The New York Times ran a story earlier this week entitled "The New Poor: Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Gains," which painted a very grim picture of the recession's effects on African-Americans in Memphis. According to most demographers, Memphis will soon be the first metropolis in the U.S. with a predominantly black population, which means that our fair city is often looked to as a prognostic indicator for "black urban life." The NYT article descibes Memphis as a city in which the black middle-class was, up until very recently, on the steady rise. But the two major effects of the recent recession (unemployment and foreclosures) are disproportionately ravaging the black community, disproportionately when compared to white communities, and that is the real tragedy of this story. Memphis is not the only place in the country where this is happening; it's just the place where its happening is the hardest to deny.
A few weeks ago, our mayor (A.C. Wharton, Jr.) testified before Congress about the Reverse Redlining Lawsuit that the city of Memphis filed against Wells Fargo. "Reverse redlining" is a special variety of predatory lending, which has literally eviscerated black communities in Memphis, and which has its own racially-charged history. As you may recall, before Title VIII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (a.k.a., the Fair Housing Act) was in effect, urban communities were starved for credit and denied loans for decades by "redlining" investment and lending practices. Banks, insurance companies, employers, even supermarkets literally drew a red line on a map around certain communities, most often racially determined, in which they would not invest. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for the most part, outlawed redlining practices, which made possible the rise of a black middle-class in cities like Memphis over the last three decades, enabling blacks with access to homes, jobs and credit that translated into accumulable and, eventually, accumulated wealth. However, it now appears that all of that progress has been, or soon will be, reversed. The banks returned to their old tricks during the so-called housing "boom," this time with the more insidious practice of "reverse" redlining. Rather than targeting black communities for the denial of loans and credit, financial institutions literally flooded those "redlined" areas with exploitative loan products that have now drained residents of their wealth... and, significantly, drained the city of its progress.
Mayor Wharton called this the "changing face of discrimination," astutely linking the racist practice of reverse redlining to the racist history of redlining. If predatory lending is the chief culprit in our current recession, Wharton wants to make sure we all know that predation is not, and never has been, equally distributed. In his testimony to the U.S. Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Wharton did not mince words when he stated:
Simply put, predatory lending is to this generation what 'no lending' to Blacks and Latinos was a generation before.
Although the NYT article did include a few remarks from Mayor Wharton, and although it did make mention of Memphis' lawsuit against Wells Fargo, the fact that the article is titled "The New Poor" indicates that (per usual) they have failed to connect the dots when it comes to race, class and the law. The "new poor" is not new. It refers to the same people, the same communities, who are made and kept poor in the same ways that they have been for the entire history of our country. Intentional blindness to the direct lineage that connects Jim Crow redlining to Obama-era reverse redlining is just another failure to see the big picture. Race continues to operate as the primary American filter through which all goods, privileges, rights and resources pass. Mayor Wharton implored Congress to connect ALL of the racial dots, rather than just the "cultural" ones, when he said: "For those who would say that the lawsuit we've filed is aligned with our city's history for 'singing the blues,' I assure you that this is not the case. We are not 'singing the blues'-- we are 'crying foul'."