Airbrushing Race out of “Income Inequality”

wealth gap blacks whites
wealth gap children

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“This is the worst I’ve seen it in a long time,” Cecil McLinn, the principal of Duke Ellington Continuation School in South Los Angeles, told me recently after one of our students missed a week of school because she didn’t have shoes.  A highly-regarded administrator and longtime advocate in South L.A., McGlinn has been on the frontlines of progressive education for several decades.  As the economic depression in our community deepens he’s had to fill out more housing relief forms and aid vouchers for students who struggle just to make it to school every day. Activist administrators like McGlinn know that their schools fill vital resource gaps in social welfare, health care and economic aid assistance for poor and working class families. Because of racial disparities in wealth, schools are especially important as social welfare centers and safe zones for black and Latino children.  In L.A. County, black children comprise fifty per cent of the homeless youth population and thirty per cent of foster care youth. Foster care youth are disproportionately more likely to be incarcerated, drop out of school and experience teen pregnancy.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, 45% of black youth in the U.S. and 35% of Latino youth, versus 12% of white youth, live in communities of “concentrated poverty”.

Duke Ellington is located at the edge of Westmont, a predominantly black and Latino high poverty community.  Westmont was recently the subject of an extensive L.A. Times report, cited as having one of the highest homicide rates in a city where violent crime is purportedly decreasing.  Latino and African American males between 17 and 25 are the main victims of murder-violence in the neighborhood. The majority of the businesses in the immediate community offer minimum to sub minimum wage non-unionized retail jobs with no benefits.  Nonetheless, a recent L.A. City Council proposal to boost the minimum wage to $15 (potentially the highest in the nation) would only target hotel workers.  Most of these workers commute long distances to wealthier neighborhoods on the Westside and downtown Los Angeles.

Some liberal and progressive pundits are fond of trotting out the term income inequality to support their thesis that class immobility represents the deepest divide in American society.  Echoing Barack Obama’s Middle America-appeasing claim that income inequality is just as much about class as it is about race, these pundits assiduously avoid the role institutional racism and white supremacy play in economic injustice.  In the shadow of the 2016 presidential election, the catch-all “income inequality” has become the national bromide du jour.  As his term aiding and abetting the Wall Street robber barons draws to a close, President Obama has belatedly homed in on income inequality in an effort to deflect from slumping poll numbers and mounting left/liberal disillusion. But lost in the political rhetoric from the White House and mainstream media is any true focus on the deep racial fissures that drive income inequality.  Income inequality doesn’t begin to address the enormous economic gulf that exists between white America and people of color. Black “wealth” was virtually wiped out by the mortgage debacle.  The vast majority of black wealth comes from home equity—equity that has long been undermined by deeply entrenched de facto segregation.  Whites of all income levels have greater investments in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, benefits and income-generating property.  So the racial homogenization of the term “income inequality” masks the racial roots of economic apartheid.  For example, middle class African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately concentrated in high poverty areas with lower property values than are working class whites. This has more to do with the legacy of restrictive covenants and discriminatory lending policies than simple income inequality.  Income inequality does not account for why African American and Latino homebuyers with good credit, middle class incomes and stable jobs were systematically targeted by Wells Fargo, Countrywide and Bank of America for subprime home loans.  Income inequality also does not account for why LGBTQ workers of color have among the lowest wages, greatest incidences of workplace discrimination and least access to equitable housing, education and health care.

According to Oxfam, “The percentage of income held by the richest 1% in the U.S. has grown by nearly 150% since 1980.  That small elite has received 95% of wealth created since 2009, after the financial crisis, while the bottom 90% of Americans have become poorer.”  The majority of these oligarchs are white. As Oxfam noted, “Falling taxes for the rich and increased use of tax havens have helped widen income inequality.” Even during the Jim Crow era, when African Americans were subject to domestic terrorism and legally relegated to substandard neighborhoods and facilities, they still had to pay taxes. But tepid proposals to correct egregiously lopsided taxation will not redress the racial devastation that global capitalism, union-busting and deregulation have had on communities of color in a country that desperately wants to airbrush race from income inequality.

Sikivu Hutchinson is founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.




Airbrushing Race out of “Income Inequality”
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17 thoughts on “Airbrushing Race out of “Income Inequality”

  1. 1

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has had some really good articles about the practice of redlining, and how it was used to create and maintain ghettos (specifically in Chicago, but it’s hardly restricted to that city), and keep Black people from living in white enclaves.

    Thanks for the reminder on this, it’s important and timely.

    1. 1.1

      Darn it. I went to school of my own. No help from any family. Commuted a good hour from rather poor area, all I could afford, to get to school. I also stayed din youth hostel few night as I had nowhere to go.

      I could not get job at the school- somehow all the work study was always full-and in my area there were none.

      I got an MA.

      I do remember the distaste with which all the Black and Latino men always treated, how they discriminated against me and how they truly made my life miserable.

      This is a good illustration:

      My aunt worked for years in Cal Poly . They got a new boss, a Black man. This is how he greeted them: what is the difference between Native Americans and other minorities? I see none, nor any need for any advantages.”

      My aunt said: “We are sovereign nations on our own land”.

      She was forced to retire within 6 months.

      ust be we were from those privileged res.

  2. 2

    Latino and African American males between 17 and 25 are the main victims of murder-violence in the neighborhood. The majority of the businesses in the immediate community offer minimum to sub minimum wage non-unionized retail jobs with no benefits. Nonetheless, a recent L.A. City Council proposal to boost the minimum wage to $15 (potentially the highest in the nation) would only target hotel workers. Most of these workers commute long distances to wealthier neighborhoods on the Westside and downtown Los Angeles.

    This struck a lot of chords with me. I was born and raised in the kind of despair-inducing poverty that wrecks your employment history and keeps you poor until you die, so I’m competing for the same jobs as PoC youths and have seen this shit. Without the right (& white?) background, the right friends, whatever, the only jobs you can get are utter fucking bullshit, with which you can afford to live in only one kind of place.

    The hotel thing in particular struck me. For some weird reason, no one I know has ever been able to land a hotel job. The places act like they’re some kind of gated shangri-la, even if they’re a Motel 6 in Butte. I expect everyone except the exploited immigrants in the laundry are there because of nepotism. Better give those kids a hand.

    My state has been making $15 news. There was a proposal to make minimum for airport workers $15, followed by an effort to do the same with the whole City of Seattle. No way that flies in this state, where libertarian funded antitax initiatives are brutally grinding the poor into hamburger.

    And even if it did, my partner would certainly just get laid off.

  3. 3

    Oh, the other thing that resonated for me is this – given the choice between minimum wage in the ghetto and crime in the ghetto, I know what I’d choose. The longer I go unemployed, the more I consider it. Certainly my color would make me less likely to get shot by the state’s trained killers, more likely to get a lenient sentence, etc… I always put my race on EEOC paperwork because I give a shit, but if I went criminal, my race would grant me unequal protection no matter what I did.

    1. 3.1

      Exactly. And it’s this kind of negative privilege that I find is hardest to convince whites to recognize: the kind that says you’re not a suspect when you enter a store, that you’re not a suspect when you come up to the TSA line at the airport, when you cross the border, are stopped by the police, are selected for stopping by the police, or all the other ways in which PoC are treated badly where I can generally expect smooth interactions for my blue-eyed white Englishwoman self.

      It’s hard to get people to see that privilege can be as much or more defined in the ways in which things don’t happen, as opposed to the positive privilege which is the more common understanding.

      The subprime mortgage thing really pissed me off. It was a deliberate targeting of PoC, aiming to profit from the shitty education that their bosses had arranged for majority-minority areas by looking for low-information consumers to sell terrible loans to. They knew full well that the loans would fail, that the people they were loaning to couldn’t possibly carry the debt when the payments started, and they laid bets against the very mortgages they were selling because of this knowledge, before slicing them up and re-selling them to more low-information consumers.

      Seriously, when we get the class war rolling from our side like it already is from the other, the financiers need to be first against the wall. :/

      1. Exactly, and this is the kind of class privilege that lower income whites are conditioned not to see — i.e., your neighborhood was not systematically targeted ergo massive foreclosures on your block didn’t occur, there was no attendant blight and property values are rebounding/stabilizing. The bitter irony for middle class folk of color in L.A. and elsewhere is that whites are now moving back into communities they fled after the dismantling of restrictive covenants in the late 40s; thus displacing/pricing out middle income PoCs that would’ve been able to buy in these neighborhoods several years ago.

        1. And the banks are using the high rate of failed mortgages in communities of PoC as a reason to restrict access to all PoC to mortgages, which has to be the banking version of saying you shouldn’t have to pay an inheritance tax because you’re an orphan.

        2. This touches on something that has been nagging at me a long while, suspicion that predatory lending practices targeting PoC are a deliberate means to the end of gentrification, rather than passive, which is bad enough. The more bad loans a lender hands out to PoC living in predominantly poor to middle class neighborhoods, the more foreclosures a lender can force upon those home owners, the more “flips” become available to developers, the more rapid return construction loans that lender can hand over, the higher property values rise, the bigger returns lenders get when they write new mortgages on those artificially inflated properties. The new so-called urban renewal, ensuring a total change in neighborhood demographics over the course of a few short years.

          This occurred to me because the only part of the market I am aware of that hasn’t yet been thoroughly flipped/inflated in my town, the only affordable properties that are “available” to prospective low income white buyers like my family, are pre-foreclosures and recently vacated homes of people living in historically black neighborhoods, and I am seeing more and more of those being listed over the past two years, sometimes with Homepath incentives attached, but more often than not they are listed as “Attention Real Estate Investors and Developers!” It is troubling.

          1. I’d call that an entirely reasonable inference from available data. Given the ubiquitous nature of redlining and the resistance to the CRA and other measures aimed at ending it, it seems quite probable to me that the ongoing corporate culture is redlining by any other name.

  4. 4

    I remember taking the long slow bus with all the PoCs to college back in the early 2000s and noticing the bus ads suddenly start to include “You can own a home!” … the set-up for the subprime fiasco. Maybe I was lucky at the time I was so poor I couldn’t even afford the artificially deflated payments the ads promised, or that might have been me.

  5. 5

    I think there’s a dangerous mix of two different forms of racism at play here: actual internalized racism on the part of white people, and calculated institutional racism which acts as a vehicle to further capitalist interests. Cheap labor and resources, relative to consumer prices, are required to make this kind of economy at least temporarily sustainable. Whereas European countries have to look to Southeast Asia and Africa for the former, the United States has created a domestic cheap labor force from its former slave population. The same would be much more difficult to do with white people who show at least a modicum of solidarity for each other. But since black people are “the other guys”, there isn’t much opposition. That’s quite the competitive advantage, and the rich white oligarchy that runs the country has a vested interest in holding on to it.

  6. 6

    A materialist world view alone hardly guarantees a realist analysis concerning the institutionalized nature of white supremacy and the havoc it necessarily continues to contribute to the daily lives of POC in general (and Africans in Amerikkka in particular). Once again, our matriarch of materialism brings home the necessity of combining self interest politics with any denial of the divine. It yet amazes me (well, actually it really does not) that those of European descent and identity who claim to have a relationship with reality as opposed to religion, can persist in such inhuman denial.

    1. 6.1

      Wow! I wish I could have a title like “Matriarch of Materialism.” That’s hella cool.

      I wonder if i is inhuman for me to deny the divine. I mean, it’s not like anyone can ask my cats, but I’m fairly sure that if they could answer, they wouldn’t get the god thing either. Those lil’ degenerates…

  7. 8

    Ps 14:! “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God….” WHAT does it take to get “the righteous ones” to understand that this passage is talking about THEM!!! and with that, I pass!

  8. 9

    Ps. 14:1 “The FOOL has said in his heart ‘There is no God’…” WHAT does it take to make “the righteous ones” to understand that this passage is talking specifically about THEM!!!…and with that, I pass!

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