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Why America Has Never Been Great for Black People: a History of Black Oppression

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Our president’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has always confused me. As a progressive person who only views the past to find ways to improve the future, I cannot fathom why President Trump wants to go backward. When I examine this country’s history, I do not find a time in which I, or any other black person for this matter, would have wanted to go. By studying the history of racism in the United States, I can only conclude that the president is referring to wealthy, white people such as himself when he proclaims this phrase, as that is the only demographic that has consistently experienced a “great” America. Some make the argument that black people gained their equality with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but racism since then is still largely present today. Those who still believe racism is virtually nonexistent live in a protected bubble, have little-to-no (close) black friends, and/or have never witnessed a racist incident. To them, I say, “your experiences concerning racism do not reflect everyone else’s.” Others also love to say that if black people “worked harder,” they could rise just as easily as everyone else, but this is untrue as well. America’s history of systemic racism through housing, the criminal justice system, and policing, has made it significantly more difficult for the Black community to rise in the social hierarchy, and it is this reason why many Black Americans can’t simply ‘work harder’ to be successful. As I review the country’s long history of both obvious and not-so-obvious racism, I ask you to please keep an open mind, and remember to use empathy. 

The abolishment of slavery in 1865 was not the abolishment of racism; since then, both overt and covert white supremacy have played large roles in limiting how black Americans are able to make money and become successful. As a result of these limitations, the nation’s current racial wealth gap continues to be a significant obstacle for the Black community. The current average net worth of a white family in America is $171,000, while the net worth is only $17,150 for that of a black family. Although many factors contribute to these numbers, it would be foolhardy for the nation not to address its history of segregation and biases. One of the main contributors to these biases exists regarding housing. Alas, we do not acknowledge much of this racism, so people continue preaching that anyone born into an unfavorable situation could “work their way to the top”; however, this way of thinking ignores how centuries of systemic racism have intricately designed “the top” as a place for whites only. One of the most exciting benefits of owning a home is that in most neighborhoods, home equity increases over time. Essentially, owning a home is a way to accumulate more money without extra work. This seems like a favorable circumstance, especially considering that on average, ⅔ of a person’s wealth originates from their home equity. However, throughout history, black people were never truly allowed to benefit from this advantage. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office amid the Great Depression in 1933, many families of all races were homeless across America. To combat the nation-wide housing shortage, President Roosevelt set up the Public Works Administration (PWA) as part of the New Deal. Unsurprisingly, the housing that the PWA built was only meant for middle-class white families, and only some, segregated housing was built for the black community. The next year, in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was founded by President Roosevelt in order to provide loans for prospective homeowners. In a practice called redlining, the FHA refused to give insured-mortgages to borrowers that they presumed as “high risk.” They mapped out cities across the nation, and they gave each neighborhood ratings that ranged from “hazardous” (red) to ”best” (green). The deciding factor that determined these grades was based almost exclusively on race. In 1940s Houston, neighborhoods like Montrose and River Oaks (5-12% non-white) were considered “best,” while places like Third Ward (96% non-white), where I live, were considered “hazardous.” Through these legal means of segregation, residents living in “hazardous” neighborhoods were not insured mortgages. Even if a Black American managed to accumulate enough wealth to buy a home in a white neighborhood, the house would never be sold to them. When a white person borrowed a loan to pay for a house in a place like River Oaks, they were required by law not to sell to African Americans; it was in the contract. What was the justification? Supposedly, letting black people into affluent neighborhoods would bring property values down. In reality, even 70 years after the Civil War, the goal was to preserve the racial hierarchy. The courts did almost nothing to stop this discrimination, and these practices continued. Years later, in 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, allowing people from all races and backgrounds to buy any home in any neighborhood, but it was far too late. Loans weren’t being given out left and right anymore, and the homes in wealthy white neighborhoods had inflated so much that black people looking to move to better districts could never afford them. Further, when the need for loans rose in 1993, subprime loans, which are disadvantageous loans with high-interest rates and fees, were given to POC much more often than white people. Hispanic Americans and African Americans are 78% and 105% more likely than white people to receive subprime loans, respectively. This is further supported by a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that “homeowners in high-income black neighborhoods are twice as likely as homeowners in low-income white neighborhoods to have subprime loans.” This even wider wealth gap left African American communities scrambling in debt, while affluent, white families were able to send their kids to college with the money from their home equities. Even if a black student was able to “work their way up,” and graduate college, it was likely they’d be the most successful person in their family, so they would tend to give regular deposits to their parents and relatives, making them less wealthy than a white person with the same degree and job as them. This is still a likely circumstance today. Past policies affect present-day in even more ways. Currently, the average income for a black person is about 60% the average of a white person’s; however, due to the lack of home equity for black people, Black Americans only hold about 5% of the wealth of white people. These findings explicitly show how race still plays a huge factor in housing today. With this in mind, it is clear that it is discriminatory policies that have built this massive racial wealth gap and not the “laziness” that is supposedly abundant throughout poor neighborhoods. 

The United States spends over $80 billion annually to keep a fourth of the world’s prison population behind bars, and there are still many citizens who think there’s nothing wrong with our system. Many seem to have concluded that because black people are 40% of the country’s prison population while only being 13% of the US population, they’re criminals. However, few seem to address that a black person is 20% more likely to be sentenced to jail than a white person who committed the same crime. Furthermore, black people receive 20% longer sentences than white people for the same crimes. One study even found that some employers would rather hire a white convicted felon than a black innocent citizen. According to the Bureau of Justice, in the 90s, African American males had a lifetime risk of 28.5% of being incarcerated, compared to white males at 4.4%; this is extremely concerning. Why are black people so disproportionately represented in our prison systems? It all starts directly after slavery with the exploitation of the 13th amendment’s loophole. The law states that no American should be enslaved “except as punishment for crime…” Racists took advantage of this loophole by enacting the Black Codes and the Compromise of 1877, which limited freedoms of African Americans and removed Union troops from the south, allowing southern racists to continue lynching without consequences. Combined, both the Black Codes and the Compromise of 1877 worked together to force African Americans to continue working on plantations, ensure that slavery could essentially continue legally, and sentence African Americans to labor camps for petty crimes such as vagrancy. They also worked to limit the “inalienable” rights of black people such as the right to vote, the right to carry weapons, and the right to rent land. Decades later, media portrayals of black people as criminals played a major role in how African Americans were perceived. One very notable film, ‘Birth of a Nation,’ was glorified by racist President Woodrow Wilson and described by him as “all so terribly true.” This partisan film portrayed black men as rapists and criminals, while also glorifying both slavery and the KKK. These portrayals, in addition to today’s overrepresentation of black lawbreakers in the media, have all contributed to the larger narrative: black people are criminals. How does all of this history relate to high prison numbers today? Due to media depictions and the legal segregation tactics explained above, crime increased as the natural response to poor social conditions. As a result, predominantly black neighborhoods, like mine, which were formally red-lined, are overpoliced due to how little the city has historically invested in places like these. Further, the “bad” schools that exist in these neighborhoods are a huge contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline. Lower quality schools, which are funded by low property taxes, are less likely to have resources for their students, so students are more likely to get in trouble. This results in schools being highly policed, so police officers turn over “bad” kids to juvenile facilities instead of getting them the help they need. Even when cities start to invest in these neighborhoods, through a process called gentrification, the addition of newer facilities and big-brand corporations leads to the addition of white people. Unfortunately, many white people, whether intentionally or not, do not feel comfortable around large groups of black people. Consequently, more officers are sent to these gentrified neighborhoods in order to ensure that the new residents feel safer. When there is a higher police presence, more crime is documented. Thus, the same criminalized narrative continues. Even further contributing to mass incarceration is that 45.9% of people incarcerated are in for drug offenses, so wouldn’t it make sense to reinvest some of the money used to keep up prisons into rehabilitation centers? That way, after drug addicts get the necessary help, they can get back out into the real world, where they’ll be less likely to get charged with more crimes. Yet, unfortunately, many employers don’t want to hire any black criminals, as opposed to white criminals. So, the homeless people you see on the street who you tell to “get a job” because “it’s not that hard,” are many times very disadvantaged from doing so.  Because this country has only narrowly progressed from its racist past in which being black meant going to jail, we’re all going to have to agree on some type of criminal justice reform. Without reform of our criminal justice system, a large number of black people will never get the chance to live a better life, and the “criminal” narrative will continue indefinitely. 

Lastly, another reason that it is more challenging for black people to simply “work their way to the top” is because of the target on their backs that was put there by police 300 years ago. Policing in the United States began in the 1700s when slave patrols, white men armed with guns and whips, were hired to beat slaves for not following rules and to catch runaway slaves as a means of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws. When slave patrols were abolished at the end of the Civil War, the KKK and other local police carried out these same jobs by targeting black people and arresting them for petty crimes, as I mentioned. In fact, arresting black people for petty crimes was the sole job of some officers. Due to these police origins, it’s no wonder that there was no law enforcement to prevent white supremacy groups like the KKK from lynching African Americans for minor “crimes.” It’s safe to say that throughout the history of this country, numerous members of law enforcement have gone out of their way to hunt down black people. A culture with such a racist mission can’t be expected to just “change overtime;” direct action is needed. With this in mind, it’s simple to understand why the American Psychological Association (APA) has found that “the probability of being black, unarmed and shot by police is about 3.5 times the probability of being white, unarmed and shot by police.” The APA also found that “black residents were more often subjected to police force than white residents,” and that “black men were four times more likely than white men to be searched during a traffic stop.” These statistics, at least for a black person, are daunting and impossible to ignore. But, why are black people generally treated so unfairly by officers whose job it is to protect the people? Well, in some police departments, explicit biases exist. This means the officers are told to take an ‘us vs them’ approach when policing black communities. For other departments, biases are much more implicit, with one of the most common being that many people, including police officers, generally assume that black people are always committing crimes. It’s also quite evident how biases that have existed for generations are affecting today’s daily society. Black drivers are 30% more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers, and more than half of young black Americans know someone (including themselves) that has been harassed. There’s a reason that so many black children in this country are given “the talk.” It’s so common that it’s part of the culture. But I guess that part of culture wouldn’t be too fun to appropriate, would it? The metaphorical “target” that has been placed on the backs of black people in this country has brought a state of constant fear for many citizens, so why have we yet to make revolutionary attempts to change the culture?

As you can hopefully now see, America was built on institutionalized racism, and because of this, the majority of the black community starts far behind their white counterparts. Current police officers were brought up in a system that was originally intended to hunt slaves, so it’s no wonder that black people are more likely to be sought out and are still being lynched by these so-called “protectors.” Due to biased law enforcement, paired with media depictions, black people are overrepresented in our country’s prisons. Additionally, the wealth gap, which has been growing for generations, is a huge factor in ensuring that Black Americans continue to be disadvantaged in almost every aspect of achieving success in this country. With this information, I hope I’ve helped open your eyes to America’s blatant racist past and revealed to you how that has set us back, time-and-again. So, to conclude, I must ask (to those who still disagree): Next time you’re sporting your ‘MAGA’ hat and calling out the “libtards” in the “feminist” comment section as you yell “Make America Great Again”, what do you mean by “again”?

image: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7_kFJjDdJt/

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