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When American soldiers returned home after fighting in World War II, most of them were the immediate beneficiaries of the GI Bill, which is largely credited with the massive expansion of the American middle class during the 1950's and 60's.
Many soldiers used the GI Bill to go to college, beginning a precedent that would yield benefits for generations to come. But most Black soldiers could not avail themselves of this benefit at the hundreds of universities that only admitted white students.
The GI Bill also helped soldiers buy a house, the primary source of wealth-building and economic stability in the United States. As homeowners, they could then establish credit and could financially invest in the growth of their community. But redlining practices (first begun by the Federal Housing Administration, and later adopted by Realtors and community developers), ensured that black homebuyers were kept out of the most upwardly mobile neighborhoods and restricted to areas with fewer resources and opportunities. Often these areas were near waste treatment facilities or industrial plants, and had poor access to parks, green space, or modern amenities (see post: Environmental Racism). Black buyers were unable to qualify for financing in any other parts of town.
Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, there was significant profit to be made from this situation. In a practice known as 'blockbusting' speculators would play on white homeowners' fears to induce them to sell their properties at less than market value. They would then turn around and sell these houses to Black first-time home buyers 'on contract,' which meant the seller would remain in possession of the deed until the entirety of the mortgage was paid off.
Buyers were at the mercy of the seller and could not earn any equity while the mortgage was being paid. Coates notes that if the buyer "missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself. It was a "predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither." Once again, Black families found themselves indentured to White profit and greed (closely paralleling the crippling sharecropping tactics of the post-civil war era).
|Redlining map of Chicago|
Keeping up with this scheme, and the hope of "the American Dream," Black homeowners often had to carry multiple jobs and to forgo other middle class purchases, such as a car for commuting to their work. With both parents maintaining multiple jobs, kids might have been more on their own after school, maybe receive less help with homework, or perhaps had to work to contribute as well. All to line the pockets of white speculators, rather than investing in their own futures, or that of their children.
Furthermore, because taxes for school funding are tied to property values, the declining tax base due to white flight also led to a defunding of local schools. The misnomered 'separate but equal' policies reinforced white parents' decisions to segregate themselves. As a result, black children received exponentially fewer resources in their schools, further dampening their prospects for attending college (even if their parents had managed to attend before them).
Discrimination in hiring was (and continues to be) prevalent in all parts of the country. Black workers often did not have access to the thriving manufacturing jobs that were at the heart of so many middle class towns across the United States. It was also during this time that unions were gaining strength. Members could boost their earnings by collective bargaining and could be assured of greater job security and quality. But many unions discriminated on the basis of race, and so once again, Black families missed out.
For years, those that could afford to do so turned to powdered cocaine use. But when crack cocaine was developed in 1984, it was sold at much lower price and became available in urban and low-income areas. In cities that were already segregated across racial/economic lines, this meant that a disparity in drug choice began to emerge.
When the political strategizing led to a legislative crackdown on drug use, the sentencing differences for these drugs were stark. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that possession of 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine carried the same sentence as possession of only 50 grams of crack, a 1:100 disparity.
The continued consequences of these policies are staggering. Though black folk represent only 13% of drug users (paralleling national racial demographics), they account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of those sent to prison on drug possession charges. Indeed, even though 72% of drug users are white, black men are 13 times more likely to be sent to prison for a drug offence than white men (see post: New Jim Crow). The result is the continuation of legal, government-sanctioned practices that began in the post-civil war era through biased incarceration tactics.
The legacy of the issues outlined here is clearly reflected today in our education system, our housing, our health care today (see post: Disparity By the Numbers). None of this history is very old and the oppression that originated with slavery has never really ended. As the laws have changed, and racism's manifestations have morphed, its destructive repercussions for Black Americans remain. How can we demand that we all 'just get over it' when the abuse has never actually stopped?
Through it all, Black triumphs of spirit, culture, finance, and intellect have contributed to our society in profound and lasting ways. At each point in our history, there have been heros rising above circumstance to advance themselves, and those around them. Even today, there are fortunate individuals who have achieved greatness against great odds. But their success does not discount the barriers they faced, and that continue to be faced by so many others.
Whose contributions are we missing? Whose voice has been silenced? Whose ideas have been squelched, and whose talents has been suppressed by unjust distribution of resources? Can we even imagine the total consequence of this legacy of oppression?