OPED: Some assurances for America's anxious majority
If the Republican presidential primary campaign has done anything, it's confirmed that an awful lot of white Americans feel threatened by the increasing visibility and influence of people of color in our society.
It's gotten so bad that Politico, that bastion of conventional Washington Beltway wisdom, recently published a column arguing that "white America, fast becoming a minority, needs to hear reassurances."
In that spirit, I offer this note of reassurance to my white neighbors:
You are still the most privileged group in U.S. society. While too much in our economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, whites as a group still benefit from an enormous residue of perks and privileges built up over the years.
Do you have any savings? Or assets (like a home) you could sell if times got tough? Most white Americans do, and most black and Latino Americans have little or none. That's not accidental; it stems from deliberate policies.
For decades, the Federal Housing Administration insisted on redlining neighborhoods, refusing to approve mortgages for people of color moving into white areas. Racial minorities who could manage to buy a home were relegated to neglected neighborhoods with terrible government services, underfunded schools and stagnant property values.
The original Social Security Act specifically excluded two occupations — agricultural workers and domestic servants — most associated with African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. Labor unions helped build the American middle class in the 20th century, but the 1935 Wagner Act let unions bar non-whites, and many did — denying them access to better paid jobs, health care and pensions.
Yes, most of those overtly racist policies are gone now, but their effects linger.
You see, most private wealth in the United States is inherited, with roughly 80 percent of a family's assets coming from transfers from prior generations. After a parent dies, whites are about five times more likely than people of color to receive an inheritance — and on average that inheritance is nearly three times the size of inheritances received by people of color.
Meanwhile, minority communities continue to suffer from worse air pollution and other environmental problems thanks to getting stuck with a disproportionate share of polluting facilities like freeways and oil refineries. That further depresses property values and leads to higher rates of illness. Communities of color still often have underfunded, dilapidated schools.
Law enforcement remains wildly unequal, leading to disproportionate arrest rates — totally unrelated to the rates at which different groups actually commit crimes — that can cripple a person's job prospects for life.
None of this means that poor and working class whites don't face serious challenges. They do. But the root problem isn't people of color making small gains; it's a changing economy that can outsource or automate jobs.
Our president recently said, "America has been through big changes before. ... Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future." But we overcame those fears and emerged stronger as a nation. We must do so again.
Orson Aguilar is president of The Greenlining Institute (www.greenlining.org.), a nonprofit devoted to "building a nation where communities of color thrive and race is never a barrier to opportunity."