Historically, the story of this wealth gap has been told as a tale of what blacks did to help create it or failed to do to stop the fissure. Black culture has often been a primary scapegoat in these discussions. If only blacks were more educated on how to save and plan for the future. If only blacks valued education. And the like.
But this deficit narrative (this creation myth of how the gap came to be) obscures the historical record. The fact of the matter is that this gap should actually be called a systematic, centuries-old wealth transfer from blacks to whites that started with slavery, but certainly didn’t end there. The plunder continued unabated through convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, redlining, blockbusting, contract buying, subprime mortgages … the list goes on.
In a country that was serious about addressing the racial disproportionality of COVID-19, policymakers would consider this history and let it inform current policy proposals. In the country that we have, however, what we’re seeing is a continuation of a well-worn pattern.
The old saying in the black community — when white folk catch a cold, black folk get pneumonia — should be updated. When white folk catch a cold, they treat it (or at the very least, treat it as a cold, and not as a crime). That black people are sicker is not even considered. And when blacks complain that we’re sicker and need more than cold medicine, whites tell us to stop making things up, stop expecting preferential treatment, stop being reverse racists and be more color-blind.
Earlier this month, I reported on Angel Humphrey, a black woman who opened a brick-and-mortar business called Glamour Entertainment Spa and Celebrations at 6717 W. North Ave. in Oak Park a few weeks before the pandemic shut the world down.
At the time, Humphrey had been contemplating applying for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which is funding the government set aside to support small businesses, amid reports that much of the money was actually going to large, cash-rich corporations.
After the article was published online, I noticed at least two additional black woman entrepreneurs who commented about the struggles that they’ve had trying, unsuccessfully in both instances, to access PPP.
I also noticed the other commenters. One called the article “skewed and jaded journalism” while another commenter called it “racist,” because “ALL people, businesses, etc. are suffering.”
In April, NBC News reported that many black businesses across the country were having trouble accessing the federal government’s PPP loans.
“Despite good intentions, the government’s emergency relief program leaves many feeling left behind,” NBC reported. “Black business leaders say the small-business programs need to do more to reach underserved borrowers.”
The article quotes Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor and author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, which I referenced heavily in my last column and which is necessary reading for understanding the gap’s historical reality.
“There is a structural flaw in this program. It uses banks as middlemen. Any time you create a big program and give banks the ability to choose which customers it prioritizes, you’re going to have disparities,” Baradaran told NBC. “Credit disparities are where past injustices lead to present disparities.”
I strongly recommend Baradaran’s book, especially to that Wednesday Journal commenter who dismissed it.
“Anyone who lived in Oak Park when Austin was just another a neighborhood your parents allowed you to walk into to go watch cartoons at the theater, and stop at the hobby shop, dime store, or coin shop on the way home, knows this article was written by someone whose viewpoints have been mostly shaped by the books he reads,” the commenter wrote under my column last week.
“That’s his choice, but as a person whose views were shaped by actually living in Oak Park when violent riots were so close the sky was lit with fire and smoke was in the air, I know that no bank, and no person, white or black, could have guaranteed Oak Park had rising property values in its future.”
My father grew up on the West Side — not close to the riots, but in the area where they happened and in the social conditions that created them. He went to jail when I was seven years old and I spent the next seven years of my life getting strip searched before visitations. I now regularly report in the area where the riots happened. In Austin, I have almost been shot and have seen a young man die in front of me.
My views are informed by being a black man who knows what it’s like to be stuck on the other side of Austin Boulevard, without the privilege of watching it burn. They are also informed by history. So spare me your lecture, spend some time on that other side (not as it is in your memory, but as it is now) and read Baradaran’s book.
I normally don’t write so scathingly, but this blithe dismissal of black suffering past and present by people of all races, but especially by whites, has got to stop.