Anti-Racism Reading Group #2: Theft of Black Wealth

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read part one here. 

For the second meeting of the anti-racism reading group, we read part one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case For Reparations. In our first meeting, we discussed big-picture theory of race, so we followed that up by focusing in on particular racial project called redlining which had been a major contributor to both racial housing segregation and wealth inequality in America today.

Coates describes redlining succinctly in Reparations:

“In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

Part one of The Case For Reparations focused on the story of Clyde Ross, a black man who had moved to Chicago from Mississippi and was subsequently caught in a scam run by white men taking advantage of the scarcity of housing available to black families:

“His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought “on contract”: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither. Ross had bought his house for $27,500. The seller, not the previous homeowner but a new kind of middleman, had bought it for only $12,000 six months before selling it to Ross. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.”

Discussion questions for the group were:

  1. What factors made Clyde Ross and others vulnerable to “contract sales”?
  2. What factors made (white) society willing to aid and abet this type of exploitation?
  3. What are other types of modern exploitation that take advantage of the vulnerability of marginalized groups?

This conversation allowed us to explore how different forms of racism work synergistically, increasing their destructiveness exponentially. With the terrorism of lynching forcing migration of black families from South, courts upholding blatantly unconstitutional restrictive covenants, FHA policies making affordable mortgages unavailable to black families, people like Clyde Ross were left without recourse except to accept the exploitative terms of contract sales. Meanwhile, white people’s racialized fears, accumulation of economic benefit, and belief in racial hierarchy allowed them to ignore the call of conscience in the face of such injustice.

Lest the conversation remain in the comfortable critiques of the past, we then turned to modern forms of economic exploitation of black people that we continue to ignore, uphold, and/or benefit from. These include money bail, predatory lending, and for-profit colleges.  Given that all the participants at this meeting worked in healthcare, we also discussed medical debt and the abuse visited on patients after hospitals turn them over to unscrupulous debt collectors.

Each of these forms of economic exploitation have allowed and continue to allow black wealth to be stolen – predominantly by white people – resulting in the enormous racial wealth gap that exists in America today. If there is to be justice for this crime, reparations are necessary.

For more information, click on the links above or get a copy of The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

As always, if you have thoughts on the reading, please share them in the comments section. I’d love to discuss it with you!

Author: Harrison Kalodimos

I'm a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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