No Shoes, Please: History lessons

Everyone knows that blackface under any circumstances is unacceptable. No, you can’t do it for Halloween. No, you can’t do as an homage to your favorite African-American entertainer. And no, you definitely can’t do it because you’re just having fun and don’t mean anything by it.

Except, I guess, in Virginia, where two of the top three lawmakers in the state have engaged in this overtly racist behavior. Maybe it’s because we’re talking about the South, but one would think that given its history and the makeup of its population, Southerners would be better informed on matters pertaining to race than anyone else in the country.

Clearly this isn’t the case. But Northerners or Californians like myself may not know that much more than our southern brethren. Essays written by Ta-Nehisi Coates like “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” alerted me to my own ignorance of how, even until the present day, African-American communities have been plundered of every asset they may possess: property, personal safety, rights of citizenship, access to goods and services, educational opportunities and – in the case of blackface – their dignity as a people.

I wasn’t completely uneducated in the matter, of course. But I didn’t know, for example, that when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934, it insured private mortgages, making it easier for people – through lower interest rates and smaller required down payments – to achieve homeownership. However, that FHA mortgage backing was extended only to neighborhoods it rated “A,” or those appraised for, among other things, a lack of any black inhabitants.

Unable to access funding through normal channels, black families turned to predatory loan sharks that via a contract sale, kept the deed until the contract was paid in full, preventing the homebuyer from acquiring any equity. Missing a single payment meant the buyer lost everything: the down payment, the monthly payments he had made up until that point and the property itself. Like a cruel precursor to house-flipping, the lender inflated loan payments, repossessed the property, then found another buyer, sometimes three or four times on a single building.

Even colorblind government programs like the GI Bill did nothing to address the roadblocks black veterans encountered at both the Veterans Administration and at banks that outright refused to lend to African-Americans. Consequently, the obstacles to homeownership imposed on black families eliminated a major source of wealth accrual, and created the kind of segregated, ghettoized neighborhoods that gave rise to a host of other problems that continue to this day.

I had no idea about any of this. Therefore, I can’t claim superior knowledge of our nation’s history with race just because I know (better than political leaders in Virginia) to never paint my face black and “dress up” as an African-American. However, this year we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first black slaves ever brought to these shores, to the great state of – you guessed it – Virginia. And whatever events are planned for that occasion, I look forward to increasing my understanding of some dark chapters in the American saga.

I don’t think we need to be proud of everything we’ve stood for. But we can certainly take pride in facing hard truths, and acknowledging the pain of others. If we can manage to do just that, perhaps we might heal some of our national wounding, and face our current problems with honesty, compassion and justice.

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