Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wages of White Affirmative Action: Predatory Lending & The Ghetto

By Sikivu Hutchinson 

White people have started to return to South Los Angeles.  They can be seen watering lawns, walking dogs, and frequenting local restaurants.  Legend has it that there are a few white families that never left during the postwar mass exodus that magically transformed what was once Southwest L.A. into “South Central”—that internationally notorious, mythic den of drugs, drive-bys and destruction that launched a thousand gangsta rap careers and corporate parasites rolling to the bank on the backs of “bitches” and “hos.”   

Back in the day all of the “bad” black and brown schools in Compton, Watts, and Inglewood were teeming with whites.  Americana Leave it to Beaver mom icon Barbara Billingsley even graduated from a local ‘hood school in the 1930s.  But these new white transplants are merely symbols of the turbulent real estate market, not inner city missionaries slumming for an ethnographic high.  They’re canaries in the coalmine of negative equity. Priced out of the “better” (read white) areas of the city some white homebuyers have been forced to venture back into the hood.  Snapping up Spanish or Craftsman-style bungalows in savvy short sales they’re rediscovering the “quaintness” of Black neighborhoods that their forebears escaped decades ago courtesy of government programs like the GI Bill and FHA mortgage lending.  Touring the streets wide-eyed with their travelogues some register surprise at the area’s suburban aura, the “tidiness” of the homes, the “unexpected” pride in ownership that the natives demonstrate. But having the luxury to move back to the “ghetto” they built through generations of apartheid housing policies is part of whites’ democratic birthright. 

White American democracy has always meant the bliss of segregation and the willful ignorance of the bodies that get displaced.  It’s ladled out in cultural initiations like being warned to keep the car windows up when driving through Black areas or having a nifty cell phone app nicknamed “Avoid Ghetto.”  Even in the era of rampant “Main Street” foreclosure and negative equity white American democracy still means the privilege of mobility.  When whites move into neighborhoods that residents of color have been forced to leave due to plummeting home values and high unemployment it’s called gentrification.  It is only cause for national political action and reform when white middle class homeowners are impacted by imploding housing bubbles.  Bipartisan political rhetoric that fixates on the “middle class” (as the default category), while marginalizing disproportionately asset poor working class people of color, merely reinforces a colorblind class myth where struggling white people have it “just as bad” as people of color. 

This is true, because, for the party of the Religious Right, poor people don’t work and they don’t pay taxes.  God’s pecking order does not favor being on the dole and accepting handouts.  American exceptionalism is validated by the specter of the Black ghetto as den of immorality.  According to this narrative African Americans have squandered the advantages of living in a democratic society in which everyone has an equal chance at economic mobility.  Black poverty is only immoral insofar as it reflects a certain cultural indolence and pathology on the part of shiftless blacks.  While “cultures of poverty” corrupt, cultures of success, based on capitalism, free enterprise, and hard work, uplift and moralize.  Systemic discrimination has never been deemed immoral in the American mainstream.  For the Right, systemic discrimination is a quaint oxymoron, vestige of a primitive era when the U.S. was presumably less evolved.  The moral universe consists of getting ahead through a mish mash of Darwinian manifest destiny; the way God wanted it, free of the fetters of restrictive public policy that rewards the sloth of homeowners of color. 

In 2011 former mortgage giant Countrywide was found guilty of engaging in predatory lending which targeted Black and Latino homebuyers.  Last week lending titan Wells Fargo settled a lawsuit after it was accused of steering over 30,000 Black and Latino homebuyers to subprime loans.  The class action stemmed from a Baltimore city lawsuit in which former employees alleged that Wells Fargo “loan officers referred to minority borrowers as ‘mud people’ and called subprime mortgages ‘ghetto loans.’”  During the lending boom Wells Fargo officials regularly conducted “wealth building” seminars in communities of color, (often headlined by talk show host Tavis Smiley) where reps secretly peddled subprime loans.   

So while homebuyers of color were essentially taxed for being black or brown; white homebuyers “bootstrapped” their way to the American dream with lower interest rates and better terms handed to them by the big banks.  “Homebuying while white,” many of them had the same credit scores and incomes as applicants of color.  What they didn’t have was the same capital and asset holdings. Not only is Black and Latino wealth a fraction of white wealth but the vast majority of it is based on home equity; home equity that has been pillaged by Wells Fargo, Countrywide, Bank of America and other lenders.  As Yuan Miu of the Washington Post argues, the housing bust has “left a scar on the finances of black America…(it) has not only wiped out a generation of economic progress but could leave them at financial disadvantage for generations to come.” 

Yet mainstream narratives on the housing meltdown tend to revolve around irresponsible homebuyers lapping up variable mortgages they couldn’t pay off or vulnerable homebuyers sacrificed on the altar of Wall Street’s credit default swap morass.  After President Obama finished bailing out the big Wall Street banks his rhetoric turned to shoring up Main Street.  To hear Obama tell it, the brunt of the crisis was squarely centered in Middle America.  Urban neighborhoods devastated by the TKO of predatory lending, foreclosure, job discrimination, and mass incarceration barely registered on the radar of the administration or the mainstream media.  There was little mass outrage over the immoral systematic disenfranchisement of Black and Latino homebuyers by the banking crooks.  Neither GOP lawmakers, nor prominent Democrats, other than a few in the Congressional Black Caucus, rushed to criticize the lending industry’s white affirmative action. Nor did they condemn the racist practices of bankruptcy attorneys who refer debt-ridden Black consumers to more costly Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings. 

Being against “big government” or social welfare for working class communities of color has always been about morality.  It is reflected in right wing venom against public employee unions and health care reform which are both overwhelmingly supported by people of color.  It is amplified in racist discourse around illegal immigration, spearheaded by Christian fascist states in the Bible Belt and the Southwest.  As the white population and white births continue to decline nativist propaganda against racial, social, and gender justice has become more unabashedly Christian fascist.  It’s the wages of white affirmative action that have always defined American democracy—model for the civilized world.    

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Massa Mitt Pisses and Calls it Rain

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Massa “I'll piss on you Negroes from a great height and call it rain” Mitt shoulda been run out on a rail instead of booed at the recent NAACP convention. After slobbering over the stereotypically devout Black audience with all God’s chilluns got wings bromides he went on to tell them he would repeal the Affordable Care Act because, don’t you know, none of us should rely on big govt unless we’re helming a hedge fund and wanking Big Brother. Yes, he shoulda been run out on a rail and forced to do Mormon last rites at his multi-million dollar New Hampshire compound for the scores of black HIV/AIDS patients dropping dead every day. Or provide long term coverage to the homeless student of mine (unable to find a job due to her felony conviction) who racked up thousands in emergency room costs for an ulcer. Or play Florence Nightingale to the cousin who landed at the County hospital after suffering a gunshot wound; homicide and AIDS being leading causes of death for young black men. But Massa Mitt was in good company today as the House voted to repeal ACA and release the pressure valve on two years of pent up white nationalist sound and fury over government handouts to poor folk only a fraction of whom will be covered by the ACA due to Red State refusals to expand Medicaid.

Of course, by buckling on single payer the Obama administration has been no friend to African Americans who have the highest unemployment rates (over 14% nationally), lowest life expectancy, and greatest residential segregation of any group in the country. Back in 2009 when Obama was still fine-tuning his tough love message scolding Black America about sagging pants and deadbeat dads, African Americans were told that a rising tide lifts all boats. There was no need for targeted government programs for jobless homeless African Americans because mainstream social welfare policies would benefit them equally. Obama’s stance has always been disingenous given that the wealth gap between blacks and whites is staggering and even affluent blacks generally live in poorer neighborhoods than do lower-income whites. As Margaret Kimberly of Black Agenda Report contends “Of course this black man is president in large part because he doesn’t identify with the political aspirations of black people. He famously said there is no black America or white America, and the degree to which he was embraced by millions of black people only adds to the denial of the severity of our situation.” Romney’s NAACP sideshow only obscures how miserably the Obama administration has failed African American communities in a GOP wet dream of post-racialism.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)*: In Memory of Alfee Enciso

S.Segal, J.Woods, Y.D. Hutchinson, T.Thigpen & Alfee
at Ms. Hutchinson's retirement from King-Drew HS, 2009

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Bob Dylan, barnstorming wordsmith and one of Alfee Enciso’s favorite artists, once said that “he not busy being born is busy dying.”  Alfee was always in the process of being born; as a teacher, writer, friend, athlete, public intellectual, and skeptic par excellence who never took anything on faith, abhorred dogma, and rammed his finger in the face of complacency every chance he got.  One of my most vivid early memories of him was when he strutted around our living room in high dudgeon after he and my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson had weathered another long day at Markham Middle School.  A student had stolen $50 (big big money in 1984) from his desk and he was royally pissed, railing against the injustice of it, jabbing a broomstick in the air for dramatic emphasis.  After one too many jabs the broomstick hit the ceiling, sending plaster raining down on the floor.  Sheepishly, Alfee dissolved into his trademark Cheshire cat grin, muttering forgiveness of the culprit who “probably needed the money more than I did.”

And that was Alfee; empathic satirist, eternal student.  As one of my master teacher mother’s first Markham mentees he internalized her lessons about teaching as radical humanist art and ethics.  Over the years I had the chance to see this wild man mix of swagger and sweetness in action with his students, young and old, from Dorsey and Washington Prep High Schools to L.A. County’s annual teacher conference.  He roved and ruled his classrooms like a prize fighter, inspiring all who entered to think critically about the sociopolitical condition of their communities in a global context.  At Dorsey he presided over classes of often brilliant but disaffected students who, like many in the LAUSD, had had it drilled into their heads that youth of color were incapable of intellectualism or scholarship.  Having learned from my mother’s rigorous example Alfee’s approach was to bring it on—lavishing his students with both multicultural and canonical “Great White Men” literature, steeping them in the poetry of black and Latino culture, schooling them in how institutional racism was at play from everything to the fast food that they ate, the crappy chronically late public buses they had to ride traveling through South L.A., and the draconian prison system that ensnared their friends and family at an early age.  Alf-Dog, as my mother affectionately called him, embodied all that was right about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—he ate, slept, and breathed teaching as life’s art and work; recognizing no dividing line between being literate about books, being literate about the world and being literate about the bitter paradox of America’s sham “democracy.”

In an era where many young men of color are socialized to believe that being hard and swaggering is the currency of real manhood, Alfee wasn’t afraid to show compassion and emotion to his students.  Once, when I was observing him at Dorsey while working for the LAUSD school board he broke down out of frustration with the sullen self-hating disdain they expressed during our discussion about black/brown tension at the school.  The kids shifted in their seats mockingly, unsettled by the “heresy” of seeing a grown man and an authority figure cry.  The boys in that room who called Mr. Enciso soft were just trotting out the patriarchal script they’d learned about men’s proper roles.  But, like many of us who teach, Alfee’s tears sprung from rage and profound impatience with American public education: impatience with the glacial pace of progress in so-called inner city schools, impatience with the sloth and corruption that deifies professional mediocrity, and impatience with how little time his students had to get out alive and punch through to freedom.  And this is what I will miss the most about him; the critical consciousness, ferocity, and courage that he brought to the classroom of life, blazing into it with a 100 mph sense of mission; knowing that if you weren’t busy being born every day you were busy dying.

*Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

                                    --Bob Dylan, 1965