By Ryan Velez
When she watched journalist Bob Herbert’s documentary Against All Odds, Black Enterprise writer Robin White Goode found herself stunned by the film’s message, drawing a straight and deep connection between the persistent racial discrimination throughout history towards African-Americans and the low wealth of the Black community today. Many are already aware of the connection, but the film does a hauntingly effective job of connecting some of these instances together, even when millions of Black Americans have a (fragile) place in the middle class.
“Although in my work at Black Enterprise I already knew about the stark racial disparities in wealth and know much about this country’s painful history of racial hatred, Herbert’s documentary is compelling viewing. It clearly shows how policies were intentionally and systematically structured to keep black Americans in a prescribed low caste,” Goode shares. One figure who appears in the film is president of the National Urban League Marc Morial. He mentions how culture and custom have led to the creation of a “servant class,” as many Black people only had access to menial jobs.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is only the past. One modern example of this discrimination Herbert calls attention to is how Black people with incomes that qualified them for conventional mortgages were steered into the subprime market. This lead to many losing much of their wealth in the Great Recession. Even when Black people succeed, outside forces can put this newfound wealth in a precarious position.
Herbert describes middle-class living as having two major pillars: employment and housing. Black people have been historically pushed away in both areas. One example is the research of activist and Jesuit priest Jack Macnamara. He looked into the contract selling of homes to Black homeowners in Chicago in the 1960s, a practice stemming from not being able to get mortgages. “$500 million was legally stolen from the black community in Chicago alone during the period from 1940 to 1970,” he says in the film.
At the end of the day, the aim of Black and white families were no different, says Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. However, where white families “were rewarded with property appreciation and a sense of stability,” Black families were steered into a “trap that ended up draining them of wealth instead of helping them to build wealth.”