Saturday, February 28, 2009

Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods

(Warning: This post is long.) Non-minority, middle- to upper-middle class families are the media's frequent focus nowadays when discussing struggling neighborhoods, households and families in the context of our present economic crisis and the challenge posed by Peak Oil. This is seen in recent news articles such as the New York Times piece titled, “You Try To Live on 500K in This Town”; the CNN stories titled, “Bad Economy? Do What You Love,” and “From Beverly Hills To Shoveling Manure On A Farm”; the Colorado Springs Gazette piece titled, “Youth Hockey Surviving Economic Crunch”; and the CBS Evening News story titled, “One Family's Recession – How A Single Family's Life Is Shifting Amid A Slumping Economy.”

These stories and others like them have common elements: namely, how affluent, usually blond, educated suburbanite and high-class urbanite families are coping, financially, psychologically and interpersonally with being forced by present circumstances to give up some of the more optional parts of their lives. Some stories chronicle the mental and emotional processes some of these individuals go through in discovering that things formerly considered to be “necessities” are, in fact, optional. And these stories are all uniformly told in warm, sensitive, empathetic tones by the American mainstream media.

But there is another, less-noticed segment of the American population that is getting absolutely slammed by the present economic collapse. Even before the collapse, their lives were lived precariously exposed above an unforgiving economic landscape lacking any safety net. Many of these people are people of color. Most of them would dearly love to trade their present lives for the supposed struggle of “trying” to live in a place like New York City for “only” $500K a year. The stories of most of these people are not covered by the mainstream media. These are the citizens of our least resilient neighborhoods, who lack the capital needed to recover from even the smallest crisis. I'd like to begin in some small way to tell their story now. My story has paralleled their story at significant times in my life. I will speak from the point of view of the black American community, since I am black, although the processes which have existed for a long time in the black community are now working everywhere.

While Men Slept...

The American civil rights struggle of the 1950's and 1960's was a landmark time that yielded important victories for black people struggling against murderous racism. Those victories included the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation; the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the first appearances of black men and women in intelligent roles in TV and film. Great legislative and judicial strides were made at the Federal level to render both de jure and de facto segregation illegal, and these were followed by affirmative action programs to redress the evils caused by the old segregationist laws and social arrangements.

During the 1970's, however, some voices began to make premature declarations that “We've made great strides! Surely America has risen above its ugly past. The civil rights struggle is over!” And in the 1980's, certain individuals and groups began stating that affirmative action was no longer needed, having accomplished its purpose. Some of these people even initiated lawsuits designed to end affirmative action in higher education and hiring for government jobs. Such declarations of a successful end to the civil rights struggle served to dull the awareness of the nation and to put everyone – black people included – to sleep. But the truth is that affirmative action had not gone nearly far enough in rectifying the inequalities between the American black community and the rest of American society.

The secret dismantling

By 1970, many of the gains made by black America were already beginning to be dismantled. Some elements of that dismantling were deliberate, but others were simply a consequence of the general re-ordering of American society due to changing economic conditions.

To understand the re-ordering, remember that the 1960's were the period of the last great expansion of industrial/manufacturing activity in the United States. This resulted in increased demand for skilled manufacturing employees and an increased number of openings for highly-paid manufacturing jobs. This increase in demand occurred at the same time as the strongest and most visible pushes were being made by those in the civil rights movement for equal access to jobs. Black workers were concentrated most heavily in those cities whose manufacturing base was expanding and where the demand for skilled manufacturing workers was greatest. And skilled, highly-paid manufacturing jobs were a key rung on the ladder of advancing material well-being, since such jobs could be used to pay for things like home ownership and college education.

However, the 1970's saw the reversal of manufacturing in the United States, the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas, and the beginning of the transformation of the American economy into a “service” economy. This coincided with the peak and resulting decline in American oil production and was partly caused by that peak. While this transformation devastated many communities, especially cities that depended on local industry, it was especially hard on the black community, since so many black workers had begun to rely on skilled, highly-paid manufacturing jobs as a means of climbing the ladder of advancement, and now this rung was being taken out from under them.

There was also the dismantling of enforcement of equal opportunity legislation and judicial rulings. The United States Equal Opportunity Employment Commission was created via the 1964 Civil Rights Act championed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and passed by Congress. As originally created, the EEOC was a rather toothless body incapable of any real enforcement. But surprisingly, it was President Nixon who proposed giving the EEOC the power to file discrimination suits against companies on behalf of citizens. This power was granted by Congress in the early 1970's. And President Carter further amplified the power and scope of the EEOC.

But President Reagan sought to dismantle the EEOC, changing it from being an activist champion of equal employment to being merely a rubber-stamp approver of a status quo enacted by the private sector. Reagan packed the EEOC with appointees who believed that government was the problem in modern society and not the solution to problems. He also slashed more than 10 percent from the EEOC budget during his first years. This dismantling of minority protection was continued under President Bush (the Elder) from 1989 to 1992, as noted in a Chicago Sun-Times article from 1992 which documented Senate hearings in which plaintiffs described the poor performance of the EEOC under the chairmanship of Bush appointee Evan Kemp (who was a champion of the disabled, by the way).

Although funding increased modestly under President Clinton, the Clinton-appointed EEOC chair channeled a large proportion of discrimination claims to binding arbitration instead of more aggressive action, and encouraged a large number of plaintiffs to settle with their employers instead of investigating their complaints. And the administration of President Bush (the Younger) resulted in a loss of 20 percent of EEOC staff from 2000 to 2006, constant calls by President Bush to cut the EEOC budget, and a swelling of the EEOC's case backlog to over 40,000 in 2007. In 2008, when Congress approved an appropriations bill that would have increased the EEOC budget by $50 million more than the President's request, Bush threatened to veto it.

This dismantling of protections and the assertion that such protections were not needed also extended to housing, where studies performed in the 1980's showed clearly that housing discrimination still existed. A Washington Post article from 1993 described the “collapse” in HUD enforcement of anti-bias policies at the national and regional levels. This set the stage for the present sub-prime crisis as experienced by the minority community.

Present Threats To The Minority Community

There are three main threats menacing the minority community at present. The first is the economic victimization which exists because of the dismantling of government protections. That victimization is via predatory lending practices leading to foreclosures and loss of home ownership in minority neighborhoods, as well as ongoing job discrimination. In 2005 and 2006, over 50 percent of all loans made to black Americans, and over 40 percent to Latinos were subprime, as opposed to only 19 percent of white borrowers. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently stated on National Public Radio that a black American earning more than $100,000 was more likely than a white person who earned less than $35,000 to be put into a high cost, subprime loan.

These loans carried “exploding” adjustable rates and high prepayment penalties which made them impossible to refinance. These loans were also made by brokers who received kickbacks from lenders for selling subprime loans. And they were often made with the expectation that the lender would sooner or later be able to make money through repossession and resale of a borrower's house. In other words, these loans were designed to fail. The most damnable aspect of these loans was that many of these loans were not marketed to people wanting to buy McMansions, but were marketed as a way for first-time borrowers with existing mortgages to save money on monthly payments through refinancing or as a means to finance home improvements.

Now these loans have begun to bear their poisonous fruit, people are being thrown out of their homes, and these homes sit vacant or are vandalized, or are targeted for demolition to make way for “redevelopment” and “gentrification” to provide new opportunities for builders, lenders and realtors to make money.

The second threat to the minority community comes from the war on drugs and the disproportionate incarceration that has resulted from it. The war on drugs as originally conceived by President Nixon was a genuine attempt to halt the spread of drug use in the United States, and it relied on treatment as its first weapon. But that war took on a different character under President Reagan, who made mandatory sentencing one of his weapons of choice, and who signed a drug enforcement bill with provisions deliberately written to favor harsher sentencing of minorities. This was done deviously, by such things as imposing more lenient sentencing guidelines for the use of powdered cocaine (preferred by white users) versus crack cocaine (preferred by black users). As a result of this bias (perpetuated through the Clinton and Bush presidencies), in 2006 black Americans made up an estimated 15 percent of drug users, but accounted for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Even now in places like Portland, Oregon, black men are more likely than white or Hispanic men to be stopped, arrested, jailed and sentenced to prison for the same offense.

But there is also evidence that the Federal government took an active role in promoting drug use in the black community, in part to fund covert operations to overthrow governments hostile to American business interests. This evidence was first presented by journalists on behalf of the Christic Institute in 1986, and was corroborated in an investigation by Senator John Kerry in 1988, as well as by journalist Gary Webb in 1996 reports in the San Jose Mercury News. Further corroboration comes from a 1998 report published by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz, as well as the writings of Catherine Austin-Fitts, who also wrote of the efforts of the Clinton Administration to suppress this evidence.

The third threat to minority communities comes from gangs and gang culture. Undoubtedly there is a home-grown element to this culture, as evidenced in the “Soul Patrol” I encountered in my younger days. This “Soul Patrol” consists of belligerent young black men who attack any black person whom they consider to be acting too “white”. “Acting white” is defined as speaking intelligently, working hard, trying to educate oneself, or showing an interest in anything other than hanging out, chasing women, or “getting over” on the system. Later I discovered that other ethnic groups have their own version of the “Soul Patrol.” This “Soul Patrol” mentality directly reinforces the present gang culture. But the times now facing us will demand that all of us function as productive and useful members of society, regardless of ethnic background. Those who refuse, who choose instead to be homeboys keepin' it real, may find themselves facing a backlash from the productive citizens of our society.

Yet I have to wonder sometimes if the present reinforcement of gang culture is coming entirely from within the minority community. Just as the drug problem in the minority community is being sustained by forces outside that community, I suspect that the same thing may be true of gang culture. I think especially of the popularization and promotion of gangsta, hip-hop and other “urban” culture in the mainstream media, which continues to reinforce a dysfunctional stereotype of “cool” blackness that sells, yet has nothing to do with reality. But researching and developing that hypothesis is a subject for another day.

Fostering Resilience

One measure of neighborhood resilience is “the Solari Index,” a simple metric devised by Catherine Austin-Fitts to describe how safe, healthy and liveable a neighborhood is. Ms. Fitts also points out in her writings that extremely powerful and rich interests have made a great deal of money from the business of breaking neighborhoods. Minority neighborhods have been the historical targets of choice for breakage, though the appetite of the rich and powerful has expanded to the point where they are breaking any neighborhood whose breakage might yield a profit.

Building resilient neighborhoods therefore consists of devising effective defenses against breakage, repairing the culture of the neighborhoods and fostering neighborhood self-sufficiency. I will explore these elements in further posts, God willing.

Links To Sources:

Concerning How The Affluent Are “Coping” with Recession

Concerning Black Economic Progress, Home Ownership, Predatory Lending and “Steering”

Concerning U.S. Federal Government Civil Rights Protection

Concerning Drugs, Gangs and the Solari Index


Kiashu said...

I don't know, really - I think there's greater resilience in the neighbourhoods of impoverished minorities than is commonly realised. What's remarkable is not how they were broken, but just how much effort it took to break them, and how well they survive despite a complete lack of services and support.

Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier observed that if a working class family were reduced to poverty, they got along alright; but a middle-classed family simply went to pieces.

It's because they have no notion of what genuine poverty is, for example these people think they're doing it hard.

SoapBoxTech said...

I would agree that resilience is the wrong word, but still...great article.