July 07, 2010

Miner's canary = broken window

You may have seen this quote from my Why Write About Native Americans? page:The Indian plays much the same role in our American society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, marks the rise and fall of our democratic faith.

Felix Cohen, modern founder of federal Indian law
The canary in the coal mine is a common metaphor for an early warning system. Really, it's the same idea as the broken windows theory. Small problems are the tip of the iceberg. They indicate an environment in which bigger problems can happen or are happening already. The idea is to tackle the small stuff rather than let it fester and grow into big stuff.

Tim Wise has written another brilliant essay on race. He presents Jeremy, a white guy who's complaining about the economy:

Of Collateral Damage and Roosting Chickens:  Reflections on Racism, the Economy and the High Cost of White Ambivalence"Then today," Jeremy continued, "while researching job opportunities on the web (on a computer at the library, since I long ago had to sell my own) an acquaintance sent an e-mail to my (thankfully free) yahoo account, where you were talking about racism and how hard black people have it in this country. I don't doubt that, actually. But I'm white, and I fail to see how that's helping me right now. In fact, if I were black I might actually have been hired by now thanks to affirmative action. But I guess none of this matters, right? All I can say is, it would sure be nice if people like you would be as concerned about the plight of all people, regardless of race, as you are about just one group."Wise explains how minorities, including Indians, are like the miner's canary. How tackling problems at the broken-window stage, when they affect only minorities, can help white people:[I]n the midst of the faltering national economy we should understand how our inattention over the years to the warning signs of coming crisis explain much about how and why things got to be this bad. And those warning signs were ignored in large measure because they seemed not to impact white Americans, especially middle class and above whites. Because the pain was localized in low income and people of color communities, folks like Jeremy could choose to ignore it, not necessarily because they were insensitive or uncaring, let alone racist in the overt sense; but rather, because the immediate consequences weren't evident to them, and so paying little attention was easy to do.

For instance, consider the current housing meltdown. Although the crisis is now being felt nationwide, in communities that are urban, suburban and rural, and by people across the color spectrum, things weren't always that way. Nearly fifteen years ago, Michael Hudson detailed in his groundbreaking book, Merchants of Misery, the way that poor folks--disproportionately of color--were being gouged by high interest lenders on the secondary mortgage market, thanks to discriminatory lending practices. Likewise, community-based groups in places like North Carolina were taking on predatory lenders in the late 90s and early 2000s, like Citi, which was caught charging black families hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional mortgage payments over the life of their loans, by steering them into loan instruments that were more costly than necessary, even when those families could have qualified for lower interest rates.

Yet consistently, when activists would raise these issues, decry the racial and class unfairness inherent to these practices and call for regulations, most of the media, the public and lawmakers routinely ignored them. No national politicians campaigned on platforms to crack down on such policies, to strengthen fair lending laws, or to reign in the interest that lenders could charge. The market, they would insist, was sufficient to regulate these matters.

Of course, once it became apparent that lenders were not going to be heavily scrutinized or regulated when it came to these activities, high-cost mortgage instruments became even more prevalent, and began to spread, from the communities of color and poor communities where they had begun, to solidly middle class and largely white spaces too. Independent mortgage brokers, which are not regulated the way banks are, began to offer loans to consumers based on little if any paperwork to demonstrate the payments could be made. These lenders had little incentive to control such activity, since they were going to sell the loans in bundles to wealthy investors anyway. By the time families were in default and being foreclosed on, the brokers would have made their money and moved on. As a result of the spread of high-cost mortgages, folks in solid middle class counties like Suffolk and Nassau, on Long Island, are now facing higher foreclosure rates than residents in Brooklyn or Queens.

So in a very real sense, white ambivalence to the suffering of black and brown folks opened the floodgates to even more risky economic activity, and this time, in far whiter communities as well. Had racial inequity and injustice been seen as a problem early on, perhaps the market for such predatory loans would have been shut down or at least heavily regulated, thereby staving off crisis. Clearly, the millions of white folks who got roped into these instruments by lenders promising that everything would be alright are suffering today, precisely because the pain was not taken seriously when it belonged to someone else.
The idea is basically a simple one. Whether the issue is jobs, healthcare, or racial stereotyping, we're all in this together. If we let minorities suffer, the problem will only grow until it affects us all. Spending money on unemployment insurance or healthcare subsidies ultimately benefits everyone. So does fighting racial stereotypes.

Another way of putting this is Martin Niemöller's well-known statement:THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

and by that time no one was left to speak up.
For more of Tim Wise's essays, see Rand Paul's Pro-Racist Libertarianism and Imagine a Black Tea Party.


dmarks said...

"In fact, if I were black I might actually have been hired by now thanks to affirmative action."

The problem in this instance is that the policies of affirmative action are often blatantly and explicitly racist. These are the quota/reference/goal policies that demand such racial discrimination. A recent famous example of this was the New Haven firefighters hiring policy, where people with valid qualifications were denied jobs due to the wrong skin color.

Where these policies are in place what "Jeremy" describes ends up happening. It's because the policies demand it.

It also shows how having strong outright racial discrimination as part of affirmative action ends up increasing racial tension. I have known people like this who hate blacks as a whole because of things like this.

Such racist policies should be immediately removed from all affirmative-action programs.

Rob said...

I'd say the real problem is people who grossly exaggerate the extent of affirmative action programs and blame them for their own shortcomings. People like Jeremy.

dmarks said...

I agree that people like Jeremy are a huge problem, just like any policy is a problem if it demands racial discrimination.

But that is not to say that any racist reaction on his part is justified.