Race and Recession-Traval Log 1

By Seth Freed Wessler Jan 21, 2009

Race and Recession have everything to do with each other. For the next few weeks I’ll be posting from the road with stories about race and the recession. From the Pacific Northwest to the rust belt, Central Texas to Southern Arizona, the question is, What does this recession really mean for the people who feel it most. I’m in Detroit. Michigan has a debilitating 10 percent unemployment rate, and judging from discussions I’ve had with people here it’s a whole lot higher in Detroit’s communities of color and poor communities. There are lots of really sad, really hard stories about poor people getting hit hard, teetering on the edge of becoming homeless, losing jobs just before benefits are to start, losing homes or getting fired because of criminal records. I met two men at a temp agency yesterday who told me that they had been waiting for weeks to be placed. One of them, a white man who is about 45 and looks 15 years older than that, told me that there used to be jobs but now as layoffs skyrocket he can’t find anything. He lives in a hotel and struggles each week to pay the $77 rent. He told me that the immigrants always get the jobs before him. The other, a Black man, has a criminal record. When he can get a job he often loses it just before benefits start in. His employers cite his criminal record as an excuse for the firing though they were happy to take his labor for the fist few weeks before they had to pay for health insurance. He’s mad at immigrants too. An elderly woman whose home was foreclosed upon after a predatory loan told me that she’s scared because her daughter, who she lives with, is fighting off a foreclosure on her house. Whole blocks of houses are foreclosed. Meanwhile, sitting in the Michigan Welfare Rights office, I’ve met people coming in for help who feel like they’ve failed, like they made bad choices, like if only they had done something differently they might be in a different situation. Everyone seems to blame themselves or, if not themselves, they blame some other group of struggling people like immigrants. This recession is starving people. The barriers to employment, lack of jobs and access to programs, the targeting of people of color with bad loans and more bad loans has people living on the streets and worrying about their next meal. And yet we’re still stuck in the personal responsibility mind frame that says that you can get there if you try. And then when people don’t get there the only option seems to be to blame it on the immigrants. It’s time for a new paradigm of support in this country, a return to a robust safety net and sense of shared prosperity that recognizes history and sees through the rules and the barriers that keep people of color from moving forward in the best of times and threaten to throw them into the streets in the worst. A worker from Mexico who is in Detroit without papers told me, "we will only gain if we all work together. The people in power are the one’s who gain if we don not." Its going to take us fighting for everyone if everyone’s going to be pulled out of this mess we’re in. And everyone means everyone.