Guest Commentary: The Racial Wealth Gap Is a Civil Liberties Issue

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The fact that the racial and economic oppression of Black Americans are two sides of the same coin is something we too often are reminded of.

By Rakim Brooks

As far back as the 1930s, the ACLU affirmed that economic justice was essential to achieving racial justice. In its 1931 Black Justice report, the organization’s first on the civil liberties of Black Americans, the ACLU reported that more than 3,555 Negroes had been lynched since 1882, averaging 74 per year or more than one per week. According to the forward, written by Broadus Mitchell of Maryland, Black Justice’s purpose was to answer “Why these gross discriminations against the Negro?” Mitchell replied to that crucial question with remarkable clarity: “The Negro has been oppressed because he has a low standard of living and little economic independence. And the other way around, he is economically servile because he has been oppressed.”

Whether or not he knew it, Mitchell was making an important constitutional observation: The Constitution’s promises of liberty and equality are linked. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court held that equal protection and “substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects.” Subsequently, Justice Kennedy, author of the Lawrence opinion, explained that the government has a “legitimate interest … in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race.” While we have historically thought of equality in the narrow terms of equal protection and due process, we take Mitchell’s forward as a call to consider how our present definition of rights, and actions to defend those rights, are tied to past discrimination, especially economic discrimination.

Though much has changed since the publication of Black Justice, the economic position of Black Americans relative to white Americans remains precarious at best. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, former slaves owned 0.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. Over 150 years later, the descendants of those slaves own just 1 percent of the nation’s total wealth. In other words, even emancipation, civil rights, increases to education, and improved employment have not substantially advanced Black people’s democratic participation in our economic system. The power of inherited wealth is in fact so pronounced that economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity concluded intergenerational transfers “account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other demographic and socioeconomic indicators.”

That would be bad enough, but racial discrimination persists to worsen the situation — and this is the key: Discrimination persists in part because Black people’s subordinate economic position left them with little ability to resist. Ongoing labor market discrimination by the government, unions, and private employers, topped off by housing segregation, forces most Black Americans into unstable jobs with poor wages and a lack of essential retirement benefits. And for those who can pull together enough to try and acquire a home, Black Americans often find themselves in a “Jim Crow credit market” for mortgages. That market provides whites with lower interest rates and longer repayment periods, while giving Black people just the opposite though their economic situation is more vulnerable. To quote Shakespeare, “what’s past is prologue” in the case of race, wealth, and power in America.

In the aftermath of the subprime housing crisis, the ACLU returned to its roots, making a firmer case for the relationship between equal protection and economic justice. The crisis, which resulted from targeted discrimination and then the financialization of that discrimination, wiped out 53 percent of Black wealth, compared to 16 percent of white wealth, permanently devastating Black communities. As of 2016, only 40 percent of Black families owned homes, compared with 70 percent of white households. This was intolerable to us, and threatened our constitutional order by further imperiling the equal status of Black Americans.

The ACLU’s Racial Justice Program has fought to hold Wall Street accountable in groundbreaking cases like Adkins v. Morgan Stanley for fueling predatory lending in communities of color and, with our Smart Justice campaign, challenged the unconstitutional incarceration of people too poor to pay fines and fees they owe local courts. Our amicus brief in Timbs v. Indiana detailed how the reliance on fines and fees for government revenue creates powerful incentives to impose excessive financial penalties, with disastrous consequences on people who cannot pay. Single mothers of color were jailed for up to 57 days and separated from their children because they could not pay exorbitant fines to the courts of Lexington County, South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of people are harmed by North Carolina’s revocation of driver’s licenses simply for inability to pay court debt. The list goes on. Our Smart Justice campaign is also actively challenging the criminalization of private debt, which again is targeted at low-income communities of color who rely on subprime loans because of their lack of access to mainstream finance.

Systemic Equality augments those efforts and takes the ACLU to the next level in its fight against the economic, legally enshrined repression suffered by Black Americans. We are tackling the roots of the problem by breaking down systems designed to discriminate against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Student Debt. America’s system of education finance has driven the cost of higher education higher beyond imagination. And Black families, which were historically denied housing wealth, take on the greatest burden in this system, perpetuating our nation’s history of redlining and housing discrimination. This system is racist and predatory, so we are calling for the Biden administration to forgive $50,000 of student debt per borrower. If we achieve this result, the racial wealth gap will be reduced by 22 percent.

Postal Banking. As of 2017, 47 percent of Black Americans were un- or under-banked, compared with just 33 percent of white Americans, and so often find themselves trapped by usurious debt that depletes their ability to build wealth. The U.S. Post Office can offer a solution. Currently, 59 percent of ZIP codes have one or no bank branches, but there is a brick-and-mortar post office in every single ZIP code across this country. By providing low-cost services like check cashing, money transfers, and bill pay, the Post Office can save all un- and under-banked Americans (roughly 25 percent) nearly $3,000 a year and the median Black family over $86,000 in their lifetime. As important, it can undermine the Jim Crow credit markets that exist in majority Black neighborhoods.

Child Tax Credit. Every day in America, 1,683 children are born into poverty. If that child is Black, she has a 30 percent chance of being poor, more than three times that of a white child. Because she is poor, she will be at risk of toxic stress that will stunt her development, creating opportunity gaps that can last a lifetime. And all because her family lacked the resources to make ends meet in communities burdened by high unemployment and subprime credit options.

Enhancing the Child Tax Credit as proposed in the coronavirus relief bill would reduce child poverty by 40 percent and lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty. It would be the first time in our nation’s history that fewer than 10 percent of Black children in America grow up poor. The ACLU is committed to enacting the credit in 2021 and making the credit permanent later this year.

The fact that the racial and economic oppression of Black Americans are two sides of the same coin is something we too often are reminded of. The March on Washington in 1963, for instance, was a march for jobs and freedom precisely because lead organizer A. Phillip Randolph fervently believed that civil rights could never be achieved if the economic injustice resulting from discrimination were not addressed. We at the ACLU will never forget this link. The discrimination that stunted Black economic and political progress lives with us today in the racial wealth gap. And so, as we engage in this multi-year campaign for Systemic Equality, the racial wealth gap will be front and center.

Rakim Brooks is a Senior Campaign Strategist and Systemic Equality Campaign Manager with the ACLU.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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18 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: The Racial Wealth Gap Is a Civil Liberties Issue”

  1. Ron Oertel

    This system is racist and predatory, so we are calling for the Biden administration to forgive $50,000 of student debt per borrower. 

    Good luck with that.

    Postal Banking. As of 2017, 47 percent of Black Americans were un- or under-banked, compared with just 33 percent of white Americans,

    Man – they’re “underbanked”, too?  I knew they were “undersupermarketed”.  Probably should force those businesses to open more outlets, where demanded.  🙂

    Every day in America, 1,683 children are born into poverty. If that child is Black, she has a 30 percent chance of being poor, more than three times that of a white child. Because she is poor, she will be at risk of toxic stress that will stunt her development, creating opportunity gaps that can last a lifetime.

    And all because her family lacked the resources to make ends meet in communities burdened by high unemployment and subprime credit options.

    Yeah – “that’s” the reason – and definitely not the result of having kids when you’re already in a precarious financial situation. 🙂

    Hard to believe that this is coming from the same organization that used to defend white supremacists (in regard to their civil rights).

     

    1. David Greenwald

      “Man – they’re “underbanked”, too? I knew they were “undersupermarketed”. Probably should force those businesses to open more outlets, where demanded. ”

      Why do you think this is funny?

      Here’s what it means to be underbanked and despite your attempt at levity, it is a serious problem: “The term underbanked refers to individuals or families who have a bank account but often rely on alternative financial services such as money orders, check-cashing services, and payday loans rather than on traditional loans and credit cards to manage their finances and fund purchases.”

      1. Ron Oertel

        I found the made-up term amusing.

        Businesses cannot be forced to locate where they don’t want to be. And, the government does not have unlimited funds. (Some also believe that government cannot fix these types of problems, regardless. However, I am not weighing in on that.)

        As far as increased postal services (to include financial services and additional locations), the postal system is already almost bankrupt itself, I believe.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Nothing indicates whether it is, or is not (also) a location issue.  Nor is there any discussion of cost.

          Sure – if it’s self-sustaining (and effective), then who would object?

          But – as you suggest to others, I’d suggest performing a “Google” search, regarding the postal service’s financial challenges.

          As a side note, I believe that banks are generally reducing their branch services (in all geographic areas).  So, maybe all locations are becoming “underbanked”. Maybe even “under-Supermarketed”, as well.

          Lots of services can be performed online, these days. (Yeah, I know, they are also probably “under-Interneted”.)

        2. David Greenwald

          You flippantly mention under-supermarketed, but that’s real problem too.  When I used to live in SE DC, the closest supermarket was several metro stops away, so if you didn’t have a car (which a lot of people there including me at the time didn’t) you either could only take what you could carry on the metro, or take a cab.  The produce was old and not very good, meat was often rancid (I still ate meat at that point), frozen food was freezer burned.  In short, the quality of the food wasn’t very good which I’m sure contributes to the health problems of many living in cities.  But it’s better to make flippant comments than understand real problems.  People wonder why I’m catty today.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Like I said, you cannot force businesses to locate where they don’t want to be.  Some of those areas experience high rates of crime as well (contributing to the cost of operating a business).  Some are also at particular risk of damage from riots, during periods of civil unrest.

          The government could probably provide tax incentives to do so, but it may not be enough.

          Ultimately, I suspect that those communities are going to have to (largely) solve their own challenges.

          And, some will also leave for other areas. There is such a thing as “black flight”, as well.

          But I agree with you, that it’s a bad situation (and has been for a long time). Seems to me that (federal) public housing has also been a near-complete failure, as well. It ends up trapping people in that situation.

        4. Don Shor

          It is time for us to abandon the experiment with privatization of the postal service. It’s a core service that will never be provided as effectively or efficiently to poorer neighborhoods if we try to run it like a business. The legacy of the current postmaster, who needs to be relieved of duty immediately, is that we can see that the impact of cost-cutting can have important adverse impacts on voting as well as access to important services, and that those impacts disproportionately affect people of low income and people of color.

          The US postal service needs to be a normal division of the US government. As such, it could be used to provide services such as described in this article, including banking in under-resourced areas.

      2. Alan Miller

        Why do you think this is funny?

        I think you’re conflating “finding a term amusing” with “insensitivity to the issue” – something you often do, as a means of false judgement.  How’s the weather up there, on your high, high, terribly high horse? *

        * Persons of the “old” persuasion may get the “Mrs. Ticklefeather” reference.  Has she been cancelled yet?

    2. Bill Marshall

      On all points, you have approached a new low for yourself…

      Hard to believe that this is coming from the same organization that used to defend white supremacists (in regard to their civil rights).

      You mean the Nazis in Skokie, IL?  ACLU defended them because they could not “pass the straight face test” if they didn’t act to protect all free speech, for all… no matter how ‘offensive’…[edited]

      definitely not the result of having kids when you’re already in a precarious financial situation. 

      So, now you equate minorities, Catholics, anyone who has kids, on the edge… you have often expressed a close to zero births, zero growth philosophy… [edited].. my grandparents would have (for normal ‘replacement’) had 2 kids… they did… one never had children… the other had one (where replacement would be 4 grandchildren they had 1)… the 1 grandchild had 3 children (as opposed to the expected 8, for ‘replacement’)… to date, we have no grandchildren…

       I knew they were “undersupermarketed”.  Probably should force those businesses to open more outlets, where demanded. 

      Snotty, snotty, snotty…

      [edited]

    3. Keith Olsen

       they’re “underbanked”, too?  I knew they were “undersupermarketed”. 

      Anyone have a count of how many businesses have closed in predominately black areas due to BLM riots and looting?

  2. Ron Oertel

    Bill: On all points, you have approached a new low for yourself…

    You mean the Nazis in Skokie, IL?  ACLU defended them because they could not “pass the straight face test” if they didn’t act to protect all free speech, for all… no matter how ‘offensive’… [edited]

    So, which is it – do you object to that, or do you support it?  (Not sure if that’s the only case.)  Regardless, why single-out me for noting it?

    So, now you equate minorities, Catholics, anyone who has kids, on the edge… you have often expressed a close to zero births, zero growth philosophy… [edited] my grandparents would have (for normal ‘replacement’) had 2 kids… they did… one never had children… the other had one (where replacement would be 4 grandchildren they had 1)… the 1 grandchild had 3 children (as opposed to the expected 8, for ‘replacement’)… to date, we have no grandchildren…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, none of which I said.  [edited]

    But yeah, I’d definitely suggest being in a stable financial situation, before making the choice to have kids.  Regardless of skin color, religion, etc.

     

    1. Eric Gelber

      But yeah, I’d definitely suggest being in a stable financial situation, before making the choice to have kids.

      There’s so much that is disturbing about this. Financial security and stability are unpredictable, as the pandemic has demonstrated. Upward mobility is not readily achievable for many for myriad reasons, including the lack of jobs, education, affordable child care, etc. The suggestion that the poor should not procreate smacks of eugenics—i.e., those less desirable groups, over represented by non-whites, should give up their fundamental right to have children thereby reducing their numbers compared to privileged groups.

      Perhaps we, as a nation, should do a better job of assisting people out of poverty (e.g., providing for a livable minimum wage) rather than telling people they shouldn’t be having children if, through circumstances often beyond their control, they have not achieved financial stability.

    2. Bill Marshall

      I’d definitely suggest being in a stable financial situation, before making the choice to have kids.

      Sometimes, passion, lack of ‘preparedness’ means a pregnancy occurs… but by your words, you are “pro-choice”… so those in unstable financial situations should get an abortion, right?

  3. Alan Miller

    Aw, darn, best sniping exchange ever lost to time . . . except it was left up long enough that I screen captured it for my upcoming book, “Davis Vanguard Comment Section Bloopers”.

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