By Sikivu Hutchinson
When President Obama and other corporate Democrats approved the recent spending bill they thumbed their collective noses at working class communities of color. Brought to us by Citigroup, JP Morgan and other robber baron banks who plunged thousands of homeowners of color into crippling debt, the new budget will phase out Dodd-Frank regulations that prevented banks from trading in “the risky derivatives that sparked the financial meltdown of 2008”. It will also increase the amount wealthy donors can contribute to political parties and cut some multi-employer pensions. The financial meltdown disproportionately affected African American and Latino homeowners who were targeted by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Countrywide and other big lenders for subprime and predatory home loans. Although Obama is perfectly willing to engage in the optics of fake racial reconciliation on Ferguson and the Eric Garner case, his endorsement of the new bill further underscores his cynical disregard for the socioeconomic wellbeing of communities of color.
In black and Latino neighborhoods across the country the legacy of the mortgage debacle is vividly exemplified by months-old For Sale signs, “bank-owned property” notices on lawns and abandoned homes. CNN Money reports that “Between 2004 and 2010 blacks and Latinos lost nearly a quarter of their wealth, whereas whites lost nearly 1%”. While the mortgage debacle gutted black and Latino wealth, the wages of whiteness have protected white working and middle class Americans from wholesale economic blight. According to a recent Pew Report, “The Great Recession hit all Americans hard, but only whites have seen their wealth rise during the recent recovery…widening the already massive wealth gap between whites and other racial and ethnic groups to near record levels.” Despite this fact, some whites still want to claim the ultimate victim status in the blue collar disenfranchisement sweepstakes. In their minds, poor whites are losing ground due to waves of job-stealing immigrants, reverse discrimination and affirmative action. According to this narrative, anti-white racism is the last acceptable preserve of bigotry and cops like Darren Wilson are themselves victims of a backlash against white males.
But the persistence of racialized wealth inequality eludes even the most progressive white “anti-Wall Street” policymakers. Although left-wing darlings Congressman Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren (who led the charge against the rollback of Dodd-Frank regulation) have been some of the most vocal opponents of the oligarchy class they’ve had relatively little to say about the role white supremacy and institutional racism play in wealth inequality. In a recent NPR interview about the midterms and his presidential aspirations Sanders was asked about racial disparities in job access and income. He dismissed the question, implying that it was short-sighted if not petty. Musing on why Democrats continue to lose white voters he maintained, “I am focusing on the fact that whether you're white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you are in the working class, you are struggling to keep your heads above water.” Sanders argued that Democrats fail to appeal to the economic interests of white working class voters but seemed willfully ignorant that the GOP’s appeal has always been based on white supremacy. Simply put, whites remain wedded to the GOP due to racism and race partisanship—as long as the Democrats represent big government spending and “handouts” to lazy blacks and undocumented Latinos “hostile” to American values, white working class people will continue to be beholden to the Republican Party for decades.
Sanders’ colorblind paternalism is all too common among white liberals and progressives. When they trot out the mythic “working class” they frequently invoke images of heartland workers whose formerly unionized jobs have been decimated by globalization, destructive free trade and right-to-work policies. Yet whites of all classes have been bolstered by the rebound in the stock market as well as rising rates of homeownership and increases in home equity. While only 47.4% of people of color were homeowners in the last year, 73.9% of whites owned homes. The bulk of black and Latino middle class wealth is concentrated in homes that are worth far less than those of working class whites. Because homeowners of color are more likely to own houses in socioeconomically depressed segregated communities that have not rebounded from the recession their home equity is often minimal to nonexistent.
For black women the nexus of income inequality and the wealth gap is even graver. Although black women’s median wealth levels are among the lowest in the nation they have the highest workforce representation among all groups of American women. Black women over sixty-five have the least wealth of any group in the U.S. and are less likely to have employer-funded pensions. Because black women are more likely to work for poverty level wages right-to-work laws are especially devastating for black families.
Sanders and other liberal-progressive policymakers have long proposed creating a federal jobs program to redress income inequality. But a federal jobs program will not remedy decades-long segregation in the U.S. housing market nor bridge the gargantuan race/gender wealth gap. It will not improve a K-12 school system which disproportionately criminalizes youth of color while shutting them out of college. Neoliberalism and capitalism thrive on and exploit disparities in race, gender, sexual orientation and geography; a fact that has always worked to white America’s advantage.