And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them. This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.
Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous. And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood.
Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The implications are chilling. As a rule, poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto—and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back. Even seeming evidence of progress withers under harsh light. In , the Manhattan Institute cheerily noted that segregation had declined since the s.
And yet African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country. With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color.
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Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating. One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable.
The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance. The suit dragged on until , when the league lost a jury trial. Securing the equal protection of the law proved hard; securing reparations proved impossible.
Board of Education and all that nonsense. The Supreme Court seems to share that sentiment. The past two decades have witnessed a rollback of the progressive legislation of the s. Liberals have found themselves on the defensive. In , when Barack Obama was a candidate for president, he was asked whether his daughters—Malia and Sasha—should benefit from affirmative action.
He answered in the negative. The exchange rested upon an erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family. In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush—the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. In , the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations.
Belinda had been born in modern-day Ghana. She was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery.
She endured the Middle Passage and 50 years of enslavement at the hands of Isaac Royall and his son. But the junior Royall, a British loyalist, fled the country during the Revolution. Belinda, now free after half a century of labor, beseeched the nascent Massachusetts legislature:. Belinda Royall was granted a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall—one of the earliest successful attempts to petition for reparations.
At the time, black people in America had endured more than years of enslavement, and the idea that they might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous. As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected.
In his book Forever Free , Eric Foner recounts the story of a disgruntled planter reprimanding a freedman loafing on the job:. In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. Not exactly. Having been enslaved for years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized.
In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.
It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid?
How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested. But all we are talking about is studying [reparations].
As John Conyers has said, we study everything. We study the water, the air. This bill does not authorize one red cent to anyone. That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer.
A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions.