The Jim Crow North and neoliberal white supremacy: Notes on “The Case for Reparations”

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s breathtaking piece in The Atlantic laying out “The Case for Reparations” has (re-)started a conversation I’ve been waiting for a long time.

Reparations, he argues, are not only possible but necessary, and they aren’t just for the Euro/American holocaust that was slavery – they’re for white supremacy, a political and economic system of robbery and repression as old as the colonies.

Using historical records, statistics, and anecdotes, Coates shows (convincingly and in great detail) how white supremacy in the United States – founded on the exploitation of black bodies and property – survived both the end of slavery and the end of apartheid in the US South, and is alive and well in the neoliberal era.

Coates has done some incredibly thorough and important work, and I urge you all to read it in its entirety. But it’s quite long, so I’d like to highlight a couple really key points we don’t usually hear when liberals discuss the past and present of racism in this country.

The Jim Crow South is rightly remembered as an openly white supremacist regime of (legal) segregation, (legal) discrimination, and (extra-legal) terror – in Coates’s words, “a second slavery”. But in the North, as well as in federal policy, a more subtle apartheid ruled.

Blacks who came to the North expected, if not equality, then at least some measure of legal protection from the violence and robbery white Southerners committed against them with impunity. Instead, they were greeted by more of the state and mob violence, more of the separate-and-unequal policies they thought they’d left behind:

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.

As an old “joke” I once read in a trade journal goes: “The Southerner doesn’t mind how close a Negro gets as long as he doesn’t get too high; the Northerner doesn’t mind how high a Negro gets as long as he doesn’t get too close.”

Of particular interest to Coates is the role of the federal government in enabling this de facto apartheid. It’s not often mentioned that the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the darling of liberals desperate to salvage a past in which the Democratic Party was actually progressive – passed its celebrated New Deal economic reforms with the help of Southern Democrats.

The Southern wing of the party weren’t opposed to the construction of a social safety net, so long as it didn’t threaten the “Southern way of life” by benefitting blacks:

Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible.

The US welfare state didn’t just fail to adequately protect black people – it was founded on their exclusion. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created under FDR, doubled home ownership in the span of 30 years by making it possible for banks to offer low-downpayment mortgages. But as Coates points out, the HOLC and FHA had a practice of “redlining” – granting loans on the condition that they only go to white homebuyers.

Focusing on my home state of Illinois, Coates illustrates how federally-backed redlining provided an incentive for decades of right-wing terrorism by white citizens and discriminatory policies by state and local legislatures, ensuring de facto segregation and the continued plunder of black wealth. Pushed out to the shady fringes of the housing market, black homebuyers were easy prey for predatory “contract sellers” peddling agreements in which

the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, [the buyer] 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.

To this day, even when you control for variables like income and occupation, the wealth gap between black and white Americans is staggering. That’s because the systematic dispossession of blacks by whites (which has characterized white supremacy since this country’s prehistory) is ongoing: No longer explicitly discriminatory, public policy and private practices have preserved this system of oppression along racial lines not despite, but because of neoliberal ideology’s fixation on “colorblindness” (including its definition of racism as the overt prejudice of individuals).

One of the reasons this piece is so crucial is that it shows the relationship between different periods in white supremacy – from the colonial era to the neoliberal era – to be one not primarily of rupture, as mainstream discourse would have it, but of continuity. Segregation in the North and South provided US banks with ideal “emerging markets” for predatory subprime loans that, besides playing a huge part in the 2007-8 financial crisis, were peddled disproportionately to ethnic minorities, and to blacks most of all.

Naturally, black people were also disproportionately the victims of foreclosure by the same financial institutions that had targeted them for risky mortgages. “In 2010,” Coates writes,

the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”

Gone are the days when the welfare state incentivized the segregation and dispossession of black people – deregulated banks can now take advantage of a black population already segregated and dispossessed by century after century, decade after decade of racist policies and practices.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America eventually agreed to pay out settlements to the tune of $355 million and $175 million, respectively. “But the damage,” Coates concludes, “had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.”

Why reparations? Because, as Coates illustrates by tracing white supremacy through the centuries and into our “tolerant” present, the history of the US is in large part the history of the deliberate and systematic plunder of black America. The crimes of white supremacy have created, and will continue to compound, a material and moral debt that nothing short of a radical redistribution of wealth – and therefore power – can even begin to redeem.

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