Solutions to racial inequality should be defined economically
October 26, 2009 —
During the period following World War II, this country changed. With an abundance of wealth from unrivaled industrial manufacturing, the government decided to do something it had not done before: treat its war veterans well. Thus was born the G.I. bill. I think everyone knows about the paying-for-college aspect of the bill, but I think itís less known that the bill also offered an abundance of low-interest loans to buy houses and start businesses. The effects were humongous: a tradition of homeownership and higher education that had not existed previously in the U.S. It created the middle class as we know it. But racism at the time was present, intense and influential, and as millions of families moved into suburbanite comfort, minorities, especially African Americans, werenít invited to the party.
That was the time when the racial divide that exists today was codified. For the last 50 years, even though the social conflict has diminished substantially, the economic divide between white people and African Americans has grown. But how can this paradox exist?
It is simple. Though the economic institutions in this country may be ďcolorblindĒ as some put it, they discriminate rigorously against one group of people: the poor. This polarizing effect is what creates the necessity for forms of affirmative action policies to curb the destruction of the middle class, democracy and the United States. That sounded extreme, but Iíll explain.
For the vast majority of instances, poor people are not discriminated against because they are racial minorities anymore, rather, racial minorities are discriminated against institutionally because they are poor. Overt racism during the creation of suburbia kept minorities out of the emergence of home ownership. Instead of investing their money in a home that they would someday own and which their children could inherit, they stayed in the city paying rent. For the anomalies that did manage to buy a house in the suburbs, the property value immediately fell because far fewer people were willing to pay as much for a house in a neighborhood with minorities living in it. While white people were accumulating wealth and passing it on to their children, minorities were simply earning money and giving it to wealthy landlords, leaving the next generation to pay for their own college, find their own down-payment for a house, etc. Even if the incomes were the same, the wealth is vastly different. Each generation, that transference of wealth (or lack thereof) drives the wedge deeper into the racial divide.
But is that a racial divide, or just an economic one? Functionally and technically, it is an economic divide. A poor white person will struggle for the same reasons a poor minority will struggle: they are poor, and the system provides no advantages for being poor. The poor donít get to go to the good schools, so they donít get the good jobs, so they donít get the good income or the good loan, so they donít accumulate wealth, so they stay poor or even get poorer. The institutions do not recognize color. It is certain and lamentable that there are individuals making hiring and admissions decisions based on race, but not at a significant frequency; those decisions can no longer explain the immense economic difference between the races.
Itís the way capitalism functions, in the U.S. and globally. Money equals advantage and opportunity. Poor countries are exploited to benefit rich countries; poor people are exploited to benefit rich people. This polarization is the self-destructing mechanism to capitalism and democracy. Eventually, if the vast majority of people are really being screwed by the system, they arenít going to play by those rules anymore. If they cannot democratically implement programs to guarantee an acceptable standard of living for most people, they will violently seek that standard.
I wonder, does it make sense for affirmative action to pay attention to race when the economic forces and institutions donít? It is possible for there to be a wealthy member of a minority who has experienced no disadvantage in her or his lifetime? It is not possible for there to be a wealthy poor person who has experienced no disadvantages. The direct redistribution of wealth is unjust, if necessary, as is forcing white people today to pay for the crimes of their great grandparents. But there is no injustice in recognizing the disadvantage of being poor, the threat rising poverty poses to democracy, and in redistributing the opportunity to accumulate wealthóschool admissions and job offersóin order to curb polarization that is detrimental to all our futures. But it is unjust, today, to help the poor because they are minorities, but it is certainly not unjust to help minorities because they are poor. Affirmative action based on gender, however, is still very necessary.