When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that he would give $1 billion in scholarships to needy blacks and other minorities, his gift wasn't linked with a study that said blacks were dumber than whites.
But when Freddie Mac decided to announce its consumer credit education initiative in partnership with five historically black colleges, the organization found it necessary to also report that many black Americans are deadbeats.
Freddie Mac, one of the country's biggest purchasers of home loans, released a study last week reporting that minority borrowers are more likely than white borrowers to have "bad" credit, even when they earn the same amount.
According to the study, 47 percent of African American borrowers have "bad" credit records, compared with 27 percent of white borrowers.
Moreover, even when blacks make a good living, they still can't seem to pay their bills on time, Freddie Mac concluded. For example, in the $65,000-to-$75,000 income bracket, 34 percent of African Americans had "bad" credit, compared with 20 percent of whites.
Freddie Mac officials say they just wanted to highlight their campaign to help black consumers obtain and maintain good credit.
"Our goal is to ensure that as many families as possible have the opportunity to own a home," said Leland C. Brendsel, Freddie Mac's chairman and chief executive.
But all Freddie Mac managed to ensure was the continuation of the stereotype that blacks are too dumb and too irresponsible to handle their own finances. No matter what face Freddie Mac puts on its study, its results are inflammatory. Just how does labeling nearly half of black America as deadbeats help blacks get credit?
This is a case, perhaps, of good intentions but bad execution.
For one thing, Freddie Mac rushed to announce the study results before having fully analyzed its own research. Most important, it did not dissect information gathered from borrowers who participated in focus groups.
"We have yet to digest that data," conceded Peter M. Zorn, director of financial strategy and policy analysis for Freddie Mac. "We got our hands on the responses less than two weeks ago."
What a shame. And shame on Freddie Mac. Explaining why blacks may have "bad" credit is just as important as stating that they have "bad" credit. Reporting one without the other is irresponsible.
Even one of Freddie Mac's partners said they have more explaining to do.
"I don't think we have done enough analysis so far," said Antoine Garibaldi, provost at Howard University, one of Freddie Mac's partners in the consumer credit initiative. "We just don't know enough now."
Unfortunately, the media, including my own newspaper, focused on the sensational "news" without asking enough questions. The press ended up reporting on an incomplete report without recognizing it was comparing apples with oranges. Freddie Mac's own early survey results show that many of the black and white borrowers in the study may have had the same income, but they weren't similarly situated.
For example, Freddie Mac's preliminary findings indicate that black borrowers were more likely to have experienced unemployment, loss of income or a divorce. According to Freddie Mac, 30 percent of blacks surveyed in focus groups said they had had an involuntary reduction in income over the past two years, compared with 20 percent of the whites surveyed. Twelve percent of blacks had experienced a major legal or tax problem, compared with 8 percent of whites. And 19 percent of blacks reported an extended period of unemployment over the past two years, compared with 10 percent of white respondents.
And what about Freddie Mac's methodology?
Some researchers and housing advocates question the standard Freddie Mac used to label people "bad" or "good" borrowers. Freddie Mac defined people with "bad" credit (the quotation marks are Freddie's) as those who either had been 30 days late on a payment more than once in the past two years, had been 90 days late on a payment in the past two years, or had a record of nonpayment, including liens or a bankruptcy.
Lenders do not single out just the payment pattern of borrowers to determine who is creditworthy and who is not. They use a much more complicated formula.
"Their strategy for releasing this study was slipshod," said John Taylor, president and chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "In some ways they did more damage than good, because there will be many people who will use this study as a defense for why they don't do more minority lending."
By the end of the week, the news about Freddie Mac's survey that nearly half of black Americans have "bad" credit had been accepted--with little if any context--as fact. So much so that blacks had become the brunt of jokes.
Bill Maher, host of the late-night TV show "Politically Incorrect," ended his monologue on Tuesday with this joke: "A survey of credit showed that 48 percent . . . of African Americans have bad credit. And also, they're not thrilled about the term 'MasterCard.' "
Ha. Ha. I'm laughing so much it hurts.
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. She will discuss today's topic in an online chat tomorrow at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com. She will also be discussing this column on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington tomorrow at 6:40 p.m. on WHUR (96.3-FM). Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Why Do People Get Into Credit Trouble?
A Freddie Mac study on consumer credit found, in some of its preliminary analysis, that certain external events create credit difficulties. Some of the results suggest that financial stresses disproportionately affect minorities. For example:
* Thirty percent of African American respondents and 24 percent of Hispanic respondents reported an involuntary reduction in income over the past two years, compared with 20 percent of whites.
* Twelve percent of African American respondents and 9 percent of Hispanic respondents reported a major legal or tax problem over the past two years, compared with 8 percent of whites.
* Seventeen percent of African American respondents and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents reported they have been divorced, separated or widowed over the past five years, compared with 11 percent of whites.
* Nineteen percent of African American respondents and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents reported an extended period of unemployment over the past two years, compared with 10 percent of white borrowers surveyed.
SOURCE: Freddie Mac