Mark Winston Griffith
Seeing Race in New York
It seems in this city, and in most cities across America, the more you hear about race, the less you really hear about race.
Case in point, on Wednesday, July 11th , NEDAP, as part of its Community Economic Justice Film Series, will be screening the third segment of the acclaimed series Race: The Power of an Illusion . This third segment, entitled The House We Live In, tells the story of how race is embedded in American institutional structures and social policies - in this instance housing and mortgage lending policies - and then examines thow this effects generations of people. Although The House We Live In aired on PBS several years ago, it couldn't be more relevant today.
As we've recently seen, the Supreme Court is gradually rolling back the clock on the ability of local governments and institutions to consider race when determining what their governing policies will be. Ironically, the point the House We Live In makes is that in order to overcome institutionally rooted discrimination you have to first acknowledge that it exists. Attempts to create supposed "colorblind" policies and institutions are probably the most effective ways to perpetuate inequality.
One look at the maps that NEDAP creates on where foreclosures are occurring or where high cost mortgages are being made and you know that discrimination based on race is alive and well in New York. How else do you explain areas like Southeast Queens and St. George's County in Maryland where Black folks are more affluent than their white counterparts and even have better credit scores, but still pay more for financial services and lose their homes through foreclosure at much higher rates.
Unfortunately, you can talk about race and still ignore its realities. How often do you hear policy makers talking about reversing institutional racism or the disparate impact of high cost lending practices? You're much more likely to hear an elected official talk about how black consumers and communities need "financial education" or see Bloomberg make headlines with his poverty program that uses a financial "rewards" system to "address" poverty. These responses ignore structural inequality.
The conversation in the black community can also run skin deep. Brooklyn City Councilmen Al Vann and Charles Barron are up in arms against the white leadership in the City Council over naming a street in Bed-Stuy after the late black activist Sonny Carson. And a black community leader in New York is defined by one's ability to raise hell when a case of police brutality against a black person occurs. As a long time champion of community self-determination and as a target of police harassment myself, believe me, I know these are important issues. But until I see an angry crowd form on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights because an eighty year old woman with dementia is about to be put out on the street because she received an exotic mortgage she neither wanted nor could afford, I know the fight against racism has far to go. Although a crooked mortgage broker, bolstered by a financial system that rewards his crookedness, doesn't patrol the streets with deadly force, he, arguably has the ability to ruin more lives than a crooked cop.
Until Americans are able to recognize and acknowledge the institutional tentacles of racism, we will never escape them.