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Just The Beginning
By Deborah Johnstone
The history of Black America is too complex to be neatly ordered into digestible sound bites, although the media would have you think that's possible. To sum up how we arrived at this point cannot be done in 140 characters.
As a result, news gatherers seize upon the most sensational images and analysis: a mother beating her son to prevent him from joining a riot, buildings and cars burning, entire communities enraged and defying police. As spectators, it’s easy to identify the police and black communities as antagonists – enemies in a constant battle that has no resolution. These images provide a simplistic framework that works to dilute the complexity of the situation.
Yes, the discernible issue underlying Baltimore’s eruption is the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, but behind this lay an insidious agenda – decades of government polices designed to engineer wealth inequality. Baltimore is a symptom – the result of a long history of enforced polices designed to perpetuate a permanent black underclass.
In 2013, Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked: “If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination.” In The Ghetto is Public Policy, Coates chronicles how predatory practices supported segregated housing. Prior to the New Deal, restrictive covenants dictated how property could be developed and used. "By the 1920s, deeds in nearly every new housing development in the North prevented the use or ownership of homes by anyone other than ‘the Caucasian race’.”  Segregated housing practices sprang from Jim Crow laws and evolved into codified discrimination in Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” federal policies. The legislation created impoverished communities – the ramifications of which can be seen in every black ghetto today.
Slavery was only the beginning of covenants that would oppress African Americans. The original “race riot” comprised whites and history documents more of these incidents than there is room to cite here. Beginning with slavery – and certainly not ending there – blacks were relegated to a subservient, poor class. The Tulsa race riot in 1921 is but one example of a white race riot that saw the complete destruction of Greenwood – one of the most affluent black neighborhoods at that time – in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A thriving successful infrastructure – considered the “Black Wall Street” of America – was left in ruins after KKK-led mobs demolished homes and businesses. White mobs, comprising thousands, burnt thirty-five blocks of black homes and businesses accruing over 1.5 million dollars in damage. Black men and women were murdered but in the aftermath, no whites were arrested despite boasting of their actions.
By 1921, membership in the Ku Klux Klan was rapidly spreading. The home-grown terrorist organization – led by elites and prominent business men – successfully drove blacks out of politics while gathering nationwide political power [by 1925, more than 2.5 million Americans were members of the Ku Klux Klan]. Acts of intimidation and violence succeeded in perpetuating a state of fear amongst black Americans. Now, we tend to overlook the ramifications of such violent, discriminatory behavior and instead, tout anti-discrimination laws and “affirmative action” as signs that we have adopted a more egalitarian and tolerant mindset. But inextricable from social ideology, is social policy – particularly policy that is devised and enforced by the same people leading the white mob. Since the Klan comprised socially prominent and highly influential politicians [it helped elect state and local officials and at least 20 governors and U.S. senators] it was no surprise that most Klan members evaded prosecution and conviction. It is can also be no surprise that federal housing legislation – influenced by some of the these same men – led the way in creating poverty stricken ghettos across America.
“Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly.” ---Ta-Nehisi Coates
Over three hundred and fifty years of slavery, Jim Crow and Black Codes were but precursors of federal legislation that would permanently segregate Black households in major cities. Congress systematized government-sponsored racism in 1934 via creation of the Federal Housing Authority [FHA]. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, the FHA was to bring about relief, recovery and reform [“reform” referring to the regulation of Wall Street and banks] to families after the Great Depression. The imperative was to provide families with options to purchase homes with little or no down payment and affordable mortgage rates. The FHA “revolutionized home ownership” by instituting our current system of mortgages – but the revolution was only available to whites. Blacks were effectively barred from receiving government-backed mortgages and so began the insidious stripping away of the potential to accumulate wealth.
The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation [HOLC], created in June 1933 by Congress, was charged with the task of assessing real estate investment risk. In 1935 it assessed 239 cities and created "residential security maps" to delineate risk level for real-estate investments. Housing properties were rated on a scale of “A” through “D” – “D” being the least desirable neighborhoods as determined based on racial composition. Areas on maps indicated by a “D” designated areas where black families lived and in turn, were considered high risk for mortgage defaults. Accordingly, the value of that real estate – and the value of those who lived there – was immediately deemed inferior. On real estate maps, these areas were colored in red and thus, redlining neighborhoods became a calculated and methodical way to ensure that Blacks were isolated from other more desirable [white] communities. Routinely denied government backed mortgages, blacks were trapped in inner city areas that were left to deteriorate, where businesses refused to invest, and where finding employment and having access to adequate education and social services became next to impossible.
FHA appraisers effectively coerced the creation of substandard neighborhoods by severely devaluing property and ensuring those areas remained unworthy of corporate or social investment. The FHA’s guidelines in the Underwriting Manual explicitly stated that: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”  In addition, federal agencies "endorsed the use of race-restrictive covenants until 1950" and explicitly refused to underwrite loans that would introduce "‘incompatible’ racial groups into White residential enclaves.” 
Cut off from legitimate government backed mortgages, African-Americans had no alternative but to succumb to predatory lending tactics known as the “contract” system. A recent New York Times article by the Editorial Board states: “The system accelerated urban decline and ghettoization.” The article, aptly titled, How Racism Doomed Baltimore discusses the unscrupulous lending practices that were rigged “booby traps”. If a buyer missed even one payment, the property could be repossessed and sold. The scenario was repeated again and again. In this way lenders made a fortune turning over the same real estate while family after family was sentenced to decline. A legalized system of sustained, calculated inequality was set in motion. Compounding the problem, businesses that violated zoning laws elsewhere were allowed in black neighborhoods. These included bars, nightclubs, liquor stores, industries that polluted the environment, and brothels. Zoning rules classified black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial while classifying white neighborhoods as residential. The FHA would then conveniently label these establishments as blight. This further devalued housing property, again enforcing the idea that any black neighborhood was a dangerous investment risk. It was a perfect catch-22.
By 1940, FHA legislation and unscrupulous lending practices had effectively isolated black families in marginalized areas. Accompanying this discrimination, disinvestment guaranteed that jobs, education and resources would continue to diminish. The inability to access better paying jobs and education is perpetuated through generations. If one’s parents are incapable of providing guidance, support, and financial assistance – and if there are no opportunities in your community for economic survival other than crime – then the likelihood that you will escape poverty is practically nonexistent. It is generational and insidious. Baltimore stands as but one example of the results of this forced isolation; it bears the legacy of decades of apartheid practices beginning with slavery, Jim Crow, Black Codes and finally, legislated discrimination. The real “trickle-down” effect is what you see today: poverty, unemployment, crime, and rage.
G. I. Bill of Rights
Legislation that was supposed to help all war veterans suffered from the same racial discrimination. In 1944, $95 million was earmarked to create educational, business, and job opportunities for returning veterans. The G.I. Bill of Rights provided millions of veterans a path to middle-class prosperity but most black Americans were not eligible due to covenants written into the law – particularly in Southern states. Historian Ira Katznelson writes in, When Affirmative Action Was White: "Written under Southern auspices, the law [G.I. Bill of Rights] was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow. Its administration widened the country’s racial gap. The prevailing experience for blacks was starkly differential treatment.” 
Since G.I. Benefits were administered through the states, each state could could incorporate edicts that would restrict blacks from enrolling in white colleges. In 1947, white schools outnumbered black schools by more than 5-1. Only 7 colleges out of 33 in Mississippi alone would enroll black students. The Veterans Administration would also guarantee loans for eligible veterans but first they had to secure a mortgage. Since banks would not lend to blacks, the potential to own a home or start a business was inaccessible to most black American G.I.s. 
A combination of benefit restrictions, being trapped in the poorest socioeconomic class, and racial discrimination, would prevent black Americans from amassing wealth security. Just as predatory loan sharks sprang up to take advantage of black Americans seeking to own their own home, so to did “fly-by-night” vocational schools – forged by people only interested in turning a quick profit by lining their coffers with federal funds. “Despite the exploitative nature of these schools, and their many educational inadequacies, most of them still obtained state certification to operate as qualified veteran vocational schools, particularly if they catered to black veterans.” 
While millions of white American families were able to take advantage of legislation that supported their climb to generational wealth in the suburbs, most black families were denied access to the same opportunities.
The Real “Trickle-Down” Effect
In Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood Freddie Gray grew up in, unemployment stands at 51.8%, 33% of the homes are vacant, and nearly a third of families live in poverty. On May 15th, Hannah Allam, a Washington reporter writes: “A week of reporting in Sandtown, including extensive interviews with residents, activists and officials, makes it clear that the decay is so deep, so institutional, so internalized that it’s hard to imagine a turnaround.”  Her observation that the decay is “so institutional, so internalized”, that change is unlikely, is chilling. It portends a similar fate for all impoverished black neighborhoods in America and it is a signal to government that moving forward, it can’t be “business as usual”. But change, as we all know, is often the road least traveled.
The result of institutionalized racism is a divisive gap in income equality that has been exacerbated by shifting economic and industrial trends. As globalization moves jobs oversees and strips areas of employment opportunities, black communities are hit the hardest. Social isolation – unique to the underclass – prevents these communities from accessing resources. Add to this restricted access to college [or even adequate high school] education and you have the foundation of an irreversible cycle of deterioration that obstructs any hope of escaping poverty. Pundits have a fondness for distilling racial inequity into terms such as “socioeconomic disenfranchisement” – this is easier to digest as opposed to the more complex reality that impoverished ghettos across America are the result of decades of covenants and Federal legislation.
President Obama remarked, “We'll go through the same cycles of periodic conflict with police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets. And everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then go about our business as usual." Change in these communities will not be so easy to produce. Isolation ensures that we only see the ramifications on endless news loops. Advantage is as insular as disadvantage. It allows us to look the other way or to accept polarizing, easy explanations. Erosion of hope is a cyclical, systemic disease that spreads to ghetto after ghetto and goes unnoticed by those not subjected to its brutality. But as rage spreads from city to city and upward mobility for all races stagnates, we come closer to realizing the growth of a new, dangerous underclass.
Foot notes and further reading
 How We Got Here: The Historical Roots of Housing Segregation
Testimony of Thomas Sugrue (Chicago), and of Jesus Hernandez (Los Angeles), ("Developers of new suburban tracts used overtly racial covenants as a means to attract buyers, assuring the safety of their investment through the use of ‘wise restrictions.’")
 Southern Poverty Law Center David Chalmers: Essay: The Ku Klux Klan
 Hate Thy Neighbor: Move-In Violence and the Persistence of Racial Segregation in American Housing. Bell, Jeannine
 How We Got Here: The Historical Roots of Housing Segregation
[5 ] When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. Katznelson, Ira.
 In NY/northern NJ, less than 100 of 67,000 GI-Bill supported mortgages go to non-whites. In 1947, Ebony surveys 13 Mississippi cities and finds that 2 of 3229 loans (home, business, farm) have gone to blacks.
* Studies analyzing housing data in both northern and southern states show that only .1 to 2 percent of FHA or Veterans Affairs loans went to nonwhites, regardless of military status [The G.I. Bill: America’s Largest Affirmative Action Program]. Compiled by The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.
 “Despite the exploitative nature of these schools, and their many educational inadequacies, most of them still obtained state certification to operate as qualified veteran vocational schools, particularly if they catered to black veterans.”
‘First a Negro ... incidentally a veteran': black World War Two veterans and the G.I. Bill of Rights in the deep south, 1944-1948." 1998 Journal of Social History, Mar 22, 1998. Onkst, David H.
 McClatchy Washington Bureau. “In Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, every day is an ongoing Katrina”. Allam, Hannah.
#Real #Baltimore #AfricanAmericanHistory #Racism #BlackLivesMatter
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