The Secret of Breathing

By Guest Columnist May 20, 2009

By Bertha Lewis There are some things I know so deeply that I experience them the way I experience breathing. Constantly, but almost always unconsciously. I’m like fish pondering water – I don’t even know I’m wet. Sometimes, though, when other people say them, I become rapidly aware of my breath (usually by coughing, sometimes by saying “Right on!”) These times are welcome reminders that the very health and well-being of low- and moderate-income families and families of color and, I would argue, of the entire country, rests upon understanding the circumstances that seem so much a part of the very atmosphere to me. That’s why I am so honored that ACORN is co-releasing a report from the Applied Research Center (ARC) entitled “Race & Recession: How Inequity Rigged the Economy and How to Change the Rules." This timely and powerful report makes the compelling case that an inclusive and equitable national economic recovery requires this country to address its deep racial disparities and patterns of racial discrimination, patterns that are reflected in statistics like this: Unemployment levels for people of color are consistently higher than those of whites and considerably higher during bad times. In March 2009, with unemployment at 8.5% nationally, 13.3% of Black workers and 11.4% of Latinos were out of work, but only 7.9% of whites. Perhaps the most visceral example is that of the subprime lending crisis at the heart of the economic meltdown. This crisis is largely a result of unregulated predatory lending in communities of color. Indeed, 35% of subprime loans were sold to people who could have qualified for a traditional, fixed rate, prime loans. Middle and upper income Blacks and Latinos are more likely to get a high cost loan than low-income whites. The deep-seated tragedy of this foreclosure crisis is that it has stripped communities of color of billions of dollars in assets, substantially contributing to the racial wealth divide. ACORN members know what this is like. Annie, a member from East Oakland, was evicted from her home last fall with 15 minutes notice, the end result of the lending practices that created the crisis. While she was fortunate that a neighbor from her church stepped in with an offer of an affordable place to rent, Oakland lost a property-tax-paying homeowner who was contributing to a stable neighborhood. Annie has since joined ACORN’s Home Defender program, which rallies to the side of other homeowners to prevent evictions and force lending institutions to negotiation equitable workouts for stricken borrowers. Hard times affect all communities, of course, but their effects are unequally distributed, with communities of color suffering more. While Annie was able to take advantage of her church connections, many people lack such networks and people of color are finding that they are unemployed, hungry, homeless, and without health insurance as the economic crisis deepens. But there are common sense solutions to the economic crisis, ones that work to addresses the centuries of economic, health, education, and other disparities facing America’s communities of color. These include a moratorium on foreclosures, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, raising the minimum wage, passing the Employees Free Choice Act, and increasing assistance such as food stamps and unemployment insurance. Perhaps the most far-reaching of these measures would be health care for all Americans. The secret that Race & Recession has exposed, which is as second nature to me as breathing or as common to a fish as water, is that progressive economic and social policies must address racial disparities in order to bring people of color into the economic mainstream. In so doing we will be creating vibrant neighborhoods, robust communities, and, indeed, a stronger America. If we want it, we’re going to have to be like Annie and join together to fight for it. Bertha Lewis is the CEO and Chief Organizer of ACORN.