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How Ruthless Banks Gutted the Black Middle Class and Got Away With It

The real estate and foreclosure crisis has stripped African-American families of more wealth than any single event in history.
 
 
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The American middle class has been hammered over the last several decades. The black middle class has suffered to an even greater degree. But the single most crippling blow has been the real estate and foreclosure crisis. It has stripped black families of more wealth than any single event in U.S. history. Due entirely to subprime loans, black borrowers are expected to lose between $71 billion and $92 billion. 

To fully understand why the foreclosure crisis has so disproportionately affected working- and middle-class blacks, it is important to provide a little background. Many of these American families watched on the sidelines as everyone and their dog seemed to jump into the real estate game. The communities they lived in were changing, gentrifying, and many blacks unable to purchase homes were forced out as new homeowners moved in. They were fed daily on the benefits of home ownership. Their communities, churches and social networks were inundated by smooth-talking but shady fly-by-night brokers. With a home, they believed, came stability, wealth and good schools for their children. Home ownership, which accounts for upwards of 80 percent of the average American family’s wealth, was the basis of permanent membership into the American middle class. They were primed to fall for the American Dream con job. 

Black and Latino minorities have been disproportionately targeted and affected by subprime loans. In California, one-eighth of all residences, or 702,000 homes, are in foreclosure. Black and Latino families make up more than half that number. Latino and African-American borrowers in California, according to figures from the Center for Responsible Lending, have foreclosure rates 2.3 and 1.9 times that of non-Hispanic white families. 

There is little indication that things will get much better any time soon. 

The Ripple Effect

If anything, the foreclosure crisis is likely to produce a ripple effect that will continue to decimate communities of color. Think about the long-term impact of vacant homes on the value of neighborhoods, and about the corresponding increase in crime, vandalism and shrinking tax bases for municipal budgets. 

"The American dream for individuals has now become the nightmare for cities," said James Mitchell, a councilman in Charlotte, NC who heads the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. In the nearby community of Peachtree Hills, he says roughly 115 out of 123 homes are in foreclosure. In that environment, it's impossible for the remaining homeowners to sell, as their property values have been severely depressed. Their quality of life, due to increases in vandalism and crime, diminished. The cities then feel the strap of a receding tax base at the same time there is a huge surge in the demand for public services. 

Charlotte, N.C. Baltimore, Detroit, Washington D.C. Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia have historically been bastions for the black middle class. In 2008, roughly 10 percent of the nation’s 40 million blacks made upwards of $75,000 per year. But now, just two years later, many experts say the foreclosure crisis has virtually erased decades of those slow, hard-fought, economic gains.  

Memphis, where the majority of residents are black, remains a symbol of black prosperity in the new South. There, the median income for black homeowners rose steadily for two decades. In the last five years, income levels for black households have receded to below what they were in 1990, according to analysis by Queens College. 

As of December 2009, median white wealth had dipped 34 percent while median black wealth had dropped 77 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s "State of Working America" report.

 
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