It seems like many of us are starting catch on to this whole systematic and systemic racism thing we've got going on in this country. That's great! I mean, it's horrible and atrocious, but it's great to know about it and see it, because we have to recognize injustice before we can do anything about it.
Recently, I've had a some very surprising exchanges with white people (like me) who listen to hip hop music (like
I've also read lots of articles lately asking white people to do some consciousness-raising amongst ourselves. So I'm gonna try. I decided to write about popular hip hop songs and how the lyrics can offer some insights into the racial situation in America.*
If this one is interesting to people, I might do another.
Now, are y'all kids tucked in? Here we go:
"Damn, shit done changed now,
Runnin credit checks with no shame now"
-Nelly, Ride wit Me, 2001
Ride wit Me is a party anthem. And given the, uh, thrust of most Nelly songs, it seems remarkable that the word "shame" would appear at all, especially considering this phenomenon right here, upon which I shall not comment.
So the idea of "runnin credit checks with no shame now" deserves some exploration.
The economic oppression and subjugation of African descendants on this continent began and peaked with slavery, obviously. Most people are cognizant of that particular centuries-long crime against humanity and are aware that it was followed by many more decades of utter marginalization, through Jim Crow times and well into the 20th Century.
So let's start with the G.I. Bill.
Over a million African-Americans served this country in World War II. Those individuals were ostensibly entitled to the unprecedented housing and education benefits afforded to all returning veterans. However, especially in the pre-Civil Rights Act, pre-Fair Housing Act era, the impact of those benefits on the economic mobility of veterans was far from equal. While the segregation of educational institutions led to overcrowding at existing HBCUs, perhaps the bigger long-term economic impact came in the form of housing discrimination. I'm talking about Redlining.
According to blackpast.org, "Redlining refers to a discriminatory pattern of disinvestment and obstructive lending practices that act as an impediment to home ownership among African Americans and other people of color." Nancy Updike, in her This American Life story on Redlining, explains it like this:
But most people may not know-- I didn't know-- that it wasn't banks that popularized redlining. It was the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, that drew red lines on maps around certain neighborhoods and refused to back home loans there. There were other designations on the maps, by the way, for areas with Jews and others, anyone who was perceived as risky. Banks followed the government's lead in terms of lending, and so did big government programs that came out later, like the GI bill.As Ta-Nehesi Coates points out in his compelling piece The Case for Reparations, "From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market."
Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was enacted, these racially prejudicial home lending practices persisted.
I'm from Brooklyn. My mother's father served in post-war Japan, and my grandparents benefitted from the G.I. Bill. They struggled throughout their young lives, and I grew up on the inspiring stories of how they scrimped to make ends meet. But because they were able to purchase a home in the desirable (non-Redlined) neighborhood of Bay Ridge, my family's wealth grew substantially as home values increased.
The fact is, my exact same family in the exact same city with the exact same military service record, the exact same hereditary resources (that is to say, none) and the exact same work ethic, had we been Black, would simply not have been afforded the same opportunities, the same access to wealth and middle-class growth.
And the subsequent period of de-industrialization was a whole other shitshow. In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, the decently-paid union jobs that many African-Americans held in sectors like the automobile industry in cities like Detroit were downsized, dismantled, moved overseas. (For a pop culture source beyond rap music, revisit the roof scene from Set It Off. And if, for some crazy reason, you have not seen Set It Off, then stop reading my dumb shit right now and go watch that film.)
Fast-forward to the 21st century: The home lending crisis dealt another huge blow to the prospect of Black economic stability. People of color were specifically targeted for sub-prime mortgages, and, while the big banks were bailed out for their hubris, regular debtors often lost their homes and their investments. Without any generational wealth to fall back on (see the G.I. Bill bit above), even minor set-backs, not to mention the loss of a home, can become major financial catastrophes that take years to dig out of. And, when the economy crashed and governments enacted all those austerity measures, those state and federal employee furloughs? They disproportionately impacted African-Americans.
Now, none of this is to say that white people have not been the victims of predatory lending practices and expensive credit. But the proportion of the Black population that has been targeted by these just-barely-on-the-legal-side-of-fraudulant practices is far greater, especially in recent decades. I live in Los Angeles, and the ads for payday loans and other rapacious lenders on KDAY, the old school hip hop station, where I am most likely to hear Ride wit Me, simply never stop.
My grandfather -- the one who bought the house in Brooklyn on union wages from the phone company, earned his bachelor's degree at age 50, and helped out financially during the years when my mother was a single parent -- taught me to fear debt. He urged me to pay cash, told me not to get credit cards in college, explained how to establish credit without getting involved with the Visa corporation. I learned zero of that in school. The fact is, most of what we learn about money in America, we learn at home.
Many of my other friends who lived in single-parent homes learned instead that money is a constant desperate need, that every ring of the phone could be a debt collector, that sometimes the lights get cut off. Thanks to plenty of hard work, combined with union labor power and the ability to take full advantage of the G.I. Bill, my grandparents were able to help my mother shelter me from the most fearsome of those financial worries.
When you can't seem to escape debt, no matter how hard you work or how responsible you try to be, the strain can be debilitating. Before long, you start juggling. You pay the minimum on this card, the partial balance on the electric, just enough to get the gas turned back on. The idea that you could ever be on top of what you owe, given what you earn and the spiraling impact of late payment fees and overdraft charges, becomes a receding dream. Too many families, and far too many African-American households, operate under this no-win financial framework. That's reflected in hip hop. Often it takes the form of a celebration at having a little extra, the glee that comes from being free from the burden of decades and generations of financial stress. Phone bill about 2 Gs flat, no need to worry, my accountant handles that.
I'm not quite sure what to say in conclusion, except...
If you don't know, now you know.
* Please note: If your reaction to this whole shebang is "no duh," then you are not its intended audience. This post and any others that might follow it are aimed at people who don't know much about these topics but might be intrigued by how these stories are woven into the music they love. I don't mean to condescend or white-splain. (Is that a thing? Of course that's a thing.) I just want to explore some of what's come up in conversations with my white friends. As the young people used to abbreviate on the internet, your mileage may vary.