Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Race, Economics and Apologetics: Is There a Connection?, which was distributed to attendees at Karam Forum 2020. Citations have been omitted.
Biologically speaking, whites and blacks are more than 99 percent the same. Biologically speaking, race should not matter; but socially, educationally, politically and economically, race matters much in our American milieu. As Dr. Shawn L. Alexander, associate professor of African and African-American studies and the director of the Langston Hughes Center, University of Kansas, quips, “Race, biologically means nothing, but it means everything.” Our lives are undeniably ordered by race, a social construct invented by white human beings. All social institutions, including the economy, are governed by race.
“Race and wealth,” writes Hayes-Greene and colleagues, “come together in an intricate Gordian knot.” The statement “Economics is racialized” is an assertion that whites seemingly have unencumbered access to the economy while blacks, historically and even today, struggle to have unhindered access to the economy. In other words, a racialized economy means that the social system is tilted to favor whites over blacks…
Our modern society was formed to accommodate and sustain the power and privilege of the white male, and white people in general…Today, whiteness is an ideology that purports that “whiteness is supreme, better, best,” and this ideology “permeates the air we breathe – in our schools, in our offices, and in our country’s common life.”
Whiteness as a seminal organizing principle finds its origin in the mid-fifteenth century. On August 8, 1444, Zurara, the historian for Prince Henry of Portugal, provided this commentary on the 235 slaves forcibly deported from the port of Lagos (and later divvied up): “And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvelous sight; for amongst them, were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiopians, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere.” By “lower hemisphere,” Christian intellectual Zurara means hell.
Later, author Willie James Jennings recounts what Christopher Columbus reports to Ferdinand and Isabella after completing his third voyage to help them grasp the details of Spain’s New World. Columbus reports, “The next day there came from the east a large canoe with 24 men in it, all of them young and bearing weapons… As I said, they were all young and fine looking and not negroes but rather the whitest of all those that I had seen in the Indies, and they were graceful and had fine bodies and long smooth hair cut in the Castilian manner.”
The implication or “logic of Columbus’ description is obvious—the comparison begins with the known, the self.” [quoting Jennings, Christian Imagination]Another implication of this comparison with the self is that while the “color white did not carry explicit racial connotations, [it] signified culture, refinement and a ‘just like us’ designation.” Most importantly, “Whiteness begins to emerge as the organizing conceptual frame and blackness appears as the fundamental tool of that organizing conceptuality.” Whiteness became the standard; whiteness became synonymous with greater ingenuity, easier to convert, more intelligence and higher. Blackness became an instrument and synonymous with the opposite, i.e., less ingenuity, harder to convert, less intelligence and lower…
The brutal, oppressive institution of slavery in the United States made many whites extremely wealthy. Blacks, on the other hand, did not fare so well due to a racialized economic system. Our racialized economic system continues today because racist attitudes and practices are woven into its very fabric. Racist attitudes are in the DNA of our economic system. Consider three manifestations of our racialized economy: housing discrimination and segregation, hiring discrimination and lack of upward mobility, and mass incarceration of black men.
Housing Discrimination and Segregation
Most Americans know that one can accumulate wealth by investing in real estate. For African Americans, buying real estate has been easier said than done because of a practice known as redlining. The practice of redlining was outlawed in the 1970s; however, redlining continues today de facto. Janelle O’Dea reports that, “Nearly 50 years after the federal Fair Housing Act was signed into law, banning racial discrimination in lending, black prospective homebuyers in the St. Louis area continue to be denied conventional mortgage loans at a much higher rate than whites – even when controlling for income, loan amount and neighborhood. In the metropolitan area, African Americans who apply for conventional mortgage loans are 2.5 times more likely to be denied than non-Hispanic whites.”49
What is redlining? As the word suggests, with the help of realtors, bankers drew a red line around certain neighborhoods. Homeowners in those neighborhoods, often African Americans, were denied loans to refurbish or invest in their homes. As a result, their houses depreciated in value. Instead of accruing wealth through appreciation of their property value, African American homeowners lost wealth.
What is the origin of redlining? In 1933, to rescue households that were about to default, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). According to Rothstein, “HOLC mortgages had low interest rates, but the borrowers still were obligated to make regular payments. To assess risk, the HOLC wanted to know something about the condition of the house and of surrounding houses in the neighborhood to see whether the property would likely maintain its value. So, the HOLC hired local real estate agents to make the appraisals on which refinancing decisions could be based.”
Not surprising, these agents considered the racial makeup of the neighborhoods in gauging risk. Rothstein continues, “The HOLC created colorcoded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation, with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red. A neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even if it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes.”
Home ownership and investment in home property is how many whites amassed their wealth, but because of private discrimination and public policy, African Americans’ residential options were severely constrained. Gordon once again shines the spotlight on the city of St. Louis, noting that “Throughout the twentieth century, private discrimination and public policy combined – intentionally and explicitly – to constrain the residential options available to African Americans, to confine them to certain wards or neighborhoods, and to stem what was widely perceived (in St. Louis and elsewhere) as the threat of invasion posed by north-to-south and rural-to-urban migration.”52 Note the phrase “and elsewhere.” These practices (e.g., racial zoning and state-enforced restrictive deed covenants) and policies were replicated and enforced in other American cities. Economics is racialized, and it is not a local phenomenon.
Hiring Discrimination and Lack of Upward Mobility
I know a dear sister named Shanquita. She is bright and funny. Shanquita is a not a white-sounding name. Based on the research of Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the odds of Shanquita receiving a callback for a job interview are highly unlikely. Bertrand and Mullainathan wanted to measure racial discrimination in the labor market. They mailed résumés in response to the help-wanted sections in Chicago and Boston newspapers. Half of the résumés had African-American-sounding names, and half had white-sounding names. All the other information, including educational background, work history, etc., was identical. The researchers also sent out résumés with differing names and different levels of work experience. In all, they sent out 5,000 résumés for a variety of positions, from clerical to sales managers.
The results were illuminating. Résumés with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than black names. Furthermore, “white names with high-quality work experience received 30 percent more callbacks than white names with low-quality experience. However, black names with high-quality work experience received no more callbacks than black names with low-quality work experience.”
Researchers Darolia, Koedel, Martorell, Wilson and Perez-Arce flipped the script and conducted another field experiment. Instead of selecting first names that were suggestive of race, they chose last names suggestive of race for black, Hispanic and white applicants. Positively, they found “little evidence to suggest that employers discriminate by race or gender in responding to résumés from job applications. One explanation for our findings is that we selected names for résumés to indicate race and gender without further indications of socioeconomic status.”
What is key here is the phrase “socioeconomic status.” The implication is that employers read some first names, such as Jamal or Shanquita, as low socioeconomic status, while black-sounding last names such as Washington and Jefferson do not suggest low socioeconomic status. What is in a name? Apparently, these two studies suggest employers see much in a person’s first and last name. Hiring employers’ antennas are attuned to detect first and last names that suggest a low socioeconomic standing…
“Today,” writes Bryan Stevenson, “we [the United States of America] have the highest rate of incarceration rate in the world.” And “one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” During a TED Talk, Stevenson added more specificity, stating that “one out of three African-American men, ages 18 to 30, is in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole.” Former Illinois capital punishment lawyer, Scott Turow, asserts in Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, that a white life is more valuable than a black life in the criminal justice system. In other words, a white defendant who perpetrated a crime against a black person will get a lighter sentence. On the other hand, a black defendant who perpetrated a crime against a white person will likely get a harsher sentence. Perhaps this phenomenon explains the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison…
With more black men being locked up, black mothers often struggle to make monthly ends meet. More black men locked up disadvantages black women, but advantages white men. With more black men locked up, white people’s access to jobs is unobstructed. The mass incarceration of African American men works, quips Butler, “like an employment stimulus plan for working class white people, who don’t have to compete for jobs with all the black men who are locked up, or who are underground because they have outstanding arrest warrants, or who have criminal records that make obtaining legal employment exceedingly difficult.”…
Take a moment to ponder these instances of racialized economics. Think about the divestiture of businesses or the loss of industries (and jobs) in urban neighborhoods. Think about the dysfunction of the black family. Think about being “constantly suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared.” [quoting Stevenson, Just Mercy] As you ponder, you might begin to see why many African Americans in the inner city suffer from nihilism or profound hopelessness. You might also begin to understand why it may appear as though black men are walking around lazily and aimlessly. Many are walking around because they have been locked out of opportunities due to racialized economics.
Racialized economics continues today because it is systemic. Yet the church is uniquely and divinely equipped to smash our racialized economic system.