If the last few weeks have taught the American people anything, it’s that this country needs to seriously reckon with how the government has treated Black Americans.
It’s common to hear from opponents of affirmative action or policies specifically designed to lift up minority communities that racism and discrimination were a thing of the past, that we’ve moved on as a society and that everyone should just be treated equally now. I would hope that recent events have convinced some of them that they’re sorely mistaken, but even if their conceit that racist policies were a thing of the past was right (which it isn’t), history matters. The effects of policies from decades ago are still being felt today, in many ways more dramatically than they were at the time they were implemented.
I’m not an expert on policing or education, but I do know a lot about mortgages.
There are some government programs where the government essentially guarantees a mortgage, which means that the borrower can get a lower rate. These programs have been absolutely instrumental in allowing low and middle-income families to build wealth over the years. But when those programs started in 1934, the instructions for approval of those loans specifically said that “inharmonious racial groups” [in the neighborhood] are an “adverse influence.” That language persisted until the 1960s.
That language about “adverse influences” meant that the government was unwilling to guarantee mortgages in neighborhoods with any black population, forcing Black families to pay much higher rates on their mortgages than most white families. This is why one black family moving into a neighborhood really would lower property values for everyone else. That means that a black person my age had parents who spent a lot more on housing than my parents did, and therefore had less money on average than did my parents for someone like me to go to college without having to worry about money, etc.
Black families that were able to still afford homes had higher mortgage payments than white families would have had for those homes, but for most Black families, absence of government support meant they weren’t able to buy a house at all, leaving them unable to take advantage of the real estate boom of the 1970’s, when the increase in value in real estate provided the retirement savings for a large portion of the generation that had bought homes decades prior. This leaves the grandchildren of those Black non-homeowners much less likely than my grandchildren to inherit any significant amount of wealth from their grandparents.
We know that the racial wealth gap is real, and large. We also know that it didn’t just happen, it’s the result of a long history of government policies that favored white families over Black ones. Just because many of these programs and policies have ended doesn’t mean we can ignore their legacy. These things persist over generations, and a small advantage at one point can make a huge difference in people’s lives after a century of wealth compounding.
If we want to promote true equality, then the American government has a responsibility to work to not just move past its shameful history, but to actively work to right the wrongs of the past.