Ira Glasser, excerpt, State of the Union Address
I just want to say a few words about the third problem I mentioned at the outset — the nature of racial inequity and racial injustice today, and the remedies that are required to end these inequities.
We live in our minds with the paradigm of defeating Jim Crow, because that is the paradigm that prevailed when we grew up. Jim Crow was a legal infrastructure that institutionalized and legalized racial discrimination — separation and segregation based on skin color. Our generation’s goal was to end official segregation, and we did. We dismantled the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow and we set up a legal infrastructure to outlaw skin-color discrimination, and we pretty much had done it by 1968.
I remember how happy all the leading civil rights advocates of the day were. Nobody believed we would remain as stratified and as inequitable and as unjust as we are today, thirty years after the civil rights laws were passed. This is, again, an example of the extraordinary vision that is necessary for advocates to have when paradigms change. Just as the First Amendment advocates never saw beyond prior restraint and the privacy advocates never saw beyond the warrant procedure, so on that day in 1963 when 200,000 of us stood in the hot August sun in Washington listening to Martin Luther King Jr. and many others speak, we didn’t see much beyond the need to get rid of discrimination in employment, education, voting, public accommodations, and housing. Our eyes were on the prize, and the prize was to get civil rights law passed that protected voting rights. The prize was to get a civil rights law passed that outlawed discrimination in housing. The prize was to get a civil rights law passed that outlawed discrimination in employment and in public accommodations and in 1964, a year after that march, the first of those laws was passed, and in 1965 the second and in 1968 the third. Those laws, and a number of court decisions, effectively dismantled the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow and most of us thought the rest was inevitable. But we now know that wasn’t so.
I think I first began to understand this when I visited South Africa two years ago, shortly after the end of apartheid. Now apartheid was over, Nelson Mandela was running the government, blacks were in the majority and that was all wonderful, just as the ending of Jim Crow was wonderful. But I visited the townships right outside Cape Town, and there were people living in corrugated boxes no bigger than the table you are sitting around now except it had less food on it, on dirt floors with no sewers, no plumbing, no electricity, no radios. Thousands of people were living this way just as far as you could see. I looked at that and thought have their lives changed because Nelson Mandela is president? Have their lives changed because apartheid is gone? What would it take to change those peoples’ lives? Already in South Africa there are opponents of affirmative action’ who say, just as those opposed to affirmative action in the U.S. say, why do we need affirmative action now that apartheid is gone? Why do we need affirmative action here when Jim Crow is gone? Well yes, our opponents say, there are economic problems left but those are economic problems that are not any longer connected to race.
But how is it possible to believe that the conditions in those townships are not connected to race when the reason that those townships are there and the reason why those people are living the way the are, and the reason why their prospects are so bleak despite the ending of apartheid, is simply because they were black during the time of apartheid. Apartheid created those inequalities. Apartheid created those townships, institutionalized discrimination, and cemented it into the social system. Apartheid prevented those people from being educated and from getting jobs and from accumulating capital in just the same way that Jim Crow did in the United States.
What I began to see clearly during that visit was that legal discrimination is like a hard shell that encases the whole society. Even if you finally succeed in breaking through the shell and cracking it and peeling it off, if it has been there for a long enough time, the society inside it will have assumed the shape of the inequality that the hard shell imposed. It doesn’t go away and it doesn’t bounce back because for so many years– for decades, for centuries — that hard shell created economic and social inequalities that became so entrenched that new laws requiring the shell’s removal will not be sufficient to change the inequalities inside. To pretend that those economic inequalities are unconnected to race because they are no longer the product of overtly discriminatory state action is a delusion of immense and immoral proportions. It is very clear in South Africa and it ought to be clear here too but it isn’t.
When my wife and I were in our early 20s, we were looking to move into Manhattan from where we lived and we found out about a middle income co-op that was being built where it was possible to live in a pretty nice apartment in the middle of Manhattan very cheaply. I live there still and we probably could not have raised four children on what the ACLU paid and stayed here all those years and lived in the middle of Manhattan but for that apartment. It required a $5,000 down payment for a two-bedroom apartment with a nice long terrace. It was really nice. We were 23, we were both teaching, we were both professionals and we were making about $10,000 between the two of us, which was very nice back then. But we couldn’t come up with the $5,000 so my father gave it to me.
Now my father was not wealthy. He had been a construction worker without more than an elementary school education. I remember, as a child my father often didn’t work a full week. But by 1950 we were able to move out of the immigrant ghetto where we lived in east Flatbush, and buy a house in what they told me was Long Island, but which I later discovered was Queens. So they had this house they bought with an FHA mortgage and I think they paid $16,000 for it if I remember correctly, and by the time they sold that house in the late 60’s it had accumulated in value by a lot. So my father, a construction worker, had a little bit of money and he was able to lend me $5,000. The arrangement was I was going to give it back to him when I sold the co-op apartment, which I have not to this day done. He however, being as persistent as he is, is 87 years old and still waiting and I know he is going to last until I sell that apartment. The point was that although he was not a man of means, he had $5,000 to lend to me and that enabled me to buy an apartment and live in a neighborhood where my kids could go to a decent public school. That was an asset that he had that I had access to. And it was an asset made possible because he had had access to a job and an FHA mortgage.
At the same time, in 1961, we had friends that we were close to at the time — a black couple -and I thought they were just like us. They both had graduate degrees, they were social workers, they were making $10,000 or $11,000, between them, they had no kids, their income was the same as ours, their education was the same, they seemed to me to be the result of what was going to happen when you passed all these civil rights laws. We would all be equal and our opportunities would be roughly the same. I knew that they also wanted to move, and I told them about this place and suggested they could get on the waiting list too. Then they asked me how much the down payment was, and I told them it was about $4,000 or $5,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and they looked at me like I was out of my mind. Well, as it turned out, they didn’t have a daddy with $5,000. They had a father they were helping to support. They had a brother who was unemployed; they had an ext
ended family that they were helping, and they didn’t have family resources to help them. They were the first ones out of the box. They were the first professionals in their families. They were the ones with professional jobs; they were the "rich" ones. Their parents didn’t have any assets. They were an economic drain, not a support system.
I got a call a couple of years ago from a woman who is a lawyer in New York who used to be on the board of the New York affiliate when I was there. She said her grandson was applying for an internship at the ACLU, and that she thought it was just wonderful that he was carrying on this tradition on his own, and that she just wanted to let me know he was applying. I thought to myself, this is an interesting problem. It’s wonderful if the kid is good and smart and if his great grandfather was general counsel to the ACLU and his grandmother a lawyer on the board. There were a couple of minority internship candidates too, but they didn’t have grandmothers who were lawyers who knew me. I never got their calls.
Then you start thinking about how assets matter, how connections matter, how assets accumulate, and get you to places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. How many think that hiring a minority intern for affirmative action reasons is giving them something extra that the others don’t have without recognizing that there is something extra that the others bring to the table that is almost invisible, that nobody takes account of, but that is itself part of the inheritance of legal inequality? The reason that my father got his construction job and, later, the FHA loan was related to the fact that black families were denied jobs and mortgages and therefore the opportunities to accumulate assets. For 30 years, FHA loans were racially discriminatory. They were denied to blacks at three times the rate that they were denied to whites for reasons which a federal study in 1991 found were overwhelmingly racial and not due to independent financial factors. Everybody now knows about mortgage discrimination and how the FHA regularly denied cheap home mortgages, post-World War II, to black families that they gave out to white families. VHA did the same thing, not to mention what private banks did. So in Levittown, the quintessential suburban home development, as late as 1960 not one of the 82,000 units was owned by a minority family. Not one.
Between 1960 and 1980, real estate was the major means of asset accumulation in this country for middle class people because of the appreciated value of home ownership. If you look at the state action and the official policies that disproportionately denied that homeownership to people based on the color of their skin, how can you turn around and say that these are economic factors unrelated to race? Even now there is a lot of mortgage redlining that goes on.
Slavery was a system where people were put into forced labor to create wealth that somebody else got. After slavery ended we had Reconstruction and freed slaves were supposed to get "40 acres and a mule." Well, they didn’t get 40 acres and a mule. The idea was, this wealth had been in large part created by slave labor so therefore part of the consequences of freedom ought to be that the former slaves get a just portion of the wealth that that they were force to create for others. But it didn’t happen, and so there was no asset distribution or land reform. Pretty soon there were black codes that prohibited education, prohibited blacks from having certain kinds of jobs, prohibited blacks from entering certain kinds of businesses and the businesses they did allow them to enter required them to serve only blacks.
When people talk about the ethnic immigrant groups, blacks remember that there may have been Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants, but they catered to everybody. Black businesses in the South, however were prohibited by law from serving anybody but blacks, while white businesses could serve everybody. And blacks were limited by law to a limited range of businesses. So wealth continued, in the post-Reconstruction era, to be the subject of state action that allowed whites to accumulate wealth and prevented blacks from accumulating wealth. And although we have fewer legal problems today than we used to, these state-created inequalities still exist.
For hundreds of years we had this hard shell of state action and state-enforced inequality. Finally, and only recently, we broke the shell apart, but the inequality the shell created still remains, and now we comfort ourselves by saying it’s only economic. Well, it isn’t only economic. It is part of the racial landscape. Charles Murray says the reason why blacks remain stratified at the bottom is because of their genetic deficit. Some white Americans buy that and some don’t, but what a majority of white Americans believe is the fiction that today’s economic inequalities are a function of economic factors independent of the racial segregation that was this nation’s heritage for hundreds of years. That is fiction.
The Social Security Act of 1935, the great New Deal legislation that was so good for so many of our families, excluded agricultural and domestic workers. Disproportionate numbers of agricultural and domestic workers were not white. Benefits came to depend on jobs, on unionism, which excluded blacks and on military service, which through the end of World War II, segregated and limited blacks so a lot of benefits that accrued to whites did not accrue to blacks. Those of us who are white are the beneficiaries of those unjust exclusions, and the moral obligation for affirmative action is a moral obligation to make amends, not perhaps for our own acts of discrimination, but for the fact that we were the beneficiaries of discrimination.
I might not be where I am if somebody who was black had not been excluded from competing with my father. When Jackie Robinson got his first job, in baseball in 1947, there were 400 jobs to be had. The day he trotted out onto the field only 399 of the jobs were filled by white players. Number 400 the season before was the unjust beneficiary of Robinson’s exclusion, and the fact that those jobs were held entirely by whites was for a certain number of those whites directly related to the fact that blacks were not allowed to compete. Inequality based on differentials in assets and wealth has maintained itself without any need for the law to require it. To turn around and talk about a merit system as if there was a level playing field is to pretend that because we destroyed the law, we destroyed the inequality that the law created. We did not.
I want to give you in closing what some of these contemporary numbers are. If you take a family with two wage earners, the average salary of a white wage earning couple is now $40,800. The average for the black wage earning couple is $34,700 — 85% of the white average. Not bad when you look at what it was 20 years ago, which is why people are starting to say we’re getting there. But if you take those same two couples and you look at their net assets, at their net worth, including home ownership, then the average for the white couple is $56,000 and for the black couple $17,400. So now you are talking about 31%. If you measure the differential by assets and wealth, the gap is much larger then if you look simply at income and wages. If you look at net financial assets aside from home ownership — liquid assets — the average for the white wage earner couple is $8,600; for the black wage earner couple it is $0. Now you connect up the way in which disparities between assets and wealth contribute to the perpetuation of inequality of opportunity and you note studies that have shown that 70% of those disparities are due to the effects of state action, that is, race-based policies, past and present. $54 billion dollars in home mortgage and real estate tax deductions are provided annually
to people in this country, and disproportionate numbers of those people are white. Where is there a comparable asset program for people who were excluded from owning those homes by state action? There is none. The structure of equal opportunity we see is therefore in fact a structure of unequal opportunity built on the differentials of wealth and assets that were created by discriminatory laws. We have to find a way of addressing this problem. That is why destroying the legal structure of Jim Crow has not been enough; and we have not begun to understand that well enough to address it and to find appropriate and effective remedies.
The question is not whether affirmative action is required; it is what kind of affirmative action is required. It may be that the kind of mechanistic maintenance of goals and timetables that we have defended thus far is not radical enough. It may well be that real affirmative action — what we used to call compensatory opportunity, which I always thought was a much more meaningful phrase than affirmative action — means that in order to compensate for the structured inequality of opportunity that is the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, we have to find ways of creating assets and wealth for those who are excluded by law for centuries.
We have to address the race-based policies like mortgage redlining that still exist. It may also be possible, as some economists have suggested, to create mortgage-asset accounts, to create education-asset accounts, and to have those accounts apply to the poor irrespective of race because disproportionate numbers of the beneficiaries will be non-white anyway. That could remove the political problems inherent in creating race-based programs. It may be that we have to think about certain kinds of income redistribution, particularly with respect to the capital gains taxes, where those who have assets continue to pay lower taxes than those who don’t have assets. The inheritance laws need to be looked at in this light. In the next generation we are going to see a transfer of seven trillion dollars. Almost all of that transfer will be from whites to whites, because state action effectively excluded blacks from creating assets. This is also partially due to the seniority system. We all have been involved in cases where a labor union discriminated for years by admitting whites but not blacks. Then when people were laid off according to seniority, everyone understands that if you had discrimination in the past, the seniority system, which is otherwise a fair system, becomes an instrument for perpetuating the discrimination. That is what wealth and asset inequalities are today. They are a seniority system for the structured inequality that the law created and that’s why we have to address it. It is that change of paradigm and that change of understanding of what the problem was when we started out 40 years ago and what the problem is now that we have to address.
Understanding the paradigm changes, and acting upon those changes in order to protect fundamental rights, is what this organization is going to have to do in the decades ahead. Thank you.