COVID-19 and the 'race tax'

Why are blacks dying disproportionately? Start with historic plunder of black wealth

Opinion

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly a third of COVID-19 cases in the United States have afflicted African Americans, who comprise only 13 percent of the country's roughly 330 million people.

Since this disproportionality was made abundantly clear a few months ago, there's been a tendency to look at it spatially.

"In urban centers large and small across the U.S., the novel coronavirus is devastating African-American communities," writes a reporter for National Geographic.

"The environments where most live, the jobs they have, the prevalence of health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and how they are treated by the medical establishment have created a toxic storm of severe illness and death. (These common, underlying conditions make coronavirus more severe.)"

That's indeed the case. In Chicago, African Americans are 29 percent of the city's population but make up roughly half of COVID-19 deaths. And those case numbers and death totals are concentrated in black communities like Austin.

But make no mistake, the disproportionality is not just limited to black spaces. Black bodies everywhere are at higher risk of contracting and dying from this disease.

African Americans are 18 percent of Oak Park's roughly 52,000 residents, but as of May 15, they were 44 percent of the 236 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, according to the Oak Park Public Health Department.

In Forest Park, where African Americans are 27 percent of the population, as of May 18, they represented 41 percent of the 107 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases.

What the data shows is that for African Americans, there is no escaping the risk of race. But what most commentary I've read about the racially disproportionate impact ignores is how this risk was manufactured by whites in the first place and that it was the perception of risk that created the reality. 

We can attribute COVID-19's disproportionality to a range of factors, several of which National Geographic outlined above, but in the grand scheme of things, those are all secondary to the essence of the matter, which is the chronic wealth gap between African Americans and whites — a gap that was cleaved by the idea that blacks are unworthy, particularly of credit to finance homes (a primary source of wealth for most people) and of capital to build more wealth.

What's more, the historic denial of credit and capital to blacks has been directly correlated to the accumulation of the same among whites.

Take, for instance, the Freedmen's Savings Bank. Founded in 1865, pamphlets promoting the bank at the time described it as "Abraham Lincoln's Gift to the Colored People." But the bank wasn't actually a bank in the traditional sense.

Instead of lending to freedmen in order for them to grow their own businesses or purchase their own property, the bank simply collected the freedmen's savings and served as a "teaching institution" designed to "instruct freed slaves about American values and 'to instill into the minds of the untutored Africans lessons of sobriety, wisdom, and economy,'" writes Mehrsa Baradaran in The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.

Within a decade of its founding, the bank had collected more than "$75 million of deposits by more than 75,000 depositors, an amount that would be approximately $1.5 billion today." Despite freedmen comprising virtually all of the depositors, they were not represented in the bank's management. And they had no say in how the money was invested.

In 1870, the bank's managers persuaded Congress to "amend and deregulate its charter," effectively turning the savings institution into a private investment bank. But soon after deregulation, instead of investing the deposits in black businesses or property that would allow African Americans to begin wealth-building after two centuries of slavery, "the bank managers" — the very people who were preaching the value of financial sobriety and wisdom to the freed slaves — "began speculating in real estate and then, quite simply, a close ring of managers with unfettered discretion plundered the savings of the freedmen."

Those investments began to unravel in the Panic of 1873, which precipitated the bank's free fall. In March 1874, "in a last ditch effort to save the bank," the trustees made Frederick Douglass its president. After lending the bank "$10,000 of his own money to cover the bank's illiquid assets," Douglass quickly figured out the ruse and alerted Congress to the bank's insolvency declaring, "that he 'could no longer ask [his] people to deposit their money in it.'"

The bank was shut down for good in 1874, but not before "more than half of accumulated black wealth disappeared through [the bank's] mismanagement."

According to the 1969 book The Negro as a Business Man, by John Henry Harmon, Arnett Grant Lindsay, and Carter Godwin Woodson, "What is most lamentable is the fact that only a few of those who embezzled and defrauded the one-time liquid assets of this bank were ever prosecuted."

Or take the history of the U.S. housing market.

"From the inception of the housing market in the United States, its viability had been structured around a scaffolding of racial knowledge that presumed insight into the speculative elements of 'good housing' and 'good neighborhoods,' which could then be actualized through ascending property values," writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.

Segregating African Americans into urban ghettos like Austin and "starving those communities of resources and other investments greatly limited their access to better-paying jobs and well-resourced public schools, while pushing them into substandard housing," Taylor writes. "These conditions were then spun into the evidence that African Americans were unfit as potential homeowners and deleterious to property values within the housing market."

That blacks were unfit for good housing was a justification for confining them into "black-only neighborhoods where they could not 'infect' the larger housing market." The "scarred geography" of places like Austin was the "physical evidence invoked to legitimize keeping" blacks out of places like Oak Park.

Real estate operatives profited on the "allure of exclusivity for whites" that was created exclusively from the distance their homes were from "inferior" black communities — what's called a "race tax" (in one sense, the tax is colorblind, because it can also be felt by whites who live within proximity to blacks; just ask Oak Parkers who own homes on the east side).

But the very remedies that, at certain points in history, more enlightened whites have proposed to address this race-based economic exploitation have themselves been tools for further exploitation and predation.

In the early 1960s, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban riots (what historians more accurately call upheavals or rebellions), the federal government slowly implemented laws to open up the segregated housing market, but the very real estate operatives and private interests that created the segregated market in the first place were now put in charge of carrying out so-called reforms.

Taylor calls this post-1960s era of reform "predatory inclusion." In the past, blacks were denied the ability to purchase long-term, low-cost, government-backed mortgages. Now private real estate operatives, aided and abetted by government policies, coaxed blacks into purchasing "subprime," or junk, loans in order to feed an overheated housing market that was desperate for higher profit margins.

When the subprime industry collapsed in 2008, black homeowners who were disproportionately herded into taking out those junk loans (regardless of their actual credit standing) lost everything while the profits, disproportionately owned by whites, were largely protected. Again, virtually no one was prosecuted.

Even for blacks in the suburbs, the creation of what Bararadan calls a "Jim Crow credit market" paved the way for a debt-cycle to become self-reinforcing.

"While the small black middle class may have been earning incomes similar to the white middle class, their upward mobility carried much higher interest," she writes. "Over 70 percent of suburban black families had to borrow just so they could purchase cars, appliances, furniture, and the life necessities.

"Because the black middle class had more debt, they were charged higher interest on each new loan. More debt begets higher interest and vice versa. The added debt burden and high interest was a direct result of the lack wealth, and, looping around once again, the debt made it even harder to accumulate more wealth. The debt-wealth cycle fed on itself."

In 2016, the $171,000 net worth of a typical white family was 10 times greater than the $17,150 net worth of a typical black family, according to a recent Brookings report.

Risk follows race, whether African Americans live in inner-cities like Austin or in suburbs like Oak Park — and in both places the equation equals plunder.

In order to evaluate future reforms then, "we must absorb the lessons of the past and make sure we are not repeating the same mistakes," Baradaran writes, adding that we should apply a "short litmus test to any policy proposal: does the program require some collective sacrifice or does it place the burden of closing the wealth gap entirely on the black community?"

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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