Socked by the economy, it's time for blacks to wise up

February 8, 2011

Where do we go from here, black America?

An economic levee breaks, sweeping away millions of our homes, jobs, cars and savings accounts. It's a Wall Street hurricane, and black communities throughout the country are being submerged in a torrent of red ink.

"Our estimates indicate that [the economic crisis] will cause the greatest loss of wealth for African Americans in modern U.S. history," says a report by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that analyzes economic disparities.

By 2012, UFE predicts, African American neighborhoods could be drained of nearly $200 billion in housing losses alone. That's close to the gross national product of some small nations.

Not all of the news is bleak. The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the number of black-owned businesses skyrocketed in America between 2002 and 2007. Prince George's County led the nation, with 55 percent of its businesses owned by African Americans. But the census data stop before the recession hit in late 2008. And numerous other reports show that black homeowners didn't fare nearly as well once the housing bubble burst. As this Great Debacle continues, we need to pick up the pieces and start anew - carefully.

One of the more provocative new studies, by Princeton researchers Jacob Rugh and Douglas S. Massey, suggests that a big reason black communities are being hit disproportionately hard is because they are . . . well, black communities.

That makes them easy targets for predatory lenders, the authors say. Blacks who have been underserved are going to be more desperate for a home - even ones they can't afford.

"Simply put, the greater the degree of Hispanic and especially black segregation a metropolitan area exhibits, the higher the number and rate of foreclosures," the authors say.

The solution? Spread out, black people; scatter, if you can. Maybe it's better to rent in an integrated neighborhood, with good schools and more job opportunities, than to own in a black one where property values aren't going to rise that much and may vanish altogether if your neighbor goes into foreclosure.

If you can't move, at least get a new pair of glasses - and wise up.

Obviously, many of us couldn't see well enough to carefully read those fliers posted on utility poles advertising no-interest subprime mortgage loans. Black neighborhoods throughout the country were targeted like crazy, as Massey and Rugh note, with billboards, robocalls, door-to-door cold calls, handbills under the windshield wipers and more.

But somehow we missed the "fine print" on those balloon-loan papers-the itty-bitty type that said: gotcha, sucker. If you already have spectacles, invest in a magnifying glass.

The official U.S. government report on the financial crisis, released last month, paints a portrait of a Wall Street that calls the tune while the federal government dances to the music and the rest of us pay the piper.

Of course, railing against Wall Street is like complaining about foul weather. For some of us, maybe all that can be done is to protect the next generation, teach the kids to become financially literate and push for economics to be taught in schools.

Help them avoid being taken to the cleaners.

Although race didn't insulate any group of people from the crisis, blacks have been pummeled like no other. More than 8 percent of us have lost homes so far, compared with 4.5 percent of whites; nearly 22 percent of black homeowners are in imminent danger of foreclosure, compared with roughly 15 percent of whites, according to government figures.

Making matters worse, black unemployment stands at 18 percent, double the national average. In parts of some urban areas, including Southeast Washington, the jobless rate has been as high as 30 percent.

As an aside, it's worth noting that protesters in Egypt seem to be getting plenty of attention with their cries of "America is against us." Excuse me, but we have a Cairo of our own: a little town in Illinois where the unemployment rate is more than 14 percent and 33 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.

And Wall Street is against Main Street in thousands of hurting towns just like it.

Prince George's, where I live, is the wealthiest predominately black county in the country and is reeling from the highest foreclosure rate in the state - and one of the highest in the nation.

A report by the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland last year found that nearly half of the county's residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, an amount considered unaffordable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Prince George's counted 45,300 troubled home loans, according to a report by the Urban Institute, and about 40 percent of renters cannot afford the median monthly rent of $1,131.

We're in way over our heads, black America. The good news, though, is that there's only one way to go from here.

Up.

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