September 5, 2012

A dream repossessed

This is profoundly troubling. Unfortunately, I can't say it's inaccurate, speaking from first-hand experience.

Yet despite the provocative headline, on the eve of the potential re-election of the first black president, there's more to the statistics than meets the eye, and not all that much can be laid at President Obama's feet.

Bloomberg's story, in fact, points out that that black wealth began to nose-dive during the second half of President Bush's term, when the financial chickens -- two wars waged on credit, huge tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug debacle -- came home to roost.  Then they pooped all over the African American community: 

Black America began losing ground before the 2008 financial crisis. From 2004 to 2010, black families’ median net worth fell by more than a third compared with a drop of 20 percent for white families, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest analysis.
A Pew Research Center study that analyzed data from 2005 and 2009 found an even wider disparity. The typical white household had a net worth in 2009 of $113,149 compared with $5,677 for blacks -- a 20-to-1 ratio that was twice the pre- crisis gap.

As if that weren't enough, black communities were crushed by the debris of a collapsing housing market.

In the simple, brutal logic of economics, African Americans were more likely to hold subprime mortgages -- whether or not they deserved to.  President Bush strongly encouraged a "homeowner society," and pushed it by gearing the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to basically hand out federally-backed loans like Halloween candy.

But when the market went down it took a disporportionate number of black families with them, and swallowed some cities whole. Given that much of America's middle-class wealth is built on the family home -- and that African Americans were more likely to be employed in public-sector jobs, which were slashed during fiscal hard times (and GOP union-busting) -- it's not surprising that the devastation that followed the collapse will take a generation or more to rebuild - if ever.

But don't expect the first black president to roll out an agenda to stanch the bleeding.

For openers, for Obama to give aid and comfort to the black community -- an economic airlift, perhaps -- would give a dump-truck-wide opening to his critics, and loud, arogant, tinfoil-hat conspiracists, that his presidency is ready to hand out reparations to black people for the evils of slavery, is about to foment race warfare and any other nonsense that passes for racial discourse on the right these days. 

Then, there's the whole matter of the incomplete recovery and stalled progress on housing -- easily the highest-profile of Obama's first-term shortcoming. The single biggest problem that could put the nation on the road to full economic health is mired in a deadlock between obstinant Republicans, a housing administrator who's refusing to budge on loan writedowns and a White House that (theorhetcially) recognizes the tenuous situation of banks holding lots of bad paper with "subprime mortgage" stamped all over it.

All of which is to say the situation for African Americans is pretty much like it's been for their -- our -- entire history as a nation.  The old physics equation describes it best:  for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.

For every Abraham Lincoln, there's a Nathan Bedford Forrest, cofounder of the Ku Klux Klan.  For every Martin Luther King, Jr., there's a James Earl Ray. For every Shirley Chisholm there's a George Wallace.  And for Obama, there's a collapse of wealth among black Americans, a situation that may never be reversed.


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