A Recession for White Americans, A Depression for Black and Latino Americans

A new study from the Pew Research Center reports staggering gaps in median wealth–a person’s accumulated assets minus her debt–between whites ($113,149), blacks ($5,677) and Latinos ($6,325). That’s a 20-to-1 white-to-black ratio of wealth and a 18-to-1 white-to-Latino ratio.

Essentially, all of the economic gains made by people of color since the Civil Rights Movement have been erased in a few years by the Long Recession. Whites experienced a net wealth loss of 16 percent from 2005 to 2009, while blacks lost about half of their wealth (53 percent) and Latinos lost two-thirds of their wealth.

Media outlets reporting on the Pew study point to housing loss as the primary culprit, since the net worth of blacks and Latinos is heavily reliant on home ownership, while whites are more likely to have retirement accounts and stock.

While this is certainly accurate, it obscures the core racism at play. Public policy decisions have been responsible for the speedy recovery of the financial market and the slow recovery of the housing market. From the start, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) favored Wall Street recovery over homeowner recovery, with only $12 billion of the $700 billion bailout spent on foreclosure programs. (To be fair, most of the Wall Street money was eventually paid back.)

So prioritization of corporate interests disproportionately assisted whites in the recovery–but (perhaps) not intentionally. The same cannot be said for actual lending practices.

Rampant–and racist–fraud in the home loan industry was a primary contributor to the collapse, with 61 percent of sub-prime loan holders actually qualifying for prime loans that would have been easier to maintain. Blacks and Latinos were especially targeted for sub-prime loans, a practice called “reverse redlining.” Wells Fargo loan officer-turned-whistle blower Elizabeth Jacobson admitted that her company specifically went after African Americans for sub-prime loans through “wealth building” conferences hosted in black churches.

The employment gap between whites and blacks is also a contributor to the wealth gap. While white American are suffering through the Long Recession with 7.9 percent unemployment, blacks are experiencing Great Depression-like figures of 16.1 percent unemployment. This figure jumps to 31.4 percent for blacks ages 16 to 24, and black Americans have consistently had the higher rate of unemployment compared to white Americans since 2007.

Not surprisingly, the employment gap, too, has racist origins. The Center for American Progress analyzed unemployment data from the last three recessions and found that black unemployment starts earlier, rises faster and lingers longer. Explanations include the concentration of black workers in the stumbling manufacturing sector, the cutting of public sector jobs–and racial discrimination. This last finding is no shock given that employers are more likely to call back a white job applicant with a criminal record than a similarly qualified black man without a record.

The role of racism in poverty is important to keep in mind at a time Washington politicians are manufacturing crises that will slash the entitlement programs that 1 in 6 Americans rely on. It’s ironic that we’re cutting safety nets for the poor just as we’re experiencing the highest poverty rate since 1960, with blacks and Latinos three times as likely to live in poverty. Public policy is supposed to knock down racial and other non-meritorious barriers to pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, not jack them higher.

Photo of unemployment line from Flickr user Bernard Pollack under Creative Commons 2.0

This post was originally published at Ms. Blog on July 28, 2011.

Anti-Trafficking Enforcement in the U.S. is an Abysmal Failure

It’s been over a decade since the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) was passed into law, and a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that astonishingly little has been done since.

The TVPA defines a human trafficking victim as

A person induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion [and] any person under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act.

According to the report [PDF], federal task forces funded by the TVPA opened only 2,515 investigations of suspected incidents of human trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010, leading to 144 arrests so far.

So how does this relate to numbers of people actually trafficked in the U.S.? That’s a surprisingly tough question. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to get firm statistics on modern-day slavery due to vast underreporting, the covert nature of the crime and the tendency to criminalize, rather than recognize, victims of sex slavery (even when they are children). Part of the problem is the misnomer “trafficking,” which inaccurately suggests that victims have to come from other countries. In fact, the term trafficking applies to any coerced sex or labor, including all prostituted children.

Moreover, as anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project points out, clear numbers for the U.S. are particularly lacking. The Department of Justice estimates that 17,500 people are trafficked from other countries, but has no firm estimates on those trafficked within U.S. borders.

I suspect that U.S. citizens and policy-makers have a hard time imagining that modern-day slavery is prevalent in our country, and an even harder time understanding that the vast majority of trafficking victims here are U.S. citizens. The State Department estimates that of the world’s 27 million trafficking victims, about 100,000 live in the U.S. In contrast, the Polaris Project estimates that there are 100,000 cases of child sex trafficking alone in the U.S. each year.

Even if we use the State Department’s 100,000 figure, this means investigations were opened on only 2.5 percent of human trafficking cases. Even assuming that one case represents multiple victims, it is clear that federal efforts to address human trafficking in the U.S. are simply not effective.

However, our anemic efforts to combat trafficking in the U.S. do not stop us from pointing the finger at other countries. The State Department’s just-released 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, which evaluates worldwide efforts to fight modern-day slavery, began including the U.S. only last year. And that was thanks to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said:

One of the innovations when I became Secretary was we were going to also analyze and rank ourselves, because I don’t think it’s fair for us to rank others if we don’t look hard at who we are and what we’re doing.

So where does the U.S. rank?

The State Department uses a three-tier system. Tier 1 countries are in full compliance with the TVPA, Tier 2 countries are making “significant efforts” to comply and Tier 3 countries are making no efforts whatsoever. The U.S. is predictably ranked as Tier 1, which begs the question: How accurate is this rating system if a 2.5 percent prosecution rate gets us to the top?

The State Department’s ranking system misleads the public by focusing on purported efforts instead of actual outcomes. It has also been criticized for ranking China higher than deserved, and for lumping countries together with dissimilar records. The U.S. could standardize its rankings and avoid the latter criticism if it published national trafficking-prosecution rates–but that would expose the fallacy of U.S. superiority in efforts to combat trafficking.

State Department representative Luis CdeBaca defended the annual rankings, saying [PDF] such reports “can mean telling friends truths they may not want to hear.” I hope the State Department doesn’t mind some friendly truth-telling: Federal efforts to address human trafficking in the U.S. are an abysmal failure.

Photo from Flickr user Women’s eNews under Creative Commons 2.0

BOTTOM: Map of human trafficking

Cross-posted with Ms. Blog on July 11, 2011.

Silsbee Rape Case Update: Silsbee Bee Editor Resigns

The Silsbee Bee is reporting that Gerry Dickert will resign as the paper’s editor to assume a new position as Coordinator for Public Information for Lamar State College — Port Arthur. No details were released as to what prompted this career move. Dickert has been the subject of criticism for his coverage of the Silsbee rape case, although it is not clear whether this played a role in his decision to resign from The Silsbee Bee.

Essence Festival Presents a Challenge to New Orleans’ Racial Segregation

Essence Music Festival, the “party with a purpose,” is a three-day event in New Orleans, featuring speakers during the day and musical performances at night.  It also caters to an almost exclusively black audience, bringing 400,000 people to the Crescent City each year.  Their sheer presence challenges informal systems of segregation in New Orleans.

After the show, I walked through the French Quarter with a few friends and noted how unusual it is to see so many black people in this part of town. Despite losing 118,000 black residents after Katrina, New Orleans is still a majority-black city, but highly segregated and even more so after Katrina.   Formal and informal “policing” generally keeps black locals out of the touristy French Quarter, with the exception of Black residents who work/entertain there.

You can see just how segregated in this map by Eric Fischer (each dot is 25 people; red = White residents, blue = Black residents, and Green = Asian residents):

I first learned about this informal segregation a few years ago when I convinced my reluctant friend, Earl, to go to the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street for karaoke. A few blocks from our destination, Earl lagged behind for a moment, distracted by a cat painting, and a group of white locals “warned” me that I was about to “get jumped” by the black guy behind me. Once on Bourbon, we were there for less than a minute before a police officer approached us, questioned Earl’s reason for being there, and told us both to leave.

Policing also occurs in “black neighborhoods” in New Orleans. Working and living in the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards, my white students and I have been stopped more times than I can count by NOPD, other law enforcement, and “friendly” white people who question why we are in these neighborhoods (or as one member of the National Guard called the Seventh Ward, “Ghettoville USA”).

With the Essence Festival in town, it was refreshing to see many black faces around the French Quarter over the weekend, enjoying the most enriching nightlife in the country. But not everyone saw it this way.

An acquaintance told me her white roommate stayed in all weekend because the Essence Festival was in town and she didn’t want to “get shot.” A white friend who works as a server in the French Quarter told me she was happy when the Essence Festival was over because she wouldn’t have to hear all the racist comments from her fellow servers and her boss. While these white residents live in a majority-black city, they feel threatened when black people come from out of town and don’t follow the rules that keep local blacks in “black neighborhoods.”

Then came the news that a New Orleans Police Department Commander was reassigned pending an investigation of instructions he gave to officers on Friday night when deploying them into areas catering to Essence Festival visitors. He allegedly instructed them to single out young, black men, although the exact language he used has not been released. It’s worth mentioning that Essence has never had an incident of violent crime during its seventeen years, and (now former) Mayor Ray Nagin reported that crime goes down in the city during the festival.

The presence of hundreds of thousands of black people from other parts of the county who don’t know the unspoken rules of racial segregation in New Orleans exposes both these rules and the pernicious racism that undergirds them.

Lessons from Transformers 3: Machines are Subjects, Women are Objects, and Female Leadership is a Joke

Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the third installment in this $1.5 billion franchise that just set a new record for a Fourth of July weekend opening, follows what has become a Hollywood action movie tradition of virtually erasing women, despite the fact thatwomen buy 55% of movie tickets and market research shows that films with female protagonists or prominent female characters in ensemble casts garner similar box office numbers to movies featuring men.

Only two featured characters in the large ensemble Transformers cast are women, and none of the Transformers (alien robots, for the uninitiated) are female. And the two female humans consist of an unmitigated sexual object and a caricatured mockery of female leadership.

Let’s start with “the object,” Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), the one-dimensional, highly sexualized damsel-in-distress girlfriend of protagonist Sam Wikwiki (Shia LaBouef). Carly wears stiletto heels, even when running from murderous machines (except when the filmmakers slip up and her flats are visible), and she is pristine in her white jacket after an hour-long battle that leaves the men filthy.

The movie opens with a tight shot of Carly’s nearly bare ass as she walks up the stairs:

In a later scene, Carly is reduced to an object as her boss (Patrick Demsey) compares her to an automobile in a conversation with Sam:

And in case the audience doesn’t know to leer at Carly, they get constant instruction from a duo of small robots that look up her skirt and Sam’s boss (John Malkovich) who cocks his head to stare at her ass:

Sam’s “friend,” Agent Simmons (John Turturro), also ogles Carly and suggests she be frisked against her will:

In a disturbing scene of sexualized violence, Carly’s (robot) car sprouts “arms” and threatens to violate her:

Normalization of female objectification causes girls/women to think of themselves as objects, which has been linked to higher rates of depression and eating disorders, compromised cognitive and sexual function, decreased self-esteem, and decreased personal and political efficacy. Ubiquitous female sexual objectification also harms men by increasing men’s body consciousness, and causes both men and women to be less concerned about pain experienced by sex objects.

Transformers 3 is pitched as a “family movie” and the film studio carefully disguises it as such with misleading movie trailers showing a story about kid’s toys. (Okay, I still have an Optimus Prime robot…) Young kids were abundant at both screenings I attended, taking in the images with little ability to filter the message.


It would have been easy for Michael Bay to positively present the second female character, Director of National Intelligence Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand). Instead, she is a tool to openly mock female leadership and promote female competition.

McDormand does her best to breathe some realism into Director Mearing, but the script calls for a caricature with “masculine” leadership traits – arrogance, assertiveness, stubbornness, etc. – who is ultimately “put in her place” at the end of the movie with a forced kiss. Women continue to be vastly under-represented in positions of corporate and political leadership, partially due to the double-bind of women’s leadership where, in order to be considered acceptable leaders, women have to project a “masculine” image for which they are then criticized.

Director Mearing’s authority is challenged by virtually everyone she encounters in a way that simply wouldn’t make sense for a male character in her position. Sam openly challenges her in this scene:

Director Mearing’s authority evaporates when Agent Simmons comments, “moving up in the world, and your booty looks excellent”:

Director Mearing is even challenged by a transformer. [SPOILER ALERT: Director Mearing is the only one to challenge this transformer’s intentions, and she gets no credit when it turns out she was right.]

This Transformer again puts her in her place with the dual meaning of “I am a prime. I do not take orders from you”:

Director Mearing also has a running theme of not wanting to be called “ma’am.”

The “ma’am” theme doesn’t readily make sense since Director Mearing isn’t young and doesn’t appear to be trying to look young. But it does make sense when viewed through the lens of director Michael Bay intentionally mocking women’s leadership. Remember the flap when Senator Barbara Boxer at a hearing requested that a general use her professional title instead of “ma’am”?:

The “ma’am” theme resurfaces in a particularly troubling scene where Director Mearing meets with Sam and Carly, who, in good double-bind fashion, challenges whether she is even a woman:

Bay does include a few minor female characters with lines – Sam’s mother, the nagging mother/wife; Director Mearing’s subservient Asian assistant; a scene with both the “Olga” and “Petra” Russian woman stereotypes; and a Latina with a bare midriff who has a “Latin meltdown”:

If Michael Bay can buy off the most accomplished actors and even musician/social activist Bono to participate in such harmful media, what hope is there in the war that pits girls/women (the Autobots) against unrepentantly sexist movies makers (the Deceptacons)?