Apparently I'm Still Wrong About The NAACP

by John McWhorter | June 16, 2009

According to Adam Serwer over at The Root, the NAACP's suit against Wells Fargo for deliberately trawling black neighborhoods to sell subprime mortgages "proves me wrong."

That is, I am wrong for arguing, as I did some months ago here, that the NAACP should let go of the dramatic punch of chasing discrimination and redirect their considerable resources to giving black America what it needs today as opposed to 1909, social services.

I don't think so. The question here is what discrimination is in 2009 and what you do about it.

For one, if subprime mortgages in themselves are discriminatory, then I myself am a racist. Plenty of black people, taking out subprime mortgages, do just fine. As recently as five or six years ago, the term subprime did not yet have the stench about it that it does now with the financial collapse such loans have been at the center of. Back then I was one of many who spoke up for helping poor black and brown people to buy houses with the help of subprime arrangements.

One organization at the forefront of this, which I have talked up endlessly, is Operation Hope. Its founder John Bryant last year underlined that subprime loans, done right, are good for black communities, and that the problem is predatory lending - foisting subprime loans on people unlikely to be able to handle the interest or the eventual jump in monthly payment.

I am the last one to deny that when it turns out that bank officials are being explicitly told to give mortgages to black people without checking to see if they are likely to be able to keep up with their payments, they should be made to stop.

However, there is something else I cannot deny, which I'm afraid those focused on "discrimination"--rather than problems more broadly--insist on carefully denying. That is that discrimination today is of a radically different sort than what it used to be, not as central to what holds blacks back as it once was, and requiring different responses than what made sense fifty years ago.

That is: there was a time when discrimination meant keeping most black people from voting on the pain of violence and possible murder. There was time when discrimination meant denying black people service at restaurants and hotels. More to the point, there was a time when discrimination meant denying mortgages point blank to all people in black neighborhoods regardless of income.

Today, the subprime affair is a matter of steering black people into buying a house for the highest possible interest rates, hoping they will pay off the loans at those rates, but not caring whether they end up defaulting. This policy singles out struggling black people in a cynical fashion out of greed.

This is ugly, and I'd be the last person to condemn the NAACP's lawsuit. But unlike old-time racism, what happened here was not a matter of barring black people from opportunity or dignity. The people in this case were offered a choice, and made a bad one.

Namely, a key factor here was a lack of knowledge on the part of the people who took these loans. The "racist" analysis will naturally seem wisdom incarnate to many, and more "interesting." But alone it carries a rather nauseating implication: that it is inevitable that poor black people will take mortgages that they can't afford.

It's more of the subtly internalized inferiority complex that elsewhere leads to conclusions such as that if black people don't do well on a test then the solution is to discount the test results.

John Bryant readily argues that part of what faces us is "financial illiteracy" and getting the word out to struggling people of color to not take such loans. This would be as effective a response to the problem as suing a bank.

"Why not both responses?" OK--but only if we really mean that getting the word out is as important, despite its lack of drama, as high-profile court cases.

After all, greed will continue, and it will never respect racial etiquette. Cover one gopher hole and up a critter will pop from another one on the other side of the yard--mortgages today, car loans tomorrow, artery-clogging fast food outlets on every block in poor neighborhoods today, cigarette-ad billboards in the same neighborhoods tomorrow.

If we want real uplift, then we want to teach people how to avoid exploitation, and we are as viscerally, implacably interested in that as filing suits.

Is there perhaps a sense that the black community isn't cohesive enough to get the word out in any real way? Well, apparently it is: part of how Wells Fargo did its dirty doings was tipping off black church preachers. Surely someone could get the word out about watching out for shady mortgages via the same channels.

Someone--how about, say, the largest and most prestigious black advocacy organization in the United States? And while they're at it, why not get the word out about a few other things? Like, pretty much all of the things that bedevil the black community? Even Serwer agrees with me on this.

In my last post I argued that four years of college as default would not be how we do things in America if we started over. In the same way, imagine deciding what a black organization would focus on now in June 2009, starting with a clean slate.

We would think of schools, crime, AIDS. Talk about root causes--the financial illiteracy that Bryant has been addressing for years now is a product of rickety public school education.

We would have a mission to teach people what to watch out for, what choices not to make. We would be like middle-class black people in northern cities eighty years ago focused on making life as comfortable as possible for poor migrants from the South.

Our new organization might well sue Wells Fargo too. But the key point is this: people founding this new organization would be perplexed to be told that addressing "discrimination" should be a major plank of their work.

That's because of what older organizations accomplished. The irony is that in some circles it's considered so "controversial" to acknowledge that very accomplishment and join the twenty-first century.

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