I sometimes hear white friends wonder why so few poor native-born African Americans have been able to rise into the middle class, compared to poor immigrants. Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a speech last Sunday, said that one reason is the policies of the federal government on home ownership.
For most middle class families in America, buying a home is the number one way to build wealth.
It’s a retirement plan — pay off the house and live on Social Security.
An investment option — mortgage the house to start a business.
It’s a way to help the kids get through college, a safety net if someone gets really sick, and, if all goes well and Grandma and Grandpa can hang on to the house until they die, it’s a way to give the next generation a boost — extra money to move the family up the ladder.
For much of the 20th Century, that’s how it worked for generation after generation of white Americans — but not black Americans.
Entire legal structures were created to prevent African Americans from building economic security through home ownership. Legally-enforced segregation. Restrictive deeds. Redlining. Land contracts.
Coming out of the Great Depression, America built a middle class, but systematic discrimination kept most African-American families from being part of it.
State-sanctioned discrimination wasn’t limited to home ownership. The government enforced discrimination in public accommodations, discrimination in schools, discrimination in credit. It was a long and spiteful list.
Economic justice is not – and has never been – sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross on the front lawn. Admission to a school won’t prevent a beating on the sidewalk outside.
But when Dr. King led hundreds of thousands of people to march on Washington, he talked about an end to violence, access to voting AND economic opportunity. As Dr. King once wrote, “the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice.”
Almost all Americans are the descendants of poor, oppressed people. If we haven’t experienced poverty and prejudice in our own lifetimes, the experience is part of our family histories. We resist the idea that African Americans are a special case. But they are.
Elizabeth Warren Throws Down the Gauntlet on Racial Issues by Charles P. Pierce for Esquire.
Senator Warren’s Remarks at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The full prepared text. It touches on other important issues and is well worth reading in full.