|Photo Credit: Franco Folini|
Sadly, the more I've learned about American poverty and inequality, the more I've learned that, yes, in absolute terms it's not the same as in "developing" countries, but in relative terms, it's an endemic crisis of injustice. One out of three Americans live at 150% of the poverty line or below; ~50 million don't get three square meals a day; we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world (25% of all prisoners in the world are in the US); the average black household has one-tenth the wealth of a white household; and on and on and on.
But what is perhaps most striking is the extent to which financial injustice is at the core of inequality in America, especially as it pertains to the legacies and ongoing realities of racism. In his provocative article in the Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that racism in housing has, since the 1930s, been as much of a scourge in the North as Jim Crow was in the South. He notes that "In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration [which] insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of a down payment required to buy a house...[But] neighborhoods where black people lived...were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red...Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from the most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage."
|The September 1966 Cicero protest against housing discrimination (AP)|
Financial Ford Pintos
Mr. Starkman goes on to say that "Rather than consigning African Americans to subprime mortgages, payday loans, and other financial Ford Pintos, the government should instead dramatically increase support for Community Development Financial Institutions..." Well guess what? We are a CDFI! We aim to put those predatory companies out of business. To help the poor and people of color build assets. To give them the tools to take charge of their finances and their health. And to offer them access to affordable loans that unlock their potential, whether it's a loan for a safe apartment, a new car of simply getting caught up on utilities.
This was not the first time Dr. King spoke of financial injustice, of course. Let me conclude with the following passage from his I Have A Dream Speech:
"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every America was to fall heir...It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honored this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."