[News] Racism as Reflex - Reflections on Conservative Scapegoating

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Mon Sep 29 12:15:37 EDT 2008


September 29, 2008

Reflections on Conservative Scapegoating

Racism as Reflex


If hypocrisy were currency, conservatives would be able to 
single-handedly bail out the nation's free-falling financial system 
in less than a week, without the rest of us having to front so much 
as a penny.

So on the one hand, folks like this always tell others--especially 
the poor and people of color--to take "personal responsibility" for 
their lives, and not to blame outside factors (like racism, or the 
economic system) for their problems. But on the other hand, these 
same persons then demonstrate that their own ability to blame others 
for their personal setbacks, or the nation's problems, knows no rival.

So, for instance, if they or someone they know didn't get the job 
they wanted, it must be because of affirmative action or because the 
job was "taken" by an illegal immigrant; if their child didn't get 
into the college of his or her choice it must be because of some 
preference given to a black kid; if they can't afford to send their 
child to college it's because all the scholarship money was given to 
students of color; if their local schools are falling apart it's 
because of integration or multiculturalism; if their taxes are too 
high it's because of all those government programs for "those 
people." On and on it goes, with never so much as a nod to personal 
responsibility. Whatever goes wrong in the lives of white 
conservatives is almost always the fault of black and brown liberals, 
or so the story goes.

The right is so predictable when it comes to this kind of thing, that 
you can almost set your watch by their daily eruptions of stupidity.

And so in the past several weeks, we have been treated to three fresh 
examples of conservative scapegoating and buck-passing, in which they 
seek to blame the poor or folks of color for various social problems 
for which the latter are not the least bit responsible.

First, we have Neil Cavuto of Fox News, followed by Rush Limbaugh a 
few days later, along with smaller-market talk radio hosts and 
commentators, insisting that the nation's current financial mess is 
not the fault of greedy investors, free-wheeling bankers, speculators 
and other assorted rich people taking advantage of a largely 
deregulated market for bogus investments. Rather, it is the fault of 
poor people and those who seek to serve their communities, and 
especially folks of color, and those who insist on such things as 
civil rights.

How so? Simple: according to these blowhards, laws like the 1977 
Community Reinvestment Act, which seeks to steer investments to 
economically marginalized communities so as to stimulate economic 
development and reverse the longstanding process of racial and 
economic redlining, is the real culprit. If banks hadn't been forced 
to throw good money after bad, and make loans to "minorities and 
risky folks" as Cavuto said on September 18th, none of this would 
have happened.

Of course, none of the reactionary cranks making this argument has 
seen fit to present even a single, solitary piece of statistical 
evidence to support their scapegoating of CRA. Evidence doesn't 
matter. Simply saying it, simply insisting that it's the black and 
the brown and the poor who are to blame is supposed to be enough. 
Sadly, for lots of Americans it will be. The kind of people who 
listen to the Limbaughs of the world, after all, rarely care much for 
facts. But for those who still put a premium on truth, and who place 
more value on honesty than their own need to nurture their anger, 
here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, the Community Reinvestment Act only applies to banks and 
thrifts that are federally-insured. This means that the independent 
mortgage brokers, who are responsible for half of all the nation's 
sub-prime lending--and who have been writing such loans at more than 
twice the rate of banks and thrifts--aren't even covered by the law. 
And make no mistake, it was the hand of the mortgage broker, more 
than any other, that precipitated the housing bubble. These are folks 
who were writing "stated income" loans (which means you don't have to 
prove your income, you can just tell them a number and get the OK), 
not caring about whether the borrower might default, since they were 
going to turn around and dump the loan at a profit, onto the 
secondary market, by pawning it off to investors who were gobbling up 
debt, betting on the further expansion of home values. In this 
scenario, neither the original broker nor the investor who bought up 
the debt was concerned about what would happen to the borrower who 
took out the initial loan. After all, if a borrower defaulted, but 
the housing market was still going up in value, they could swoop in, 
foreclose and sell the house again at a profit.

On neither end of this equation were poor people to blame. The 
persons getting stated income loans were overwhelmingly middle class, 
perhaps hoping to keep up with the richer folks down the block, but 
certainly not the poor. Most poor folks are still renters, or just 
hoping to get a modest home. And let it suffice to say that none of 
the vultures snapping up the mortgage debt on the secondary market 
were poor, and very few were persons of color. These were affluent 
white people, willing to gamble on the potential misfortune of others.

Secondly, the idea that loans to the poor or to moderate income folks 
could create this mess is almost inherently absurd. Fact is, the risk 
involved with loans to such persons is quite low. The amount of money 
lost, even when a low income family does default, is quite minimal. 
On the other hand, when a middle class family, striving to live above 
their means, takes out a note that eats up half of their income, the 
amount lost when the bubble bursts is quite a bit more substantial. 
This is one of the reasons that, according again to the evidence, 
loans to those with more moderate incomes are actually less risky 
than those to the affluent. Looking at CRA-related loans, for 
instance, the fact is, these represent nearly one-fourth of all loans 
written, but less than 10 percent of the high-cost, high-risk loans 
that precipitated the current crisis. These loans actually have lower 
default and foreclosure rates than non-CRA connected loans, and are 
twice as likely to be retained in the portfolios of the banks that 
originated them than other loans. In other words, it is not CRA loans 
being dumped into the hands of greedy speculators, and then falling 
flat, taking the economy with them.

Finally, to the extent low-income folks of color are shuttled into 
the sub-prime market, and then unable to pay their house notes, this 
unhappy fact owes more to discrimination than anti-discrimination 
efforts such as CRA. As several studies have shown, banks often 
reject borrowers of color, even when they have credit records similar 
to whites with the same incomes. Then, these rejected applicants are 
steered towards sub-prime lenders which charge far higher interest 
and place the borrowers in great jeopardy by driving up the amount 
they must repay.

A few years back, a study of Citigroup (which includes Citi, the 
group's sub-prime lender), found that Citi in North Carolina was 
charging higher interest even to borrowers who could have qualified 
for regular loans. In the process, over 90,000 mostly black borrowers 
were roped into predatory loans, and as a result paid an average of 
$327 more per month for mortgages than those getting loans from a 
prime lender. This added up to over $110,000 in excess payments over 
the life of the loans, on average. In other words, folks of color who 
could have qualified for lower-interest loans (that they would have 
been able to pay back far more easily) were steered to higher-cost 
instruments by greedy financial institutions, looking to make a quick 
buck at their expense. That's not the fault of civil rights 
protection, it's the fault of economic civil rights violations.

As if blaming the global financial squeeze on the poor wasn't putrid 
enough, along comes the National Review Online, which descended even 
deeper into the pit of obvious racism on September 26th. To wit, the 
blog entry entitled "Cause and Effect?" by Mark Krikorian, executive 
director of an anti-immigration group in DC, in which he notes failed 
S&L Washington Mutual's stellar record on corporate diversity, as if 
this were somehow connected to their insolvency. The fact that WaMu 
had been ranked as one of the top ten businesses in the Hispanic 
Business Diversity Elite, and had received a perfect score on the 
Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equity Index (which focuses on 
equity for lesbian and gay folks), are, in Krikorian's mind, linked 
to their financial troubles. Because, ya know, if you have too many 
Latinos and gays working for you, well, clearly you can't care 
anything about the bottom line. That Krikorian presents no evidence, 
or even logic, to suggest a linkage between workplace equity and 
financial incompetence doesn't matter: his readers, predisposed to 
scapegoat the non-white and non-straight for anything and everything, 
can be expected to take the bait.

And then there's Louisiana state lawmaker, John LaBruzzo, who 
proposes solving the problem of poverty by giving financial 
incentives to poor women on public assistance to be sterilized, so as 
to cut down on their birthrates. LaBruzzo, whose legislative district 
was once represented by neo-nazi David Duke (who also proposed 
something like this in 1991), insists his plan isn't racist, sexist, 
or classist, but merely aimed at cutting down on excessive welfare 
costs. He also claims that his plan would reverse the current 
pattern, whereby poor women are encouraged to have more babies so as 
to collect more welfare.

Putting aside the inherently Hitlerian, eugenic rationale for such 
actions, LaBruzzo, as with Duke, and most right-wingers, ignores 
every bit of logic and evidence so as to push this kind of nonsense. 
First off, he ignores the now-twelve-year-old welfare reform law, 
which prevents additional payments for persons on welfare who have 
additional children. Although these "extra" monies were never very 
much (in Louisiana they amounted to less than $100 per month at the 
time the law was changed), now they are essentially non-existent. 
Secondly, LaBruzzo ignores the evidence from more than twenty years 
of research, which indicates that persons receiving public assistance 
do not, in fact, have more children, on average, than non-welfare 
receiving families. So the idea that poor women need incentives not 
to have babies is nonsense. What they need is decent-paying jobs, 
something LaBruzzo has no idea how to create.

And finally, the underlying premise of LaBruzzo's plan--which, if the 
public comments posted to Nola.com (New Orleans' main media website) 
are any indication, is quite popular--is entirely bogus. Contrary to 
conventional wisdom (or at least, contrary to what a lot of white 
people think, whether wise or not), the numbers of people even 
receiving cash welfare in Louisiana are ridiculously small. LaBruzzo, 
who said the idea for this bill came to him after seeing folks in New 
Orleans during Katrina who were dependent on so-called government 
handouts, apparently doesn't feel the need to do any homework. For 
had he done so, he would have discovered that at the time of the 
flooding, there were fewer than 5000 households in the entire city 
receiving cash assistance, out of nearly 200,000 households in all. 
Fewer than four percent of black households, and only about one in 
ten poor households were receiving the kind of welfare that LaBruzzo 
would seek to tie to sterilization. Since Katrina, the number of 
persons on state aid have fallen even further, as the poor muddle 
through with very little assistance of any kind. But rather than push 
for rental assistance for low-income folks, which would improve the 
lives of poor folks and their communities dramatically, LaBruzzo is 
content--as conservatives almost always are--to blame the poor for 
their condition and seek to change their behavior (or in this case, 
compel their infertility) so as to solve the problem of economic 
deprivation. How very typical.

So there you have it: white conservatives who simply cannot bring 
themselves to blame rich white people for anything, and who 
consistently fall back into old patterns, blaming the poor for 
poverty, black and brown folks for racism, anybody but themselves and 
those like them. That anyone takes them seriously anymore when they 
prattle on about "personal responsibility" is a stunning testament to 
how racism and classism continue to pay dividends in a nation whose 
soil has been fertilized with these twin poisons for generations. 
Unless the rest of us insist that the truth be told--and unless we 
tell it ourselves, by bombarding the folks who send us their hateful 
e-mails with our own correctives, thereby putting them on notice that 
we won't be silent (and that they cannot rely on our complicity any 
longer)--it is doubtful that much will change.

Tim Wise is the author of: 
Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 
2005), and 
Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He 
can be reached at: <mailto:timjwise at msn.com>timjwise at msn.com

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