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How Ferguson destroyed the American dream

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THE MASS PROTESTS in Ferguson are a continuation of the most visibly violent part of racial inequality. The recent financial crisis only amplifies the enduring racial inequality found within daily economic interactions and welfare in the US.

The images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, are forming an all-too-familiar picture of shootings by white men (police or not) of unarmed young black men in America. This is just one incidence in a longer history of violence. Comparisons are being made to the Civil Rights Era protests, but can also be made to race riots specifically over police brutality, such as in 1980 Miami, 1992 Los Angeles, 2001 Cincinnati, and 2009 Oakland. While comprehensive official numbers are not kept over police use of force, or of force resulting in death, the incidents happen on a frequent and reoccurring basis. What is rarer is the scale of response of Ferguson’s local community, who rose in protests and riots and was met by police equipped with military gear.

The explosion of news coverage and opinion to explain the facts of everyday blackness, the world in which the largest racial minority of the U.S. navigates on a daily basis, demonstrates just how foreign the African-American experience is for many white Americans. The news describes a national “soul-searching”, but it is a very specific group that must comprehend such a different life outlook that could prompt such a reaction. Many Americans lack a sense of the true landscape of inequality within the U.S., due to a combination of insulation and an unwillingness to see that reality.

From 1970 onwards, black-white segregation has risen between larger neighborhoods and communities throughout the U.S. According to the PRRI 2013 American Values Survey, white people’s average social circles are 91% white, and 75% of white people have entirely white social circles. Schools have returned to pre-Civil Rights Era segregation levels. There are two large contributing factors: subconscious prejudgments and the selection of choices (such as housing options) being formed from overtly racist policies, some past, some present. Self-segregation serves to reinforce the unawareness of the discrimination that impacts the ability of all people to go about life. It also increases a lack of understanding that the ability to implement choices, such as moving to a new neighborhood, bears higher constraints and costs for some people, such as justifiable worries of bias by the home mortgage officer, the police, and teacher. Isolation leaves stereotypes to play a much stronger role than actual experience that would debunk those myths.

Economic interactions and human value

The economy is ideally a place of equal opportunity, but in practice, a place where existing and inherited wealth obtains better opportunities to participate within the economy, and where discriminatory behaviors occur. And, if basic human needs are met unequally, such as education, or healthcare, then the playing field is even more uneven.

Historically, African-Americans were denied access completely, often through violence. The foundation of modern American welfare, Social Security, was designed specifically in the Great Depression to aid poor white workers, and excluded high black-occupancy professions. Many of the programs from Social Security aided white people in climbing the post-Second World War economic boom, while leaving black people in low-skilled and low-paid jobs.

Current white anti-welfare sentiment has a strong basis in the belief that welfare programs benefit primarily African-Americans. The actual incidence of poverty among African-Americans is approximately ¼ (versus approximately 1/10 among whites). While African-Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population and thus a small proportion of Americans in poverty, media representation of poverty has a distinctly black face. The structure of American welfare is highly needs-based, requiring proof that one is deserving of assistance. This represents a high tolerance for individual competition for the best of unequal services. It also indicates an acceptance that some people will not have a chance to fulfill their potential and contribute their best to the society. It places an implicit assumption that some people may judge whether others are deserving of having their basic needs met, and that undeserving people exist.

Discrimination makes African-Americans much harder hit during times of economic downturn, regardless of wealth. Immediately before the financial crisis, African-Americans with credit scores eligible for a standard loan were more than three times likely to hold a risky subprime loan than a white loan holder with similar score. Discriminatory practices created higher odds to hold a subprime mortgage for a black household with an income over $200,000 than a white household at $32,000.

The rise in segregation corresponds with the rise in the wealth gap between poor and rich in the U.S. It also corresponds with a movement against government social spending. As Americans’ experiences diverge, lines of inequality of exacerbated, with decreases in African-American well-being, from literacy to health and life expectancy.

The stereotypes of ‘blackness’ are tied to a valuation of the worth of a person, and were used to justify the enslavement of Africans and use of their labor, on the basis that they valued as a lesser human. American valuation of personal worth is inherently tied to wealth, because within that imagined economy, where individuals equally have the opportunity to “lift themselves up by the bootstraps,” the ones who worked the hardest were able to get ahead. Such a vision, so distant from reality, draws attention away from the active recreation of inequality within daily life.

By Virginia Palm

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