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  November 7, 2017

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (3/3)

Nixon's embrace of 'black capitalism,' continues to this day while the roots of the racial wealth have never been addressed says Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of Georgia
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Mehrsa Baradaran is a professor of law at the University of Georgia school of law and author of The Color of Money and How the Other Half Banks (both published by Harvard University Press).


JAISAL NOOR: Going back to the historical thread we were following, you spend a lot of time in your book talking about the Civil Rights Movement and the demands for self-determination. Of course, this is happening a century after the Civil War has ended. Material conditions for African-Americans have barely improved in some and in many ways. The government has failed African-Americans. It's sent out policy that's destructive to African-Americans. There's attacks on Black communities. There's the rise of the KKK.

So, it's totally understandable and reasonable that African-Americans would want more control and more self-determination but this idea of Black capitalism and Black banks was resurrected by none other than Richard Nixon, as you detail in your book, and sort of co-opted. Talk about the next compromise that happened, starting with the Nixon administration, but this idea of Black capitalism we've seen that's continued to this day.

MEHRSA BARADARAN: Yeah. What's happening within the ghettos is that in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement, The Civil Rights Movement, as we remember it is very much about the Birmingham bus boycott and the Selma bridge. The southern Jim Crow and the clan and Bull Connor and all this stuff. But really, there's a lot happening across the nation.

What's happening up north is even more important, I think, than what happens down south, because what happens down south is what we see. What happens up north is what hasn't been covered as much. And what's happening is these people in these communities that suffer from what I call the “Jim Crow Credit Market,” who pay more for everything, start to get very frustrated. And they understand that these Civil Rights laws that are passed, and these are monumental reforms, a wonderful sort of advancement, although all they do actually is just give Blacks the rights that they were always entitled to. Right? The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Blacks were always supposed to have the right to vote, or since the 15th Amendment. So yes, these things are great, but the north is essentially saying, "Hey, let's not celebrate quite yet." For us, it's not about the white water fountains and the Black water fountains. We can't even get buses to come into our neighborhoods to take us to work. We pay more for these things than everyone else, right? We're stuck in this trap of poverty and violence and crime and all of those things that come with poverty.

What happens is these protests and riots up in the north and Congress starts, they called it the urban crisis. It's nation-wide. Days after the civil rights laws are passed, Harlem Watts and Detroit sort of, and Baltimore really kind of just erupt in violence. These legislators are like, what's going on? We just passed these Civil Rights reforms. And they come and they meet to talk about it, and the thing that they're realizing is that the rioters, the protesters, are targeting these lenders. These aren't just random acts of protest. They're actually going for these lenders, and they're saying burn the books. Because these are their oppressors in the north. Their oppressors are not necessarily the clan, although the clan does have a presence in the north but it's these lenders. It's these exploiters, as they call them.

And so, Congress meets and they say, "Okay, well, it looks like these are these white establishments. What we're going to do is we're going to throw in Black businesses into the ghetto." Because, and this comes from Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon is unwilling to push anything on the civil rights agenda. He is very clear. He says, "I have nothing to gain by working with these Black leaders." His whole platform relies on the southern strategy, which is that he has to get southern racist white supremacists onto the Republican ticket, and he does this very successfully. And part of what we already talk about is his law and order dog whistling that he does. But the other part that we don't talk about that I try to highlight in the book is this “Black capitalism.”

Black capitalism essentially means to Nixon, look, yes, for centuries, whites have been getting all of these state subsidies. But for Blacks, once Blacks are saying, "Hey, we want a cut too, we want the same deal," he says, "Okay, go to the free markets. Best of luck." So, no programs, no welfare, no even poverty reforms. It's all about capitalism, and what he means is you just start your own businesses in the city, right? Even as we have this different credit market, he's saying, "Okay, we'll put Black businesses in it." He doesn't even mean it that much. This is when affirmative action comes out, so he says, "Okay, we'll just throw a few contracts here and there, and give a few loans to black businesses." But it's never robust. He doesn't care about it. And really, it's about his commerce department had Maurice Stans. There are some people in the administration who think this is a real program and they try to push these reforms, and he kind of shoots it down and says, "Look, just come up with some good success stories. That's all people need. It's about hope in business. It's not really actually meant to benefit."

Then this whole, the program just sort of morphs out of control after this era, is now encompasses all sorts of minority programs and female-owned businesses, and it started very much as a response to wealth and equality, and the discontent that segregation was wrought. And now it's very much about, we'll have Black businesses and Native American businesses and women businesses, and this will help with us in diversity and representation. It's not longer about the wealth gap.

JAISAL NOOR: You also chart how the ideas and policies you talked about under Nixon are continued through today, the Obama administration, the Trump administration, even, and a lot of local, on a local level as well, in cities that are controlled by Democrats. Can you talk about that as well?

MEHRSA BARADARAN: Yeah. After Nixon, it is so, this Black capitalism idea is so politically successful that Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump, all kind of tout these minority businesses. But it changes over time. At first, it's very much about Black businesses. The whole program was meant to address segregation, and it was meant as a response to Black civil rights protests, and then Ronald Reagan kind of waters it down. For Ronald Reagan, his whole civil rights agenda, for him, civil rights is about cutting taxes and bolstering the free market. He says, "Look, I'm fighting for civil rights. What I'm going to do is lower your taxes." Then Carter and other, Clinton and others, once the Supreme Court says, look, this is this total amnesia. The Supreme Court decides in 1978 on the affirmative action program. He said they uphold affirmative action in this case, the Bakke case, but they say it's only for diversity. Right? Affirmative action is only allowed in education if just to benefit all students. Essentially what we're saying is, "Oh, white students would benefit from a sprinkling and smattering of other diverse faces." So, that becomes the justification for affirmative action.

And then in 1989, the Richmond case, the Supreme Court says, "You can't favor any Black business, because that's unfair to white businesses." So, the program that Nixon drafts in the first place just falls apart at that era. Then we come up with this sort of colorblind myth, right? The only sentence of Martin Luther King's entire span of civil rights mobilization is you shouldn't judge people by the color of their skin, by the content of their character, which is this myth of colorblindness. By the way, Martin Luther King never believed that, right? Martin Luther King was very much about reparations and bringing Blacks up to the place where whites had been through active programs.

Anyway, so this becomes the ideology of affirmative action as soon as Black capitalism programs becomes community enterprise or minority enterprise, and Clinton takes this up big time, and this is his agenda for poverty, is micro-credit and Black banks and these things called CDFIs, Community Development Financial Institutions. There's a lot of very good people, a lot of people still today that do this work and it's excellent work, and I don't think there's anything wrong with these community organizations. They're way better than the other ones. But it's a very watered down response to what it started as.

This is where you get this amnesia, where the court says, "Look, affirmative action and Black capitalism is about diversity." Thurgood Marshall writes this really great dissent in that case saying, "You've forgotten. What you're saying is that the government can no longer act to take care of past discrimination." So, you're saying for centuries, Blacks have been exempted, not allowed to contribute and gain from the economy, right? Blacks, through Jim Crow, through segregation and through various means of discrimination, Blacks have not been able to enjoy the fruits of capitalism." And the government essentially throws up its hands and says, "There's nothing we're going to do about that, and now it's all about free market and you have to do it yourself and you can't be benefited by the color of your skin because that's discriminatory toward white."

So, it really gets convoluted, even to today. I mean, Trump last week calls October 24th, whatever last week was, Minority Enterprise Week. You know? This was the least controversial thing that this very controversial president does and essentially, what does he promise minority businesses is tax cuts, or the, not even tax cuts for small businesses, but the death tax, which is the estate tax, which applies to people who have a state of more than five million dollars on their death. It's fair to say that this doesn't affect a lot of Black communities. You know? But this is what we're giving to Black communities. Even Obama, I think this was his whole push, was Black capitalism in what we call in different words now is community enterprise, blah blah blah.

JAISAL NOOR: So, we're at this moment now, some 150 years later, where we're again having these conversations about white supremacy. We're talking about the Civil War. You know? We're talking about FHA loans that weren't available to African-Americans, to the white wealth creating for white America that was denied to Black America. The poverty and segregation that was inflicted upon Black America. In your analysis, where do we go from here?

MEHRSA BARADARAN: You know, I think, so on the one hand, it's really depressing that we should be having these really high-level conversations about how to close the wealth gap and what we're saying in 2017 is that the clan is not good and Nazis are not good. So, I think in a way, we've moved backwards. But in another way, that could be seen as a positive development, is that this colorblind post-race myth that Nixon and Reagan and Clinton peddled, that's fallen apart. We are not a colorblind society. We have never been. We are not post-race. We have never been.

So, the lie is, I think, coming to the surface now, where you have a president whose agenda is based on white supremacy and his constituents are very vocal about that. You know? The difference being that now people are talking about it, where before, of course we were premised on white supremacy. It just, we were softer about it and we didn't say, we used different words to say the same things. And now we're just calling it what it is. And I think that if we can capitalize on that, if we can say, "Look, this is white supremacy." Then maybe we can move forward and say, "Okay, we all are opposed to this. The majority of us do not want to be part of a system that does this." You know? And that Trump, the whole motivating force of the Republican party essentially started with and continues to be opposed to Black rights and opposed to autonomy and part of it is about this lie about capitalism, which I try to get to in the book, is that we lie to ourselves that we have this capitalist economy, but we don't. Our economy is very much a public private enterprise. The government has very much subsidized white wealth. They just haven't done it with Black wealth. A lot of times you see this opposition to any programs that benefit minorities as anti-capitalist, but it's a lie.

JAISAL NOOR: All right. We want to thank you so much for joining us, Mehrsa Baradaran. Her new book is the Color of Money and her most other recent book is How the Other Half Banks. Thank you so much for joining us on this-

MEHRSA BARADARAN: Thank you so much for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: ... extended conversation and you can watch this full interview at We're going to break it up into a few parts. Just go to for the full interview. Thank you so much for watching.


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