Canaries

Ignoring for the distasteful way he framed his essay under a title alluding to Malcolm X’s comments on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Tim Wise makes some plausible points about race and the economic crisis worthy of consideration. I’m not prepared to endorse other aspects of his analysis, but the “canary” section is, I think, insightful:

Most have probably heard of the way that canaries were once used by miners to check coal shafts for methane gas and carbon monoxide. These potentially deadly emissions being more immediately toxic to birds than people, the miners knew that if they released canaries in the mine and the canaries died, they too would be in danger before long. Over the years, the metaphor of the “miner’s canary” has been deployed by scholars who focus on the issue of race, such as Lani Gunier and Gerald Torres, whose 2002 book by that title explored the way that racial inequity has long served as a bellwether for coming social problems that would affect far more than just people of color.

Much as Guinier and Torres noted then, I would point out now, that in the midst of the faltering national economy we should understand how our inattention over the years to the warning signs of coming crisis explain much about how and why things got to be this bad. And those warning signs were ignored in large measure because they seemed not to impact white Americans, especially middle class and above whites. Because the pain was localized in low income and people of color communities, folks like Jeremy could choose to ignore it, not necessarily because they were insensitive or uncaring, let alone racist in the overt sense; but rather, because the immediate consequences weren’t evident to them, and so paying little attention was easy to do.

For instance, consider the current housing meltdown. Although the crisis is now being felt nationwide, in communities that are urban, suburban and rural, and by people across the color spectrum, things weren’t always that way. Nearly fifteen years ago, Michael Hudson detailed in his groundbreaking book, Merchants of Misery, the way that poor folks–disproportionately of color–were being gouged by high interest lenders on the secondary mortgage market, thanks to discriminatory lending practices. Likewise, community-based groups in places like North Carolina were taking on predatory lenders in the late 90s and early 2000s, like Citi, which was caught charging black families hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional mortgage payments over the life of their loans, by steering them into loan instruments that were more costly than necessary, even when those families could have qualified for lower interest rates.

Yet consistently, when activists would raise these issues, decry the racial and class unfairness inherent to these practices and call for regulations, most of the media, the public and lawmakers routinely ignored them. No national politicians campaigned on platforms to crack down on such policies, to strengthen fair lending laws, or to reign in the interest that lenders could charge. The market, they would insist, was sufficient to regulate these matters.

Of course, once it became apparent that lenders were not going to be heavily scrutinized or regulated when it came to these activities, high-cost mortgage instruments became even more prevalent, and began to spread, from the communities of color and poor communities where they had begun, to solidly middle class and largely white spaces too. Independent mortgage brokers, which are not regulated the way banks are, began to offer loans to consumers based on little if any paperwork to demonstrate the payments could be made. These lenders had little incentive to control such activity, since they were going to sell the loans in bundles to wealthy investors anyway. By the time families were in default and being foreclosed on, the brokers would have made their money and moved on. As a result of the spread of high-cost mortgages, folks in solid middle class counties like Suffolk and Nassau, on Long Island, are now facing higher foreclosure rates than residents in Brooklyn or Queens.

So in a very real sense, white ambivalence to the suffering of black and brown folks opened the floodgates to even more risky economic activity, and this time, in far whiter communities as well. Had racial inequity and injustice been seen as a problem early on, perhaps the market for such predatory loans would have been shut down or at least heavily regulated, thereby staving off crisis. Clearly, the millions of white folks who got roped into these instruments by lenders promising that everything would be alright are suffering today, precisely because the pain was not taken seriously when it belonged to someone else.

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