Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

                I grew up in the pre-Vietnam era. Our high schools taught a sanitized version of American history. I was in college before I learned about the country’s incarceration of ethnic Japanese, many of whom were citizens, during World War II. I was shocked. Our country had concentration camps, and we put our own people in them.
                I had a bit of the same feeling when I was reading The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. I’d known that the GI Bill offered financing for veterans returning from World War II to buy homes, and how that financing led to suburban developments like Levittown on Long Island. What I didn’t know is that the federal government, through both Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, secured financing only for white veterans. And, as I’ll soon discuss, both VA and FHA went beyond merely not providing financing for black veterans. Further, the educational opportunities for black veterans were often limited to vocational schools. Some benefit administrators refused to process applications to four-year colleges for black veterans. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Black veterans, like their white counterparts, had just returned from fighting a nearly four-year war only to be treated like second-class citizens.  
                The book goes back to post-Civil War era and especially the end of Reconstruction, but I’ll start with a 1917 Supreme Court ruling in Buchanan v. Worley, which ruled that racial zoning violated the Fourteenth Amendment, not because of protections granted freed slaves, but because of a business rule—the freedom to contract, or the right of a property owner to sell to whomever he wanted.
                In our day, a Supreme Court decision would be final, but not in the 1920s. Buchanan was not only ignored, but flouted. As it would turn out, in the post-War housing boom, which was largely financed by VA and FHA loans, subdivisions were not only encouraged, but required to include covenants restricting the subdivisions to “Caucasians.” Our government, in other words, enforced segregation in any area where VA or FHA loans were used to finance homes. In one example, a man in Berkley, California bought a house financed by FHA and was not able to move into the house. He let a black teacher rent the house until he could move in. As a result he was advised he’d lost his participation in the FHA insurance program and that he’d never again be able to obtain a government-backed mortgage. And this was in 1959. In Berkley.
                The result of black people’s not being able to get financing was they often paid more than white people would in areas less desirable. Additionally, they frequently bought using a contract for deed, meaning the house was theirs only after all payments were made. These contracts for deed were frequently at high interest rates, and one missed payment meant the loss of everything they’d invested in the house. Because they paid higher prices for the homes and higher interest rates, they frequently subdivided the homes and deferred maintenance. The neighborhoods looked bad. Whites feared blacks’ moving in or even near their neighborhoods (when, had black families had the same access to mortgages whites did, their neighborhoods would have looked just as good). Realtors took advantage of white fears. They started moving black families into white neighborhoods and going door to door spreading fear among the white residents that their neighborhood was about to be “taken over.” Whites sold at a loss. Racial prejudice was a lose-lose proposition. Whites lost money on their homes. Blacks paid more for their homes, both initially and in interest, than whites. Unscrupulous Realtors made out like bandits.     
                Mr. Rothstein makes the point that the IRS was involved in housing discrimination by not revoking the tax-exempt status of churches and other tax-exempt organizations for advocating for, financing, and participating in lawsuits designed to maintain segregation.
                Cities that had integrated middle class neighborhoods in the 1920s, among them Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina, were effectively segregated by cities’ building segregated schools far enough away from these neighborhoods to require a move so children could easily go to school.
                Mr. Rothstein goes into the history of black labor during the Depression and World War II. Government programs often refused to hire black workers. When they did hire them, black workers were given the worst jobs and paid less than white workers. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a good example (and for a good look at what went on with the TVA, see the 1960 film Wild River). Black workers were housed in shacks and paid less. The same thing went on in defense plants during World War II. During and after the war, most labor unions would not accept black workers as members, so again, black workers remained in the worst and lowest paid jobs. Government housing built to house defense workers was almost always segregated, and black workers were left to fend for themselves.
                He even points out how the Interstate Highway system was used to remove black residences from areas near downtowns across the country.
                And to demonstrate this is not all in the past, he even ties in how government agencies knew or should have known about “reverse redlining,” or the practice of getting black homeowners—especially elderly black homeowners--to sign up for subprime mortgages in the runup to the crash of 2008, pointing out that the most egregious lender, Countrywide, was regulated by the Federal Reserve Board until 2007, and that the Federal Reserve knew or should have known what Countrywide was up to.
                And now, as many people want to live near downtown areas, gentrification threatens the homes of those who live in formerly low-rent areas.  
                Mr. Rothstein makes an excellent argument that black people have been kept poor not because they did not have the same abilities as white people, but because they were denied access to the same opportunities—good jobs, union representation, government financing for homes, etc. that white people took for granted. Cumulatively this has left them far behind economically, and their economic status is a direct result of government policy.
                I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks poor black people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and that their poverty is their own fault. I almost guarantee you won’t finish the book with that same belief.
                I have a few criticisms of the book. It needed a lot more editing, and it is not chronological. You might be reading one paragraph about the 1960s and the next paragraph you’ll find yourself in the 1920s. My concept of history is linear, and I find it jolting to have to “time travel” to keep what I’m reading in context. As for editing, one example is a photo on page 138 supposedly taken in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1954 that contains a 1957 Ford. But I suppose that’s a minor complaint.  My biggest criticism of the book is there are no concrete solutions proposed.
                I’d like to hear from you. That’s what the comment section is for, after all. Our government discriminated against its own citizens for many years, leaving them far behind financially. What do you think should be done to make up for this discrimination?  

© 2017 Larry Roth

Sunday, July 16, 2017

F*ck: Are We Using the Word "F*uck" Too F*cking Much?

                When I was in first grade my teacher made me wash my mouth out with soap. I’m not kidding. I had said the word “panties.” Again, I’m not kidding. I would imagine if I’d said the word “f*ck,” the teacher would probably have had a coronary.
                I still remember when I first heard the word in a film. Barbra Streisand said it in “The Owl and the Pussycat.” In 1970. I was in a theater, and the audience gasped. How times have changed.
                The word is used so often and in so many contexts that it hardly raises and eyebrow these days. The word has lost its ability to shock. I wonder what we will find to take its place.
                At any rate the reason I bring all this up is I’ve read a few books that use the word. A lot.
                The first of these is The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do. Dubbed “a practical parody” (of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which I have not read), the book has some excellent advice. I wish I’d had access to the book years ago. Her advice on families (especially her point that simply because we share DNA does not obligate us to care about or require us to want to be around our families) could have saved me countless Christmas holidays on the road, in the occasional snowstorm, an ice storm, and, when I did not drive, in airports, all of which was expensive, and, in retrospect unappreciated and often unpleasant. The book has excellent advice in other areas of life, including work, friends, friends’ children, etc. But, weighing in at 732 f*cks (her goal, she says, was to beat The Wolf of Wall Street, which has something in excess of 500 f*cks), she may be depreciating the value of the word. Anything when used to excess tends to lose its value.
                Chronologically for me the second along the same lines is Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. I confess I really liked this book. Mr. Manson advises that we have so much stuff and so many opportunities that we really don’t know what’s important. He advises that we not try too hard to be happy—that the desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience and the acceptance of our negative experiences is a positive experience. He goes on to explain that the more we want something the less fulfilled we feel. His advice: Stop trying so hard.
                He discusses the way some people address their problems—denial, for example, which he says may work in the short term, but not so much in the long term. Having a victim mentality is another cop out, which, he says, is easy and feels good, but doesn’t solve anything. He even describes a “victimhood chic,” in which it’s become fashionable to push responsibility—even for the tiniest infractions—onto some other group or person. He writes this may be the first time in history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. He advises emotions are overrated and that the reason a lot of people don’t get what they think will make them happy is they’re not willing to exert the required effort. He gives the example of his wanting to be a musician. He fantasized, but didn’t practice.
                What Mr. Manson reveals about his own life is interesting—he quit a job a few weeks after starting it and took off to see the world. He’s now living in New York. For someone who will soon be 33 years old he has a very mature view. He advises that we consider the world of 500 years ago and advises that, just as we look back in horror at their lives, we should realize people living 500 years from now will do the same—they will laugh at how we let our money and our jobs define our lives, how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter most to us but heap praise on public figures who didn’t deserve anything… . And there’s more. The book is 210 pages in length and is an excellent way to spend an afternoon.
                Finally on the list is Erasure, a novel by Percival Everett. Mr. Everett is African-American as is his protagonist, Thelonious Ellison. The son, grandson, and sibling of doctors, and a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, Mr. Ellison writes scholarly books and papers that get little notice. When he hears of a middle-class African-American woman who visits some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days and writes a book about the experience titled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and when that book becomes a national bestseller, he writes a parody including most if not all of what the isolated literary class imagines goes on in a ghetto. He titles the book F*ck, and his agent submits the book as one written by Stagg R. Leigh. The book is contained in the novel. The book is picked up, becomes a hit, and the novel then becomes about how Mr. Ellison deals with the success of his parody without becoming associated with it. This is a fast read (265 pages), extremely funny, and a commentary on our times.

© 2017 Larry Roth