When white folk get sick ...

Why equity is so hard to come by in a pandemic


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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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.

Email: michael@oakpark.com

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Reader Comments

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Charity Anne Caldwell  

Posted: May 28th, 2020 5:20 PM

Thank you Michael Romain for your honesty and clarity. I was very very glad to see your front page article last week as well. I appreciate and support you!

Chris Johnson from OP  

Posted: May 28th, 2020 9:18 AM

I had written something up that agreed with Michael. But as I read the news now about what is happening with riots because it is a sign of "protest". The amount of looting and destruction is insane. People are taking advantage of the situation to rob places and just be horrible. How does that help things? Michael wrote an article that said Austin was a ghetto and had previously written an article about similar destruction in Austin decades earlier. Where do you think people that have money and that have businesses will go? They are going to leave for a safer place. A peaceful demonstration without people destroying and stealing wouldn't drive people out. Big businesses will struggle to get people to move there because they won't believe they will be safe. So it will be "everyone except blacks flight"? Lots of talk of businesses struggling right now with no money and lack of access to federal/state money. Here we see people just stealing and destroying. Then we will hear that more black businesses are struggling. Yes, there are many issues but is this the best way forward? Does that improve relations? Does this make EVERYONE else think better of those looting, robbing and hurting others? I believe someone was killed during all this chaos... because a store owner stood to defend his shop (maybe)

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 28th, 2020 8:27 AM

Chicago has been really terrible and unfair to its people for years. Who was in charge the whole time? The Daleys, Madigan, Blago, Rahm, Harmon, etc. Who profited most? The Pritzkers. The Democratic Party has really stuck it to the people year after year.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 7:48 PM

I'm listening.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 7:02 PM

@ Carollina Song Could you please post a link to that study once its completed. Would be an interesting read.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 6:22 PM

That's just too bad you think someone's "aggressive way of replying" has anything to do with what they know, TM. Again, go do your homework.

Carollina Song  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 5:46 PM

A very timely and well-written piece from Michael Romain. I just saw an article from today's Washington Post: "The number of working African American business owners in the United States plummeted more than 40 percent as the coronavirus shut down much of the economy ?" a far steeper drop than other racial groups experienced, according to an analysis confirming fears the pandemic would deepen inequalities in the business world. Closures and social distancing to slow the virus's spread have taken a disastrous toll across racial groups, with the total number of active business owners dropping 22 percent from February to April, based on granular data from the federal government's employment surveys that was made available last week. But minority-owned businesses have suffered disproportionately in a crisis that's also killing nonwhite Americans at higher rates and eliminating more of their jobs. Experts have voiced concerns that wealth gaps, trouble accessing government aid and concentrations in reeling industries have left these companies and the families they support more vulnerable to the pandemic's fallout. But they're still working to understand and measure the colliding hardships making the future of minority-owned businesses especially precarious. The new data on ownership by racial group is "devastating," said Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who plans to post a working paper on his findings." https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/25/black-minority-business-owners-coronavirus/

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 10:36 AM

William Dwyer Jr. I have realized now you really do not know what happened in Austin or how it played out in Oak Park, with your aggressive way have replying. I am being polite and you instead come back as if my information is useless or some how can not look at the entire picture. I go along with Ramona Lopez since she does know what goes on and has had a tough life. You on the other hand were a kid who eventually left Austin instead of staying and you may want to find out why. As for saying you know it was all White people who made money that is a very wrong statement although you have your facts as reality and you really will not understand since your mind is so closed and your always go on the attack. Oak Park stopped the White flight from happening in Oak Park like it did from Austin, because it was happening and Oak Park would have ended up just like Austin. All of the nice homes in Oak Park, people decided to invest in them because Oak Park at that time did not let what happen in Austin, continue into Oak Park. You really should try to figure out the connection instead of looking at things in only one way, and that is your way

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 9:59 AM

Again, Tommy... what the hell are you talking about? "Oak Park management and input from people certainly did a great job of not letting the White flight continue..."? No. That's wrong. Factually and demonstrably dead wrong. White flight finally stopped only after one Austin neighborhood after another went from 97 percent white to 97 percent black in a matter of months. Oak Park managed, in 1968, to stop the phenomenon there. NO ONE stopped it in Chicago. As for how I know that only whites benefitted from the red-lining and block busting that fueled white flight, that would be because whites made up 99 percent of the realtors and bankers back in the 60s and mid 70s. Do your homework.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: May 27th, 2020 8:35 AM

William Dwyer Jr. thank you for your reply. I am not sure how you know only White people made money, although Oak Park management and input from people certainly did a great job of not letting the White flight continue and continues working and that is good

Sharon Daly  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 10:14 PM

Thank you, Michael.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 10:06 PM

Michael. Thank you for your historical perspective. Many times it gets lost. "In April, NBC News reported that many black businesses across the country were having trouble accessing the federal government's PPP loans" No specifics from NBC on the number of black owned businesses vs. white owned businesses? " 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. "Sorry Michael, but your sample size of 3 doesn't cut it. I've been helping Hispanic and white owned businesses with the process and both had the same issues. As business owners were getting booted out and the system was crashing because of the increased traffic, do you really think the banks targeted black business owners? I have my doubts, but if you still don't. Here is a link of 38 black owned bank and credit unions. Has anyone interviewed their customers to evaluate their experience? https://www.watchtheyard.com/life/black-owned-banks/

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 9:54 PM

I moved to Oak Park when I was 5 and attended school in Austin until 6th grade.. But I know for a fact that it was white realtors and white bankers that made money from the white flight of the 1970s. And white politicians that allowed it. So, no, Tommy. A lot of money was NOT made "on both sides of each race," as you put it. Only white people did.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 9:19 PM

William Dwyer Jr. I never wrote anything was a fact. Since you lived through it, maybe you can tell me how long or if you stay in Austin until you later moved out or if you fell victim to race steering which it takes people to afford to move into a home, so it is very possible that there was collusion that both race's profited in some way. Maybe you know who was the first Black family to move into Austin, or maybe the first 10 families. As I assume from the way the writer of the article writes about Black's, they do not have access to banks to buy homes so maybe you can answer who paid for the houses and who benefited from the houses by block busting. Of all the people who moved out because of White flight, none of them ever said anything racial. It just happened as far as they were concerned. You may also recall since you seem to imply that you went through it that I am going to assume you grew up in the neighborhood. Maybe you can say why businesses left and the movie theaters closed up. Most importantly would be when did you leave

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 8:52 PM

"A lot of money was probably made on both sides of each race" during white flight from the West side, Tommy? Really, please, tell us. Where DO you get your facts? Because your statement isn't supported by any facts I know from actually living through that period.

Sandy Richter from Oak Park  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 8:05 PM

Michael, I am sorry that you have been subjected to this kind of treatment. White fragility is real and insipid. Please continue to help educate our community. I for one am grateful for the resources you provided in this piece. I have been pained to see the way this pandemic has deepened the already grevious economic and racial disparity in our country. I appreciate voices like yours that help to name this and call for a better way.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: May 26th, 2020 7:29 PM

Michael Romain You write very well. Unfortunately, you have never had to be a White person and all of the problems put on the White person. Once again, the Austin neighborhood was White, blue collar workers and the Black's moved in and the White flight took off. A lot of money was probably made on both sides of each race. As for Black's being not able to access health care like White people can, I would suggest you ask a lot of White people what they think of their health care. I would also suggest you think about how Black's, who use West Suburban Hospital, think about the kind of care they receive as if they are automatically going to be treated differently, and that information comes from a person who has raised Black children and now has Black grand children so the person has had a lot of experience. I like reading your columns and it is not because you are Black. I read them because you write well, although your topics are in disagreement at times. I also know had it is to be in a Black environment, and since I know people who have told me there is fun in teasing White people when they are in a Black environment, I would not assume all Black people would tease White people. As for what you are writing about, it does not pertain to today. Trying to get that government money for any race would be complicated for most anyone. It does go to larger corporations, and maybe even to the Black Owners of McDonald's which I do not think I have the name correct, although there is a group of Black's who gather together who own McDonald's. There are also White's who own McDonald's. So maybe the Black organization can help the Black's how to get some of that money. I also do not think you lack in the basics of education compared to a lot of White people. You have a lot going for yourself and if your intentions are to write controversial columns, you are succeeding

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