Monday, October 31, 2011

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reverse Robin Hood

By Christy Rogers, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On Wednesday, November 18th, the Kirwan Institute, along with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Center for Responsible Lending, and the National Council of La Raza, co-hosted a policy meeting around fair credit and fair housing in the wake of the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis (with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation). The turnout was so good we had to add a table. The conversation was intense, engaging. Even the food was good. Yet I left incensed. Why?

Because in presentation after presentation, we learned just how badly the American people are getting fleeced. Not by the ‘usual suspects’—we all do love to rail at the IRS—but by the financial institutions that supposedly help us all build wealth and prosperity. I entered the room thinking there were two credit markets—one that offered sustainable, wealth-building asset and credit tools at fair and transparent terms to one group of folks, and one that offered crappier options (high fees, pre-payment penalties, exploding things, tiny print) to another group of folks—poor white people, people in black or Latino neighborhoods, Native Americans, military families, immigrants, rural people…in other words, a good majority of us. That was bad enough, but now I’m convinced that not only are there two credit markets, but one actually functions to extract wealth from the other. The crowbar of extraction, if you will, was the subprime lending and foreclosure fiasco that pulled about a quarter of a trillion dollars of housing wealth out of communities of color, and in some places predominantly from their widowed grandmas, and put it in the pockets of the financial elite. When those elites got into trouble for their poor choices, the government, aided by former Goldman Sachs’ head Henry Paulson’s eye-of-Sauron-like ability to survey the devastated financial landscape, hurriedly borrowed taxpayer dollars to re-line those tailored pockets. Besides kittens in trees and baby prams rolling down courthouse steps, nothing stirs us to action like the thought of a CEO of a flailing company who can’t pay himself a gajillion dollars. It puts all those people who make $6,000 shower curtains and $75,000 toilets out of business. (No offense to the toilet designer, by the way; it’s real pretty.)

But there are other extractive mechanisms as well, including ridiculous debit card overdraft fees (billions of our gram and gramps’ social security dollars goes to those fees every year). La Raza held focus groups with young Latinos and found that their negative experiences with credit cards often resulted in them withdrawing from the credit market altogether. The focus groups also reported that the young adults felt strongly that credit cards should be reserved for emergencies—which they then defined as diapers and utility bills, what many of us would term daily needs. The Appleseed network has been working diligently to bring transparency and fairness to the remittance market after working immigrants were assaulted, and sometimes killed, for the cash they intended to send home to their families. And Chris Peterson and Steven Graves have shown that payday lenders “aggressively target American military personnel, irrespective of most forms of legal regulation.”

Why are the rich stealing from the poor? Because they can; because it’s there; because it’s largely legal; and when it isn’t, the criminal abuses aren’t prosecuted. Let your elected representatives know that the law has to change to prevent deceptive and abusive practices, and that existing laws need to be enforced. Start with the passage of a robust CFPA. And take your banking and loan business to a responsible institution. Tune In, Turn On, and Opt-Out!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The House on Imperial Avenue

By Wendy Smooth, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Over last week, I’ve experienced a flood of emotions vacillating between shock, outrage, anguish, sorrow and mourning as I watched news outlets report day after day the rising toll of bodies pulled from the Anthony Sowell house in Cleveland. The bodies extracted from the Imperial Avenue house had decomposed beyond recognition. Authorities could tell few things about the bodies and in some instances, only skulls remained.

Each time the news reported “bodies found,” I immediately knew, in that way that knowledge accumulates over time through experience, that these were the bodies of black women. I knew it from the report of the first body found. These were the bodies of the forgotten, the surrendered and they represented the bodies of so many black women over time that have gone unacknowledged. I knew these were the bodies of black women, because we look for white women. Their names ran through my mind like a ticker at the bottom of a CNN newscast, the names of all the missing white women that I knew off the top of my head, as if I had a long established relationship with them. We all are on first name basis with missing white women and girls—Laci, Jon Benet, Natalee, Caylee, Elizabeth… We all know them; we’ve been made to know them.

The house on Imperial Avenue reminded me once again that black women go missing everyday from communities across the country and we seldom hear of them on national news. Families are so often faced with the tragic reality that police, community officials, and media outlets have little resources or interest in looking for missing black women. My colleague Rebecca Wanzo’s new book The Suffering Will Not be Televised takes on this issue chronicling the ways black women’s suffering is so often overlooked and how their stories fail to elicit collective sympathies.

As a black woman, these are chilling realizations. Some might say, but the women of Imperial Avenue were lost to the streets, haunted by demons and battling a myriad of addictions. They were not representative of black women, they are not like you. While these women’s life circumstances were different from my own, they were black women and their realities are linked to my own. My heart mourns for the families who lost their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, lovers and friends at the house on Imperial Avenue. My soul also aches for all of black womanhood as we came face to face with the realities of how deeply black women’s lives are undervalued.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Walls Come Down

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant professor in the Department History with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Some twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall, an impenetrable barrier of concrete that divided Germany for nearly half a century, came crashing down, reduced to rubble by the people it separated. The East and West Berliners who tore it down acted not out of impulse but out of a deeply rooted desire to be free not only of the physical structure that forcibly separated them but of the political and economic systems that reinforced that separation.

Today, we celebrate the destruction of the wall and the reunification of Germany by waxing poetically about the forward march of progress. But there was nothing inevitable about what happened in this Cold War hot spot. The cascade of events leading up to that fateful day in November 1989 frightened world leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In his personal journal, U.S. President George H. W. Bush fretted about the rapid pace of progress and wondered how he could slow things down. Even his predecessor was greatly concerned. When President Ronald Reagan implored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall” he did not mean so soon.

Like so many events that change society for the better, ordinary people were ahead of political leaders. They were the agents of change – the makers of the “inevitable.” Had it been up to the usual suspects, the “inevitable” would have taken considerably longer to materialize and there is no telling what kind of truncated form of freedom would have eventually emerged.

The Berlin Wall no longer stands and Germany is no longer divided. In fact, Germany has emerged from the turmoil of the Cold War and the uncertainty of reunification as a major industrial power. But like all western societies, walls remain and divisions persist. In Germany and elsewhere, modernity has eliminated the need for concrete barriers. (The tragic exceptions are America’s wall along its border with Mexico, and Israel’s wall in the West Bank.) Yet the supposed forward march of progress has failed to get rid of other kinds of walls, the most notable being those based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and citizenship status. In many ways, these socio-economic barriers are harder to tear down than physical structures like the Berlin Wall because they are invisible to so many people. Indeed, it is often the case that the only people who see them are the people negatively affected by them. And like the Berlin Wall, these barriers will not come down on their own. Ordinary people will have to tear them down, led not by political leaders but by the people who see them everyday. If and when these barriers fall, it not be because of the natural progression of things, but because of the hard work and determination of ordinary people to live free and full lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rush to Judgment

By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In his New York Times op-ed on November 9th, David Brooks criticized the public response and the media coverage of the Fort Hood violence last week, which he called a ‘rush to therapy’, which emphasized the personal breakdown of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the apparent shooter, over the narrative of Islamic extremism that may or may not have inspired or motivated the violence. Brooks claimed that the ‘rush to therapy’ “absolved Hasan—before the real evidence was in—of his responsibility.”

The so-called 'rush to therapy' did not—and could not—absolve Major Hasan of his responsibility. On the contrary, it prevented a rush to judgment, to fit complex facts into a simplistic narrative. Brooks claims that the ‘rush to therapy’ “denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil.” It did not deny the possibility of evil. It denied the presumption of evil. In this country, guilt or innocence is supposed to be determined in a courtroom, not by an angry mob or the media. Yet all too often this is not the case. Our long history of mob justice—on the frontier or under white sheets—belies our standard of justice, of due process, of ‘innocence until proven guilty.’

Brooks claims that it “wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.” On the contrary, it was the mark of a morally and political serious nation.