrate that their own ability to blame others for their personal setbacks, or the nation’s problems, knows no rival.

So, for instance, if they or someone they know didn’t get the job they wanted, it must be because of affirmative action or because the job was “taken” by an illegal immigrant; if their child didn’t get into the college of his or her choice it must be because of some preference given to a black kid; if they can’t afford to send their child to college it’s because all the scholarship money was given to students of color; if their local schools are falling apart it’s because of integration or multiculturalism; if their taxes are too high it’s because of all those government programs for “those people.” On and on it goes, with never so much as a nod to personal responsibility. Whatever goes wrong in the lives of white conservatives is almost always the fault of black and brown liberals, or so the story goes.

The right is so predictable when it comes to this kind of thing, that you can almost set your watch by their daily eruptions of stupidity.

And so in the past several weeks, we have been treated to three fresh examples of conservative scapegoating and buck-passing, in which they seek to blame the poor or folks of color for various social problems for which the latter are not the least bit responsible.

First, we have Neil Cavuto of Fox News, followed by Rush Limbaugh a few days later, along with smaller-market talk radio hosts and commentators, insisting that the nation’s current financial mess is not the fault of greedy investors, free-wheeling bankers, speculators and other assorted rich people taking advantage of a largely deregulated market for bogus investments. Rather, it is the fault of poor people and those who seek to serve their communities, and especially folks of color, and those who insist on such things as civil rights.

How so? Simple: according to these blowhards, laws like the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which seeks to steer investments to economically marginalized communities so as to stimulate economic development and reverse the longstanding process of racial and economic redlining, is the real culprit. If banks hadn’t been forced to throw good money after bad, and make loans to “minorities and risky folks” as Cavuto said on September 18th, none of this would have happened.

Of course, none of the reactionary cranks making this argument has seen fit to present even a single, solitary piece of statistical evidence to support their scapegoating of CRA. Evidence doesn’t matter. Simply saying it, simply insisting that it’s the black and the brown and the poor who are to blame is supposed to be enough. Sadly, for lots of Americans it will be. The kind of people who listen to the Limbaughs of the world, after all, rarely care much for facts. But for those who still put a premium on truth, and who place more value on honesty than their own need to nurture their anger, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, the Community Reinvestment Act only applies to banks and thrifts that are federally-insured. This means that the independent mortgage brokers, who are responsible for half of all the nation’s sub-prime lending–and who have been writing such loans at more than twice the rate of banks and thrifts–aren’t even covered by the law. And make no mistake, it was the hand of the mortgage broker, more than any other, that precipitated the housing bubble. These are folks who were writing “stated income” loans (which means you don’t have to prove your income, you can just tell them a number and get the OK), not caring about whether the borrower might default, since they were going to turn around and dump the loan at a profit, onto the secondary market, by pawning it off to investors who were gobbling up debt, betting on the further expansion of home values. In this scenario, neither the original broker nor the investor who bought up the debt was concerned about what would happen to the borrower who took out the initial loan. After all, if a borrower defaulted, but the housing market was still going up in value, they could swoop in, foreclose and sell the house again at a profit.

On neither end of this equation were poor people to blame. The persons getting stated income loans were overwhelmingly middle class, perhaps hoping to keep up with the richer folks down the block, but certainly not the poor. Most poor folks are still renters, or just hoping to get a modest home. And let it suffice to say that none of the vultures snapping up the mortgage debt on the secondary market were poor, and very few were persons of color. These were affluent white people, willing to gamble on the potential misfortune of others.

Secondly, the idea that loans to the poor or to moderate income folks could create this mess is almost inherently absurd. Fact is, the risk involved with loans to such persons is quite low. The amount of money lost, even when a low income family does default, is quite minimal. On the other hand, when a middle class family, striving to live above their means, takes out a note that eats up half of their income, the amount lost when the bubble bursts is quite a bit more substantial. This is one of the reasons that, according again to the evidence, loans to those with more moderate incomes are actually less risky than those to the affluent. Looking at CRA-related loans, for instance, the fact is, these represent nearly one-fourth of all loans written, but less than 10 percent of the high-cost, high-risk loans that precipitated the current crisis. These loans actually have lower default and foreclosure rates than non-CRA connected loans, and are twice as likely to be retained in the portfolios of the banks that originated them than other loans. In other words, it is not CRA loans being dumped into the hands of greedy speculators, and then falling flat, taking the economy with them.

Finally, to the extent low-income folks of color are shuttled into the sub-prime market, and then unable to pay their house notes, this unhappy fact owes more to discrimination than anti-discrimination efforts such as CRA. As several studies have shown, banks often reject borrowers of color, even when they have credit records similar to whites with the same incomes. Then, these rejected applicants are steered towards sub-prime lenders which charge far higher interest and place the borrowers in great jeopardy by driving up the amount they must repay.

A few years back, a study of Citigroup (which includes Citi, the group’s sub-prime lender), found that Citi in North Carolina was charging higher interest even to borrowers who could have qualified for regular loans. In the process, over 90,000 mostly black borrowers were roped into predatory loans, and as a result paid an average of $327 more per month for mortgages than those getting loans from a prime lender. This added up to over $110,000 in excess payments over the life of the loans, on average. In other words, folks of color who could have qualified for lower-interest loans (that they would have been able to pay back far more easily) were steered to higher-cost instruments by greedy financial institutions, looking to make a quick buck at their expense. That’s not the fault of civil rights protection, it’s the fault of economic civil rights violations.

As if blaming the global financial squeeze on the poor wasn’t putrid enough, along comes the National Review Online, which descended even deeper into the pit of obvious racism on September 26th. To wit, the blog entry entitled “Cause and Effect?” by Mark Krikorian, executive director of an anti-immigration group in DC, in which he notes failed S&L Washington Mutual’s stellar record on corporate diversity, as if this were somehow connected to their insolvency. The fact that WaMu had been ranked as one of the top ten businesses in the Hispanic Business Diversity Elite, and had received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equity Index (which focuses on equity for lesbian and gay folks), are, in Krikorian’s mind, linked to their financial troubles. Because, ya know, if you have too many Latinos and gays working for you, well, clearly you can’t care anything about the bottom line. That Krikorian presents no evidence, or even logic, to suggest a linkage between workplace equity and financial incompetence doesn’t matter: his readers, predisposed to scapegoat the non-white and non-straight for anything and everything, can be expected to take the bait.

And then there’s Louisiana state lawmaker, John LaBruzzo, who proposes solving the problem of poverty by giving financial incentives to poor women on public assistance to be sterilized, so as to cut down on their birthrates. LaBruzzo, whose legislative district was once represented by neo-nazi David Duke (who also proposed something like this in 1991), insists his plan isn’t racist, sexist, or classist, but merely aimed at cutting down on excessive welfare costs. He also claims that his plan would reverse the current pattern, whereby poor women are encouraged to have more babies so as to collect more welfare.

Putting aside the inherently Hitlerian, eugenic rationale for such actions, LaBruzzo, as with Duke, and most right-wingers, ignores every bit of logic and evidence so as to push this kind of nonsense. First off, he ignores the now-twelve-year-old welfare reform law, which prevents additional payments for persons on welfare who have additional children. Although these “extra” monies were never very much (in Louisiana they amounted to less than $100 per month at the time the law was changed), now they are essentially non-existent. Secondly, LaBruzzo ignores the evidence from more than twenty years of research, which indicates that persons receiving public assistance do not, in fact, have more children, on average, than non-welfare receiving families. So the idea that poor women need incentives not to have babies is nonsense. What they need is decent-paying jobs, something LaBruzzo has no idea how to create.

And finally, the underlying premise of LaBruzzo’s plan–which, if the public comments posted to Nola.com (New Orleans’ main media website) are any indication, is quite popular–is entirely bogus. Contrary to conventional wisdom (or at least, contrary to what a lot of white people think, whether wise or not), the numbers of people even receiving cash welfare in Louisiana are ridiculously small. LaBruzzo, who said the idea for this bill came to him after seeing folks in New Orleans during Katrina who were dependent on so-called government handouts, apparently doesn’t feel the need to do any homework. For had he done so, he would have discovered that at the time of the flooding, there were fewer than 5000 households in the entire city receiving cash assistance, out of nearly 200,000 households in all. Fewer than four percent of black households, and only about one in ten poor households were receiving the kind of welfare that LaBruzzo would seek to tie to sterilization. Since Katrina, the number of persons on state aid have fallen even further, as the poor muddle through with very little assistance of any kind. But rather than push for rental assistance for low-income folks, which would improve the lives of poor folks and their communities dramatically, LaBruzzo is content–as conservatives almost always are–to blame the poor for their condition and seek to change their behavior (or in this case, compel their infertility) so as to solve the problem of economic deprivation. How very typical.

So there you have it: white conservatives who simply cannot bring themselves to blame rich white people for anything, and who consistently fall back into old patterns, blaming the poor for poverty, black and brown folks for racism, anybody but themselves and those like them. That anyone takes them seriously anymore when they prattle on about “personal responsibility” is a stunning testament to how racism and classism continue to pay dividends in a nation whose soil has been fertilized with these twin poisons for generations. Unless the rest of us insist that the truth be told–and unless we tell it ourselves, by bombarding the folks who send us their hateful e-mails with our own correctives, thereby putting them on notice that we won’t be silent (and that they cannot rely on our complicity any longer)–it is doubtful that much will change.

TIM WISE is the author of: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: timjwise@msn.com



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