Less rags, more riches

October 14th, 2010

In the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, I remember listening to an interview that discreetly poked fun of some random African-American voters who supported Barack Obama but couldn’t distinguish many of his major policy initiatives from those of Republican candidate John McCain. The interview touched on what was perhaps the proverbial elephant in the voting booth during that election, which was the belief among many white Americans that African-Americans supported Obama primarily, and perhaps solely, because he was black.

So here’s the million dollar question: Is race a legitimate reason to support a presidential candidate?

For African-Americans, it absolutely is. Two studies released last week make it clear that roughly 40 years after the civil rights movement, racism and segregation are still embedded in this nation’s social institutions, from our education system to our criminal justice system to even our financial system.

According to a study published in the review Daedalus, African-Americans are disproportionately caught in a destructive cycle of poverty and prison. The authors of the study, a group of leading criminologists, found that the percentage of black high school dropouts who have been incarcerated has increased from 10 percent in 1980 to 37 percent in 2008. They also found that 70 percent of black male high school dropouts are unemployed. Those are the kind of unemployment numbers you’d expect to see in a third world country, not the United States.

Another study published in the American Sociological Review shows how racism played a key role in the financial crisis. By analyzing the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, the authors found that banks engaged in predatory practices – which typically refers to loans that carry unreasonable fees, interest rates and payment requirements – more often with minorities, especially African-Americans. In fact, even African-Americans with similar credit profiles and down-payment ratios to white borrowers were more likely to receive subprime loans, according to the study. As a result, foreclosures are hitting African-American communities across the nation much harder than white neighborhoods. 

What both of these studies highlight is how racism and segregation are undermining one of the defining aspects of American society: social mobility. 

If you’re not sure what social mobility means, think of the phrase “rags to riches.” Most Americans probably agree that demographic characteristics like gender, race, religion or sexual orientation shouldn’t restrict an individual’s ability to move up the social ladder. But more than 200 years of slavery and Jim Crow laws seem to have left an ugly stain on many of our social institutions. As a result, many minorities – especially African-Americans – still face a number of social barriers…which brings us back to the 2008 presidential election.

With these social barriers in mind, the idea of an African-American president represents the ultimate in social mobility for African-Americans. A vote for Obama, therefore, was a vote for social progress. That’s just as legitimate of a reason – if not more so – as voting for Obama because you support his policy on taxes, terrorism or abortion. 

Unfortunately, however, Obama’s climb up the social ladder wasn’t the standard. It was the exception. The above studies show that the United States still has a long way to go to achieve social equality for all its citizens. So as Obama heads into the second half of his first term, he should make social mobility a top priority. As one of the studies pointed out, he can start by amending the U.S. Civil Rights Act to create mechanisms that would uncover discrimination and penalize those who discriminated against minority borrowers.