“I am not a pessimist,” said Sheila Jackson-Lee, the progressive Texas Congresswoman, midway through a panel on “The State of Black America” at the annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit. For Jackson-Lee, a Democrat who has endorsed Hillary Clinton but whose stances on issues like the Iraq War and immigration often put her well to the left of the party, encouragement came from the diversity of the Democratic field. “I am not unhappy about an Hispanic, a populist, an African-American and a woman running for the presidency,” she explained.
Yet pessimism was hard to avoid during the early sessions of this latest economic summit, convened January 5-9 in New York City by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The summit’s theme, Jackson reiterated time and again, was the “structural inequality” that has persisted in American society long after the end of legal segregation. The main item on the opening day’s agenda was the subprime mortgage implosion, its impact on black communities and its larger ramifications for a national economy barreling toward recession. Black homeowners have been hit particularly hard by the mortgage crisis, largely because predatory lenders have been steering them toward subprime loans for years, even when they could afford prime rates. According to Valerie Rawlston Wilson of the Urban League, home equity accounts for nearly 90 percent of black homeowners’ total net worth. So as the housing market collapses, much of the trumpeted new wealth that has accumulated in black communities in recent decades will go with it.
“There is no question that a black or Latino family is twice as likely to receive a subprime loan as a white family,” fumed Lewis Fidler, a white New York City Councilman who participated in the day’s second panel, “The State of Home Foreclosures.” “If that’s not a civil rights issue, I don’t know what is.”
Alongside Fidler was Eugene Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant in Prince George’s County, Maryland–recently one of the wealthiest majority-black suburbs in the nation but now home to a foreclosure rate twice that of any other county in the state. Throughout the country, the effects of the mortgage crisis have been most painfully apparent on the local level. On one block of West Madison Street in Jackson’s hometown of Chicago, Rainbow/PUSH found that every single homeowner was in default on his or her mortgage. In neighborhoods across Chicago, foreclosure rates are topping fifty homes per square mile. Nationally, “the homeownership rate for African-Americans is falling like a rock,” said Jim Carr of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Shockingly little attention has been paid to the mortgage crisis on the campaign trail. The collapse of the housing market, and with it much of the equity ordinary Americans have built up since the 1990s, combined with soaring gasoline prices, a flat-lining dollar and the worst unemployment figures in two years, all suggest that the country is speeding toward its most serious recession in some time. “The subprime crisis is sinking America’s economic boat like the Titanic,” Jackson warned. “But if you’re having a debate and nobody brings up mortgage foreclosures or predatory lending, then the issue just isn’t part of the discussion.”