Race and Income? Rich, White People See No Problems

Little Rock   According to researchers at Yale University, it’s the old story with a twist. It’s not “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak all evil,” at least when it comes to creating a mental dreamscape for the rich and most white Americans when it comes to understanding the persistent gap in economic progress for African-Americans.

A new study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal by Yale researchers finds that people, especially wealthier, white people have convinced themselves that African-Americans are making great progress over recent decades in narrowing the economic divide created by years of discrimination. The researchers found that across all groups in their study the progress made by African-Americans was overestimated by 25%. Lower income whites came closest to understanding the gap still persisted, and wealthier whites missed the reality by the largest margin. All this in the words of the lead researcher, Professor Jennifer Richeson, was “shocking,” because it was so at odds with reality, because in their view, how can you solve a problem, if you are in denial that the problem even exists.

All of this comes in the wake of recently released Census Reports based on the true facts rather than the alternative reality being seen from above with rose-colored glasses. The US Census finds that African-Americans are the only group that has not made progress since 2000, even as others have advanced. Furthermore, the federal figures indicate that African-Americans are pretty much in the same place on the economic divide measure inequality as they were 50 years ago.

Describing the impact of the disconnect between what whites and the more wealthy think of progress, Richeson described the self-delusion this way:

So many of us grew up hearing this story about America that basically said there was slavery and then that was fixed. Martin Luther King marched and then that was fixed. And then we had Obama. That’s a nice, clean story that makes everyone feel good even though it’s shockingly inaccurate.

The researchers found that the myth of an American meritocracy was most delusional among the wealthiest Americans who want to believe that their success, wealth and position in society is based on something they earned, rather than privilege and advantage, especially if achieved as the result of de facto discrimination. Yet the facts of the Census indicate that African-Americans only gained $5 of citizen wealth for every $100 gained by other groups.

Meanwhile as the researchers observe, and our own daily lives and work establish every day, persistent discrimination in bank lending, housing and educational segregation have no effective policy or programmatic cures, so the inequality widens, rather than shrinking even as the economy improves. The crisis is exacerbated when we also consider their average survey gap would have departed reality to an even more distant white people planet, if the current occupants of the White House and Congress had been among the survey groups.

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Realtors and Redlining Destroyed Neighborhoods – Was Alinsky a No-Show?

redliningNew Orleans   Looking into the rising return of the family crushing and neighborhood killing predation involved in contract-for-deed property transactions being revived by Wall Street veterans and facilitated by weak regulations and federal off-loading of foreclosure inventory from the real estate bubble of 2008, I stumbled onto an interesting book, Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  Published in 2009, Satter is not only a historian and chairperson of that department at Rutgers University, but has skin-in-the-game, since she was driven to the subject to understand the conflicting family story of her own father who died when she was a child and whether he was a crusading civil rights lawyer and advocate in Chicago or a slumlord himself.  

            Being only half through the book so far, I can’t definitively answer her question, nor have I arrived in my reading to the sections on the Contract Buyers’ League, which was central to my motivation in uploading the book to my Kindle.  On the other hand, I’m knee deep in an excellent, well-written, and researched history that puts race and real estate speculation squarely at the heart of urban neighborhood deterioration from the post-war decades until our current times.  In Little Rock, where I first ran into contract-for-deed exploitation, it was always clear that if there was a power structure anywhere in the city it was centered in the real estate interests, and from our 1972 campaign to “Save the City” forward, including forcibly confronting blockbusting in the Oak Forest neighborhood, they were our main opponents.  In that sense, Family Properties was a deep affirmation and an extension of the argument and those experiences across the urban battlefield of America.

            Somewhat unexpectedly though, I’ve found nothing subtle in Satter’s critique, and condemnation of Saul Alinsky and his community organizing in Chicago during those years.  She bells him repeatedly, beginning with his antipathy for organizing the poor, who were most exploited by all of these practices, and for his inability to strategically and tactically embrace the reality of race in his organizing and the practices of the organizations they built in Chicago.  She doesn’t argue so much that the problem was direct racism, as more fundamentally a weakness in the Alinsky organizing model itself, saying that

“…ineffectiveness of the OSC [Organization of the Southwest] and TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] highlighted the two major flaws of Alinsky’s model of organizing:  his insistence that organizing efforts be fully funded before they could be launched, which left him vulnerable to pressure by the wealthy donors, and perhaps more serious, his belief that they should tackle only issues that were ‘winnable.’”

Sharpening her point she argues that, “Unfortunately, Alinsky’s insistence on fighting only for winnable ends guaranteed that his organizations would never truly confront the powerful forces devastating racially changing and black neighborhoods.”  Ouch!

            She piles on evidence to the extent that her arguments are almost irresistible, include his scolding of his lieutenant, Nicholas von Hoffman and others, for getting too involved in real estate issues when he was in Europe, that he thought were jeopardizing organizational funding, his opposition to fighting black displacement in Hyde Park, and his view that fighting “racial discrimination that lay at the root of community decay…was ‘too complicated.’”  Satter adds that,

“Alinsky often cast urban renewal as an ‘unwinnable’ issue to be avoided.  TWO’s attitude toward housing was similarly confused.  The group apparently felt that the redlining policies that forced black Woodlawners to buy on contract were too complex for effective community mobilization.”

Satter even cites Alinsky’s own biographer in the claim that killing the Square Deal campaign was done on a totally transactional basis,

“According to Alinsky’s biographer, the Square Deal campaign was ‘intentionally terminated by Alinsky and von Hoffman’ because TWO wanted the financial support of merchants when it turned to ‘larger issues such as urban renewal.” 

Twisting the knife, she adds,

“The net result was that, instead of blazing a new path for community activism, TWO became yet another demonstration of the perils of reformers’ financial dependence on the very people they needed to challenge.”

            Adding insult to injury she argues that the creation of the West Side Organization and its achievements were “an overt challenge to Alinsky, who had warned him against organizing the very poor – an action that Alinsky believed would divide the larger community.”   During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King effort to take the civil rights movement north, she includes an assessment from one of the movement’s legendary organizers that was equally devastating, quoting…

“…James Bevell, a charismatic Mississippi-born African American who had participated in virtually all of the major Southern civil rights crusades.  In Bevel’s view, too, Alinsky ‘simply taught how to, within the context of power, grab and struggle to get your share.’”


            None of this is definitive, but it’s a critique that has weight and can’t be ignored.  Having organized and fought redlining, realtors, and neighborhood deterioration for decades, as organizers we may have to confront whether or not Saul Alinsky, as a primary architect of community organization, was not only a no-show when it mattered in Chicago, but abetted the problem by skirting the battlefields that counted, by not using issues to build power for the bigger fights, but instead running from the fights themselves.  If that’s the case, the legacy of that shadow could still be crippling the work that needs to be done in addition to the way the work is done.

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