Structural Racism: What do FDR and Barack Obama have in common?

What do President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Barack Obama have in common?  Unfortunately, a lot.

lender foreclosure

A recent report by the Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University projects that the relief purposed to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARR Act) will not benefit all groups to the same degree (Creative Commons License photo credit: TheTruthAbout…) . Because of the racial stratification of occupations and employment opportunities, the jobs created in the stimulus package are designed for industries where blacks, in particular, are underrepresented (e.g., the construction industry).
In parallel fashion, the economic benefits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal disproportionately benefited white middle class America.  FDR’s New Deal funded the seeds of post-World War II suburbanization and with it, white flight, through the National Housing Act of 1934 implemented by the Federal Housing Administration. These government handouts are in part responsible for the crystallization of a large black-white gap in wealth we still see today.

Fortunately, unlike the 30s, we currently have laws that criminalize racial discrimination in hiring and wage allotment. However, sociological studies show that the racial wage gap is largest in the private sector, particularly in occupations where earnings are decided by the capital of one’s client-base. In a society where both interracial friendships and interracial employment contracts are rare, it is not difficult to see where inequalities in earnings can be built into a privatized client-driven pay scale. Many of the new jobs the ARR Act seeks to create will be rooted in the private sector (e.g., infrastructure investments and the energy sector), not the public sector where racial wage gaps are more equitable.

What we essentially have is an example of institutional discrimination, also known as “structural racism”—that is, a range of policies and practices of an institution that lead to the systematic disadvantage of members of certain racial groups (disparate impact). Not coincidentally, the mechanisms of structural racism operate among us invisibly and create an inert force once activated.

We are only now seeing one of the many unintended consequences of the government subsidization of white wealth – twenty-first century black foreclosure.

Analysts have noted that since 2004 black homeownership gains have been reversed and that even before this time rates of foreclosure were on a steady rise in areas with large minority populations. While the media likes to place the onus on blacks – citing poor investment practices and bad credit, they forget that, unlike their white counterparts, black homeowners financed much of their American Dream through their own means. They also did not catch on to urban flight until the 80s and 90s, once housing prices in urban areas were prohibitively expensive and the rise in housing values (and therefore, escrow capital) had already begun to stagnate.  Furthermore, predatory lending practices, redlining, and urban decline have largely eroded the capital out of their most valuable asset.

Thus, in times where the median black family income is dropping for the first time since World War II, there is little to bail people of color out of the depression they have entered into with the current economic crisis. According to United for a Fair Economy, black unemployment rates have been indicative of an economic recession for the past five years.

Could the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 be the 1930s New Deal all over again? In “Silent Depression: The State of the Dream 2009,” United for a Fair Economy draws more parallels between these two periods than one would like. Lax lending standards, a housing and construction boom, and later foreclosure were all features of the 20s and 30s, much as they are features of our current economic situation.

How do we stop this cycle of structural racism?

If the ARR Act goes into effect without oversight into how and to whom jobs and other monetary benefits are distributed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so. One place we already see the process of structural racism in the making is in the response of certain governors to accepting funds earmarked for their state due to their political ideology. Six governors – all Republican and some 2012 presidential candidate hopefuls – have displayed hesitancy in accepting funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the governor of Alabama has already refused stimulus funds for unemployment funds.

While everyone has a right to their politically ideology regarding government intervention into state affairs, the impact of statesmen refusing stimulus funds most likely will only aggravate the current racial gap in unemployment and contribute to the further decline in median family income within black household. These statesmen’s rationalization of government policies is part of the larger white racial frame undergirding American systemic racism simply because of the centrality of race to American racial and non-racial politics. In all of the states where governors are dancing the political two-step, black unemployment is at least twice that of whites. By withholding stimulus funds that will benefit all constituents of a state and stymie the short- and long-term effects of the current recession – both which were derivatives of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, these governors actively participate in maintaining structural racism and racialized experiences.

The time to be assertive, deliberate, and informed about how racism works is now. has already begun an online petition calling out the social and humanistic irresponsibility of these governors. Time is repeating itself: This time there are no excuses.


  1. siss

    Did you intend to say Franklin or Frederick D. Roosevelt?

    While perusing this blog I come across many articles I find distasteful, but this one I find incredibly so. However misguided I think you are on this topic (please note I said “I think” a.k.a my personal opinion, not that of statistical evidence), I do appreciate your comparative analysis on FDR and BO.

  2. ifetayo

    Unfortunately old strategies and political tactics are usually recycled, so I’m not surprised Obama and FDR’s recovery plans are simularly comparable. What seems problematic about the AAR Act, as you mentioned, is the disproportionate benefit of the stimulus Whites will receive relative to Blacks due to privatized buisness. This is an example of how the issue of structural racism penetrates beyond federal and local decision making; the effects of racism are mostly rooted in the design of capitalism. Private buisness and other avenues of free market do not prohibit discrimination in the distribution of wealth. To stop structural racism we have to disassemble the structure racism exsist within. The likelyhood of making fundamental changes to the foundation of America ( ie. capitalism) while those benefiting from the system are still in power, is low. Until the players of the game are shuffled and general interest and ideologies defining fairness are restructured, racism will always be apart of the American fabric.

  3. ifetayo: yes, i think a key part of systemic racism is that the players of the game are still the same across time and space and tout/justify the same interest. this is why i don’t think i am misguided, there is no active motivation — embedded in the ARR Act or elsewhere — that is geared towards an equity ideology (not just equal opportunity, but equal outcomes).

  4. siss

    True Abigail, very true. Question from quote below:

    “Because of the racial stratification of occupations and employment opportunities, the jobs created in the stimulus package are designed for industries where blacks, in particular, are underrepresented (e.g., the construction industry).”

    You mentioned construction. How are blacks underrepresented? Simply stating that they are systematically excluded (read: deterred) from this occupation isn’t enough basis, IMO. I acknowledge that disparities sometimes still exist (sadly) in a few industries; however I’m surprised you mentioned it in regards to manual-labor-type jobs. I have not researched this topic and would be interested to hear more about it, either in follow-up post or a separate article.

  5. Taking into consideration regional variations in the relative presence of blacks in labor markets, the 1990 Census shows that blacks are underrepresented in the construction industry (Thieblot 1999; Azari-Rad and Philips 2003). Azari-Rad and Philips (2003) note that this pattern holds true even in geographical regions where once blacks comprised a larger portion of the construction industry than their presence in the labor market. Simply put, blacks’ underrepresentation in the construction industry has increased substantially since the 60s and 70s.

    Waldinger and Bailey (1991) discuss the mechanisms of systematic racial discrimination in the construction industry in more detail than necessary here. However, blacks may also be underrepresented in this industry due to spatial mismatches in occupational opportunities, the fall of the industrial economy, and/or the multifaceted consequences of racial residential segregation. See Sara McLafferty’s and William J. Wilson’s (1987) work for more information about these mechanisms of the racial segregation in sector-specific occupations.

    Given the concentration of blacks in the working class and/or low-wage occupations, it may seem surprising that they are underrepresented in some occupations within the manual-labor sector. However, this is the case. Even as of 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that blacks are more likely to be in production, transportation, and material moving occupations, than they are natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations. The latter types of jobs are those that have been targeted by the ARR Act’s rebuilding infrastructure component.

    I would disagree with you regarding the existence of racial disparities in “a few industries” for three reasons:

    First, although black-white occupational segregation has declined since the 60s (Tomaskovic-Devey et al 2006), there remains a good degree of labor market sector segmentation based on race and gender. In fact, national trend data suggests that most of the declines in racial occupational segregation occurred in the 1970s, during the height of government’s enforcement of antidiscrimination regulation.

    Second, wage disparities continue to exist within sectors across occupations. I mentioned this a bit when noting the distinction between the private and public sectors in wage disparities. Keep in mind that most construction companies are in the private sector.

    Last, there are racial disparities in the probability of employment among displaced workers (which is whom the ARR Act is really geared towards — the unemployed or nonemployed). Blacks, particularly black men and married blacks, are less likely to become employed after displacement and earn less money in their new jobs once employed.

    All of these factors — the segmentation of racial groups in occupational sectors and specific worksites within an occupation, the racial wage gaps within occupations, and the racial disparities in the probability of employment among the displaced — have in the past and will continue to in the future weaken, relative to whites, the benefits that blacks could potentially receive from government policies.

  6. siss

    Thank you for the follow-up post. While I dont agree with some of your explaninations, you did an excellent job of addressing the questions.

    Not to veer off topic, but when you referenced “displaced workers”, in what context did you mean?

  7. Your welcome and thank you; I appreciate the inquisitive mind. I am drawing on the definition of displaced workers used in Spalter-Roth and Deitch’s (1999) study cited above. They employ the Displaced Worker Study’s definition of the term, which is:

    persons, 20 years and older, who had lost or left a wage or salaried job in the previous three years due to one of three reasons: a plant or company closed down or moved, insufficient work, or a position or shift was abolished.

  8. Raymond Carnation

    Hello All,
    My name is Raymond Carnation. I was a Philadelphia Police Officer that opposed racism against African Americans in my department.
    I along with two other officers were then retaliated against and then fired for coming forward . This occurred under the command of William Colarulo now a chief inspector.
    In May of 2008 we won our Precedential Federal Racism Case Myrna Moore vs. The City Of Philadelphia. D.C. Civil Action NOS. 99-cv-01163. This ten year nightmare has
    inspired me to campaign to ask President Barack Obama to place police racism on our national agenda. I am also aware this is a Global Problem I am now aware of Ali Tahmourpour from Toronto racism case.He and I are teaming up and are seeking Global as well as national attention on this serious problem. We hope that Oprah, 20/20 or Dateline can do a story so the world, public and our President can take proper action.
    Any effort from you and your staff would be greatly appreciated even if you can pass this story on to the media or other government officials. Thank you for your time and concern.
    Below are the articles on my story so you will have a better understanding what had occurred in my career. Together we can make a positive change for all.
    ; Yours Truly,
    Raymond Carnation
    ; Cell# 267-231-8143$41422

    Racism in Police Departments Must Be on the National Agenda

    By Keith Rushing
    =0 A
    I hope that the U.S. Department of Justice in the Barack Obama administration on will he do what none have done before: take serious measures to end the rampant racism and abuse of power in police departments across America. O f course, we can’t expect miracles in the span of…
    URL to article: http://www .justdemocracyblog. org/?p=791

  9. adia

    Mr. Carnation: I imagine yours has been (and will unfortunately continue to be) an uphill battle. But I wish you the best of luck in changing things for the better.

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