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Web Letter

No, times have changed. Class is the Great American Divide. If you are rich, America holds you in high esteem, regardless of color. If you are poor, you are held in contempt, no matter what color. This isn't the 1960s. Today, we are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our bank accounts.

Diane H. Fabian

Fort Atkinson, WI

Jun 26 2008 - 1:34pm

Web Letter

In post-Obama America, one can easily be tempted to focus on that tail-end of the population bell curve that denotes excellence. The disparity in wealth between black and white populations even when they share the same age, income, education level, occupation, marital status, consumption behavior and savings rate, also stated by Oliver and Shapiro, points to a problem with the treatment of "average" black Americans. In fact, the race problem is one about treatment, which makes it more susceptible to a social scientific solution than an anecdotal one such as is favored by everyone with an opinion and perhaps an axe to grind.

If ever there was an example of science imitating life, the codification of instinctive behavior, it is the pharmacology of black-white relations in America. With a critical eye, we can view this relationship as an intergenerational clinical trial where the treatment group receives the medicine and the control group imbibes the placebo. In this observation, however, the medicine is a historic process whose outcome is wealth. The assets of interest here are not those of the wealthy but rather the homes of middle-class Americans, a modicum of wealth that still determines household net worth in the country. Household net worth is, in turn, inversely related to social pathologies, such as crime and family dysfunction. It is within the context of clinical trials that the large difference in median wealth, favoring whites over blacks by a 10:1 ratio, can best be understood.

Clinical trials allow scientists to powerfully manipulate people and conditions to measure the effects, if any, of new treatments. Likewise, a nation's governors can regulate and sustain populations and their environments. In both instances, it is reasonable to expect that successful remedies will benefit the population as a whole. Blacks have traditionally served as a control group in American society, from slavery through the succeeding years where dark skin color defined the counterfactual state for the material and social condition of whites. White Americans alternatively formed the quintessential treatment group. A degree of rights and privileges, historically denied to black Americans, defined the majority population. This difference was manifest in access to land and homeownership, labor markets, education, commerce and politics.

If we were to isolate the key material treatment that has eluded average black Americans and supported average white Americans, it would involve land and home ownership in America: a real property therapy. This real property therapy has existed from before America became a nation to a brief interregnum from 1900-1945, and then into post-World War II national suburbanization. For example, under seventeenth-century land grant provisions, settlers to the Carolinas of the American South exercised "head rights" entitling them to 100 acres of land for each member of the family. Six members meant 600 acres of land. In the Chesapeake Bay region, land grants provided families with 200 acres. Middle State and New England colony families received fifty-acre plots. The process of land distribution continued through the westward expansion, Homestead Act et al., until reaching the shores of the Pacific in 1900. Settler families had the right to work hard on land they were essentially given.As the historical record shows, American blacks, when not considered property, were largely excluded from this process--let alone allowed to fully exploit their land, if they had any.

The tail-end of this real property therapy, suburbanization, seeded the wealth America has today. Few recognize American suburbanization for the great feat of social engineering that it was. Between the years 1945-1978 this massive public and private sector undertaking involved 35 million American families--140 million individuals if one estimates a family size of four. The seemingly innocuous process of suburbanization created the modern American middle class. The introduction of home ownership to millions of families was its signal achievement. Home equity, the largest part of the wealth assets of average Americans, then and now, was no longer the province of a relative few. The Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration, provided low-cost home loans and $119 billion in mortgage insurance to families that would not have ordinarily qualified for home ownership. Federal mortgage guarantees, in turn, encouraged the creation of large-scale suburban tract home developments across the nation, like Levittown, New York (17,400 units), Park Forest, Illinois (5,000 units), and Oak Forest, California (5,000 units). In total, the federal government assisted 11 million families to own homes, insured 1.8 million suburban tract homes and provided 22 million families with home improvement loans. From 1945 through June of 1971, veterans of World War II received 4,729,000 of these low-cost mortgages. The federal government's expansion of the nation's home equity capital base also helped to spur the explosive growth in the number of small businesses during this period.

Federal transportation policy complemented the housing policy. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 authorized $26 billion for the construction of a nationwide arterial highway system. This critical piece of infrastructure increased the economic viability of suburban communities by connecting them to the nation's marketplaces. State and local governments also supported nascent suburban communities with infrastructure investments for electrification, sewer systems, secondary roads and commuter rail links. In these years, blue-collar industries out-migrated from the nation's central cities to the suburbs to take advantage of the economic efficiencies that larger horizontal spaces provided. Federal taxation policies hastened this exodus with large tax savings for relocating firms. At a time when average worker education and skill sets closely matched blue-collar industry requirements, millions of workers from suburban communities found well-paying jobs. These locations had become synonymous with good jobs, good schools, home ownership, massive infrastructure investment and small business formation. Free entry to these favored communities defined anew one's control or treatment status in America.

Despite the evidence of sheer bias, there is a presumption, if not insistence, by too many Americans today that the nation has learned and applied the lessons of a valid clinical trial. This suspect premise leads to a false conclusion. Namely, that selected characteristics, some might say the social pathology, of a significant number of black Americans is natural--that the relatively high incidence rates of unemployed males, school dropouts, welfare households, personal and narcotics-related crimes, homicides and female-headed households are the outcomes of legitimate social experimentation. Applied science, however, does not provide much support for this specious assertion. In an authentic clinical trialm it is the treatment, not those treated, that is under critical evaluation.

So, in a post-Obama America the focus must be on the 400-year-old real property therapy, featuring prefabricated, environmentally sustainable, starter homes, for each new generation that qualifies. Why for all Americans? Because when you have a treatment that works, it should be universally applied.

For the treatment to be fully effective, however, the nation must finally remove those lingering social and marketplace discriminations still blunting the progress of so many black Americans. In short, "average" black Americans require the same supportive infrastructure long enjoyed by their white counterparts, rather than being held to a higher, heroic standard.

Sioan Stephen Bethel

Brooklyn, NY

Jun 18 2008 - 2:20pm

Web Letter

An excellent example of a flashback incident is the effect of Katrina on New Orleans. The major news media treated that whole episode as an opportunity to show the citizens of the city as stupid and criminal. There were a few brave moments. General Russel Honoré walking around yelling, "Put those god damn guns away. We aren't here to shoot them, we are here to help." There were, however, more ugly moments--as when one news anchor pointed a camera at an insulin needle and insisted that there had been a lot of drug use at the Astrodome. How about all the looting of food stuffs from Wal-Mart flooded with sewage? Resale value, what? Did the media treat the poor whites differently? Yup.

James Pinette

Caribou, ME

Jun 17 2008 - 8:54pm