An Uneven Journey

Alan Jenkins

Earlier this year, I visited my father, who lives in the Bay Area. As we drove from the Oakland airport, the conversation quickly turned to the Obama presidency. Born in 1923, my dad survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, endured vicious Jim Crow segregation and violence, participated in the Civil Rights Movement, and, this year, witnessed the inauguration of an African-American president of the United States.

On our drive, he reminisced about how, at age 8, he had gone with his 2nd grade class to see the cavalcade of then-president Herbert Hoover as it drove through downtown Detroit. A year later, the country would throw Hoover out of office for his gross mishandling of the economy, choosing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his message of change. Before my dad’s teen years were through, he would join the Marines and defend a segregated nation from within a segregated military. Traveling to and from southern military bases, he would experience racial humiliation, threats, and violence from white fellow Americans, often while wearing his Marine uniform.

As we marveled at the progress we’ve made as a country, we drove by block after block of boarded up houses in some of Oakland’s African-American neighborhoods, many with foreclosure signs visible. Many homes in the same neighborhoods still sported lawn signs reading “Change” and “Hope.”

As the Obama presidency sinks in, many are interpreting it in absolute terms: arguing either that it shows that racial bias and discrimination are no longer factors in American life, or that the election means little for race relations, reflecting merely a unique confluence of events—a historically unpopular incumbent, a historically bad economy, a gifted politician raised by white folks who ran a flawless 21st century campaign against a pair of tone-deaf 20th century opponents. News media coverage mostly echoed that polarized, simplistic discourse, with an emphasis on the “post-racial America” narrative.

As usual, the reality is not nearly so simple. As my dad said to me back in Oakland, this election reflects a huge step forward, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

The blocks of foreclosed homes in Oakland are a good example of the new world we’re in when it comes to equal opportunity. Despite occasional incidents, the “whites only” real estate signs (and burning crosses) of my father’s day are largely gone. Oakland has an African-American mayor, and a diverse city government. And foreclosures and crushing debt in that city are affecting people of all races.

At the same time, though, it is well documented that people and communities of color have been racially targeted by unscrupulous lenders for sub-prime and, often, predatory loans. Research by The Opportunity Agenda, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council found that people of color were far more likely to receive high-interest subprime loans than were white borrowers with the same income. Indeed, the racial divide in subprime lending is larger among upper‐income borrowers than among lower‐income ones. Predatory lending—a subset of sub-prime lending—has also long been targeted at communities of color. For these and related reasons, people of color have higher rates of foreclosure, whole neighborhoods in communities of color are in danger of deteriorating, and a generation of people of color are losing the most secure path to building wealth: homeownership.

Research shows that discriminatory and predatory lending practices have combined with practices like institutionalized housing discrimination, banking deregulation, and disproportionate disinvestment in communities of color to help perpetuate a racial gap in economic opportunity. Studies have found similar patterns in employment and in other sectors. Indeed, on some measures of equal opportunity we are moving backwards as a nation—our public schools, for example, are more racially segregated today than they were 30 years ago.

Obama’s victory does show that, in a single lifetime, transformative change is possible. Yet it also makes clear that significant progress on one front (or even many) does not guarantee similar progress on all. Accepting and understanding these two co-existent ideas is key to fulfilling our nation’s promise in the 21st century. And crafting new rules for our globalized economy that promote greater and more equal opportunity for all is key to our entire nation’s economic recovery, as well as to our long-term prosperity.

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