03 Myth of Meritocracy
MYTH OF MERITOCRACY
The reality of the wealth gap is often dismissed by whites as Black people “not trying hard enough,” or simply failing to “work their way out of poverty.” This attitude ignores the effects of generations of oppression, from the crimes of slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration to the criminalization of poverty and on and on.
“Most of us prize stories of people who start with nothing in life, and then become rich. Americans even have a saying for it: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. However, new economic research is revealing how wealth is actually built in there US and how difficult it is for some people to gain wealth, even when they do everything right.”
–Ways and Means podcast
Interview on economic research of William Darrity, Jr.:
Brief history of white affirmative action
In 1618 the Headright system, created in England to address the labor shortage in Virginia, gave people fifty acres of land, or two units which would be a hundred acres of land, for anyone willing to cross the Atlantic ocean or pay for someone to cross it and populate the colonies. Free land, only for Europeans.
In 1705, a statute in Virginia required masters to give white indentured servants fifty acres of land, thirty shillings, ten bushels of corn and a musket. Unlike the forty acres and a mule for some black people freed from slavery 160 years later, this gift of land, cash and food for freed, white indentured servants, was not overturned.
That same year (1705), the House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Slave Codes. Those laws locked in a brutal system of white supremacy by giving slave owners sweeping rights to control and even torture the African people they owned, and making it illegal for black people to employ white people. These two legislative moves, the Slave Codes and the payments for white indentured servants, drove a hard wedge between poor white and poor black people, who had sometimes joined forces against the white elite.
In 1785 the Land Ordinance Act was passed. We had been taking Native land for over a century, by any means necessary, and distributing it. And it was a very informal process but it came with some problems like border disputes and overlapping claims. The Land Ordinance Act provided a clearer system for putting formerly Native land into the hands of white settlers. Six hundred forty acres, at a dollar an acre, was part of the law that helped to build a nation of white landowners. And each township had one unit of land set aside for public education–designed to serve white children, not enslaved African children or Native Americans.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed people to claim land for free in the rapidly-expanding United States. At first the Act excluded the vast majority of black people in the U.S., because you had to be a citizen to participate and enslaved people were not eligible for citizenship until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Homestead Act ultimately transferred ten percent of all the land in the U.S. to regular citizens. That land went to white people disproportionately, because of that initial exclusion and because of racist practices in its distribution of the land. But many families of color did benefit, at least temporarily. The Homestead Act helps explain how African Americans came to own fifteen million acres of farmland by the early 20th century. Most of those black farmers would lose their land, though, in large part because of 20th-century racism within the U.S. Agriculture Department.
In 1929, eight months into President Hoover’s presidency, the stock market crashed. Five thousand banks closed and people were losing their jobs every day. Then FDR was elected in 1932, promising a New Deal, which resulted in a raft of initiatives that helped to build massive middle-class wealth in the US. If you wanted to buy a house before the Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934, you had to have fifty percent or more as a down payment in cash, and have it paid off usually in three to five years. So home ownership was really reserved for wealthy people. The FHA changed that, allowing for smaller down payments, low interest rates and the thirty-year mortgage we now take for granted, which created a demand for housing never seen before in this country. Homeownership more than doubled, mostly in the suburbs.
Every economist will tell you that for working- and middle-class people, home ownership is the most powerful way to build some kind of wealth to pass on to the next generation. But, famously, government policies pushed the practice of redlining, giving those FHA loans to people in predominantly white neighborhoods and communities, and refusing to loan to people in mostly-black areas—generally the only places black people were allowed to live. In the cities there were simply way fewer loans and less infrastructure and development. This destroyed the value of inner-city housing for decades, and increased and sustained the value of communities and homes that white people owned outside of the central city area.
Between 1933 and 1962, the FHA gave out over 120 billion dollars in home loans and business loans. The inflation calculation says the impact of that today would be the financial impact of $2,150,949,618,320.61, and over 98% of that went to white people.
Social Security helps all Americans now, but in 1935 when it came into being, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, who of course were disproportionately people of color. Two-thirds of all African American workers were blocked from Social Security until the program was expanded in the 1950s.
One of the most massive policy initiatives ever undertaken by the U.S. government was the GI Bill of Rights in 1944. Among other things, the program sent veterans of World War Two, and later the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to college. On paper, the GI Bill made no racial distinctions. But the education climate in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was segregated. Men of color had to go to school at historically-black colleges and universities, and there were not a lot of them. Most were teachers’ colleges and agricultural schools, and they couldn’t meet the demand of people wanting to take advantage of a government-sponsored education. White schools didn’t let them in, so that meant white people came home from war and had access to government-sponsored education in ways that people of color didn’t have.
Millions of mostly-white men got higher education through the GI Bill and became engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers. The GI Bill also sent people to trade schools and helped veterans find jobs. But here again, men of color were at a disadvantage because of the military’s racist practices back then in assigning jobs within the military. When people came home they met with a local job counselor whose duty was to line up a civilian job that matched skills gained in the military. White men came home and became builders and welders and mechanics, and men of color came home and became dishwashers and cooks. And that has been a multi-generational situation for their families.
So when we say “why are people poor?” and talk about people’s choices and mindsets as if those are just how they think, we’re ignoring huge historical disparities that advantaged white people. From its passage in 1944 until 1971, the GI Bill spent ninety-five billion dollars on veterans, helping them buy homes, get vocational training, and start businesses. Southern lawmakers made sure it would be administered at the local level and would respect the “customs” of Jim Crow. Private mortgage lenders, employers and trade schools turned away black applicants, so even though some people of color did benefit from the GI Bill, the overall effect of the law was to vastly widen the wealth and opportunity gaps between white and black Americans.
Looking at all this history, it’s not hard to see why the median white household today has 13 times the assets—the wealth—of the average black household. In fact, because of this history, the average white family headed by someone who never finished high school has more generational wealth, more money, more assets, than the average black household headed by someone with a college degree. If affirmative action is race-based access to institutional resources and opportunities, it was legislated beginning in 1618. The above examples aren’t about anything except the color of your skin. Not merit, not hard work, not meeting the criteria–just being white.
–Summarized from transcript of episode 12 of the Seeing White podcast, with Deena Hayes-Greene of the Racial Equity Institute, and John Biewen
“Here’s the thing about health care (and homelessness and the housing crisis and and and…): America is all about creating an insurmountable social ladder and then selling everyone on the lower rungs on the idea that climbing is easy, so easy, and if you haven’t climbed it’s because of bad character (you didn’t show the “work ethic”), and so we build all kinds of shame into the system for being bad at work/financial management/school/salesmanship/whatever. We trot out stories of outliers in the lower classes rising all the time….
Do you know what this health care debate is about? Enforcing the class system. Those with good salaried jobs (that they can get because they’re in the right class, usually, and know people and went to the right schools or god help me played football with the CEO’s kid) get health care. Everyone else, prepare to stay healthy or get booted from the system.
Your credit scores now suck and you can’t get an apartment without three months’ rent upfront so you’re either stuck in horrible housing that makes you sicker (lead, mold, pests, highway noise and air quality, most of which lead to brain and pervasive development disorders) or homeless. You’re out now. There’s no way up because you have now been deprived of the coping mechanisms to figure a way through it. Maybe your mom was deprived of coping mechanisms too so she drank her way through your childhood (or pregnancy, more loss of coping skills there), maybe she married a guy who beat you or manipulated you because she hated herself for not coping, or maybe she just endlessly shamed you into working harder to get out of the place she was in. Either way you’ve probably become insecure and maybe addicted to something. Pain, pain, and all these pain killers…” –Sarah Gilbert
“Most of my comments relate to the horrific abuses of the very dear families I care for as a nurse-home visitor. We live in a country that accepts poverty as the status quo, and comments on policies and programs to support low-income families place so much blame on vulnerable women for needing assistance. I am a single mom. When E was small I used food stamps and medical assistance. I qualified for WIC and childcare assistance but felt guilty, like I was somehow abusing the system because other people needed it more than me. Funny, I needed welfare but didn’t want to use it.
No one wants to be on welfare, it’s really hard to navigate that system and so many pitfalls are built into it. For example if you get cash assistance you are mandated to take a job offered to you, even if its minimum wage, part-time with no benefits and requires you to be available at all times, preventing you from being able to get another job or attend the welfare meetings required to continue getting the benefits that allow you to keep the job. The lottery of life has provided me so much. Family, a community, white privilege, excellent education, the belief that the world is a fair place and I deserve basic rights and comforts. The more awareness I gain about the inequity and bias in our society the harder I want to fight for change. I feel so lucky to have a career that I love that affords me an education in the challenges of poverty and white supremacy. I’m still learning every day just how deep my superiority complex is.
What I struggle with deeply is the people I know who defend the current administration, who seem to think they are experts on why struggling families are the problem and not a casualty of the capitalist war for profit waged against them daily. I know the laws, I know the policies and I nurse the casualties every single day. I am sad, and I am angry and I am tired of watching human beings be chewed up and spit out by a system that relies on their being abused and then blames them for existing.
Can you imagine living on minimum wage? Can you imagine living on $316 dollars per month? Can you imagine graduating high school reading at a third grade level thinking you’re prepared for college? Can you imagine losing all your income because you are having a baby and becoming homeless? Can you imagine being homeless with a baby? These are things I see every day. These are the things people I know tell me are the result of laziness, criminality, or poor life decisions. These are the things I know are due to government policies that line the pockets of the rich. If you are interested in learning about the actual policies that screw the middle class, let’s talk. If you want to defend bigots and blame vulnerable people we’re done. Change is possible, but only if we fight for it. Changing minds is possible but only if we truly try to learn and support each other.
Please call out your friends and neighbors. Have tough conversations. Try to understand and help others understand and for the love of all humanity STOP defending racism and bigotry, even if someone you know to be a good person said it!” –Erin Blair
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.” –James Baldwin
“Let’s acknowledge that the life that we live is in very real ways based on the exploitation of other people.” –John Biewen
“Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.” –Poor People’s Campaign
“Generational poverty certainly is not exclusively a black problem. But what social justice warriors — including [Chanelle] Helm — are saying is that it’s the same systemic problem that has been around since Emancipation. To quote James Carville, ‘It’s the economy, Stupid.’
The civil rights movement didn’t bring racial equality. Actual equality was not born out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or even the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor was it realized in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision or the National Guard forcibly integrating an Alabama school.
The path to racial equality is in ending the institutionalized, generational cycle of poverty in black America. It is a cycle created alongside the United States itself.
At every turn, white America may have worked to end inequality, but we wanted it on the cheap — without self-sacrifice. Since slaves were emancipated and then the civil rights movement, America has expected black Americans to just pick themselves up. After all, you’re free — you can vote…
It doesn’t work that way.
If we’re 10 miles into our white American journey, black Americans are only 1.5 miles in. While America has driven the capitalist car for 240 years, black Americans just got their car started in the last 50 or so. And America expects them to accept that they are equal? After all, we gave them equal rights.” –Aaron Yarmuth
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