The Colorblind Bind

tags: racism, reparations



Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley. 

... Why are there too few middle-class African Americans in selective universities, and what is the moral, legal, and historical justification for putting a thumb on the scale to compensate? Are direct effects of past discrimination still so pervasive that the 14th Amendment requires affirmative action?

Answers cannot duck the need to review the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and state-sponsored exploitation of African Americans, and how effects of these policies persist. Consider the example of most relevance to middle-class African-American enrollment in selective universities—the family wealth disparities by race described above. Discussions of affirmative action are empty without the background of how these wealth disparities arose.

In the last century, federal agencies subsidized white suburban development by guaranteeing loans to mass-production builders who created places like Levittown on Long Island, Lakewood in California, and similar uncounted suburbs in metropolitan areas nationwide. Homes were inexpensive and theoretically affordable to black and white workers alike, especially to returning World War II veterans. But the Federal Housing and Veterans administrations encouraged and usually required these builders to refuse sales to African Americans. Whites who were permitted to buy benefited from ensuing decades of equity appreciation; this wealth helped finance college for their children and was later bequeathed to them. Black families, prohibited by federal policy from buying into these initially low-priced suburbs, lost out.

Levittown is a nationally representative example. The federal government guaranteed construction loans for Levitt & Sons with a whites-only proviso. William Levitt sold his houses to whites beginning in 1947 for $7,000, about two-and-a-half times the national median family income. White veterans could get V.A. or FHA loans with no down payments. Today, these homes typically sell for $400,000, about seven times the median income, and mortgages typically require down payments of up to 20 percent. Although African Americans are now permitted to purchase in Levittown, it’s become unaffordable. By 2010 Levittown, in a metropolitan region with a large black population, was still less than 1 percent black. White Levittowners can today easily save for college. Blacks denied access to the community are much less likely to be able to do so.

Government policy also impeded African Americans’ ability to accumulate wealth from saved income. As documented last year in Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, the New Deal, from undisguised racism and compromise with Southern Democrats, prevented African Americans from realizing the benefits of labor-market reforms like the minimum wage, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act by excluding occupations (such as agriculture and domestic service) in which African Americans predominated. The government certified unions for exclusive bargaining even when unions barred African Americans from membership or restricted them to the lowest-paid jobs. These policies further contributed to differences in white and black workers’ wealth accumulation, and their ability to share that wealth with their college-going heirs....



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