‘Against All Odds’ Is Required Viewing for White Progressives

“Structural racism” has become a buzzword in white progressive circles.  But every time I push a white writer to break down the meaning behind the words without success, or I see a Black Lives Matter sign in an apartment window in a gentrified neighborhood where longtime residents of color are now priced out, I have to ask myself: How much we really know about the theoretically-woke words we’re throwing around?

We’re finally starting to call out racial disparities, but do we understand the history that creates them? We pledge our allegiance to inclusiveness and shared power, but do we examine the roles our own lives play in maintaining policies, practices, and cultures that continue to harm African-American friends and family, neighbors and coworkers?

It is for these reasons that I believe every white progressive (and, really, every white person) should see Bob Herbert’s new documentary, Against All Odds: The Fight for a Black Middle Class.

Herbert presents an airtight case of structural racism in America—and it’s a case I’m laying out at length here in case you don’t see the film. If we are going to throw these words around, we better understand their meaning and use that understanding to inform the work that we—white people—must do.

Lack of access to jobs, housing, and capital

When 6 million African Americans fled the horrors of the South during the Great Migration, they discovered new forms of discrimination and exclusion in the North. Some found work in factories, but most worked menial jobs—as servants, janitors, drivers, and cooks—while they were charged exorbitant rents for substandard housing in the worst neighborhoods.

One of the only pathways to the middle class that was available for black Americans was self-employment.  But without access to capital, it’s hard to grow a business. Herbert’s grandfather managed to open an upholstery business that staved off the worst of the Great Depression for his family. His father, too, opened two stores in the 1960s and ’70s.  But when his father was in a position to expand and compete with larger, white-owned businesses, he was locked out by the banks—and that was in New Jersey.

“They weren’t giving bank loans to guys who looked like my father,” Herbert says.

This lack of access to capital is a constant refrain throughout the black experience in America.  When black families could finally afford to move out of ghettos, banks wouldn’t give them mortgages.  Lenders took maps and drew red lines around neighborhoods where they wouldn’t loan to black families. (Hence the term “redlining.”)  Moreover, the federal government wouldn’t insure home loans for black people—it was literally written into the Federal Housing Administration handbook, according to former housing organizer Jack Macnamara.

As a result, black families often resorted to buying homes “on contract,” which meant purchasing them—at double or triple the value—from shady brokers on a monthly installment plan. There was no opportunity to build equity for black families—when they couldn’t make a payment they were simply tossed out and the seller would cut the same deal with another black family.  It is estimated that this legal practice drained at least $500 million from the black community in Chicago alone between 1940-1970 (and according to The Washington Post the practice is making a comeback).

Decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight.

Predatory schemes were still rampant in the lead up to the housing collapse in 2008.  Rather than having access to prime, fixed-rate home mortgages, black Americans earning annual salaries of $100,000 were more likely to receive toxic, subprime loans (think low teaser interest rates that later skyrocket) than white Americans with an income of just $30,000.  Major commercial banks actually incentivized these deals, paying mortgage brokers and loan officers more for the subprime loans and then selling them to eager investors who were promised higher returns.

“Businesses, banks, and brokers were deliberately wealth-stripping from communities of color,” says Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions.

When the housing market crashed, decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight. Today white families average about $113,000 in financial assets, while African American families average just $5,700. Rockeymoore notes that about one-third of African Americans have no assets at all.

Keeping blacks “in their place”

Racism wasn’t all institutional. Many white citizens and politicians have conspired to limit the social and economic advances of African Americans any time they felt their own status was threatened.

For example, beginning in the mid-1940s, thousands of whites in Chicago participated in a series of riots to keep single black families out of their neighborhoods. In 1951, when an army veteran attempted to move into a rented apartment with his family of four, they were stopped by a mob of 4,000 people that ransacked their belongings and then burned the entire building down. Similarly, in 1959, when a black family moved into their newly-purchased home, a mob of 5,000 people stoned the house, threw lit torches, and chanted “we want blood.”

The history of white rioting has been buried.

Author Beryl Satter says that the riots were “common” and yet the history of white rioting has been “buried.”

“When people think of violence and riots in the street, they always think of the 1960s when black people rioted. But when white people rioted, it doesn’t even have a name,” Satter says.

Meanwhile, politicians stoke hostility towards blacks in more subtle ways. The film includes remarkable audio of Lee Atwater, advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, discussing some of the tactics used to secure the votes of racist whites.

Atwater notes that politicians moved from saying “nigger, nigger, nigger” to more covert, racist talking points about “forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”  Atwater says elected officials have been forced to adopt “much more abstract” language—often called “dog-whistles”—to communicate that voting for them means “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Today’s more subtle forms of racism

Herbert’s interviews with black professionals render a vivid portrayal of what middle class African Americans continue to experience in their daily lives, even internally.

Karla Swinton, a marketing manager, talks about wearing “a mask” at work so that when she hears “racially offensive” things “you take it in stride, you take a breath, you keep moving.”

Z Scott, a partner at a major law firm and former federal prosecutor, talks about being asked to type for people, or being treated as incompetent and not deserving “the chair you are sitting in.”

“Black professionals, we’re all suppressing a certain amount of rage… and it’s something that you have to manage,” she says.

And then there is the inherent insecurity of trying to provide for one’s family, knowing that you haven’t benefitted from generations of government entitlements like tax deductions on mortgage interest, 401Ks, and health insurance—or even benefits under Social Security and the GI Bill—as white families have.

Swinton’s husband, Brent, a professional fundraiser, says, “Being black middle class means wherever you’ve arrived you’ve only been there just in the span of your life.” He describes driving through a nearby white suburb and reflecting, “There is something that takes place over more than one generation that allows them to pass along a much greater head start…. I want to do that for my kids.”

What to do in terms of action?

At a recent screening in the nation’s capital, Herbert spoke of his hopes for the film: “I want people to see things that they may not have been aware of. I want them to be appalled by it.  And I hope that people will take action and say ‘we are not going to tolerate this anymore.’”

Herbert was joined by Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who appears in the film and shares his own story of being the son and grandson of sharecroppers. Both men agreed that the easiest way to create change is simply to vote—including in off-year elections.

Progressives need to fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.

But progressives need to also fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.  We need to support candidates who will speak the truth about structural racism in our past and present, and fight for the new equitable policies that are needed if we are serious about equal opportunity—like targeted jobs programs, greater affordable housing, and increased public school funding in communities that have been historically and chronically disadvantaged by racist policies and actions.

Indeed, in the wake of the 2016 election, with so much focus on the white working class, we need to be more vigilant—and better students of history—if we are going to find real solutions.

Being a “white progressive” involves incessantly asking tough questions—of oneself, loved ones, and social circles—about the ways structural racism is threaded throughout our country, cultural norms, and day-to-day interactions. We are not entitled to comfort and confidence—those should be fleeting sensations.  There is much to learn and even more to do to truly combat and eradicate structural racism.

As Herbert says towards the end of the film: “I don’t even think the full story of overt racism in this country has been well told… The more subtle forms of discrimination are not addressed at all.  People pretend that those subtle forms—which are incredibly debilitating—don’t even exist.”

Author’s note: For screenings at your school, workplace, or other venue, contact:



It’s Time to Stop Shaming Students When Their Parents Can’t Pay the Lunch Bill

Last spring, a third grader in an Alabama elementary school walked into the cafeteria to get lunch. But because his lunch account was running low, he was stamped on the arm by a school employee with the words “I need lunch money” for all his peers to see.

Across the country, schools are using similar tactics to humiliate students with outstanding lunch bills. According to a troubling 2014 report from the United States Department of Agriculture, almost half of all school districts used some form of lunch shaming to get parents to pay outstanding bills. These tactics range from making children clean the cafeteria, to forcing them to wear a special wristband, to replacing their hot lunches with alternate food, to throwing away a student’s lunch right in front of their eyes—and the eyes of their peers.

School lunch debt is not an isolated problem—76 percent of school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. But stigmatizing children by singling them out in these cruel and public ways is a complete betrayal of our values as a nation. No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

For many of our most vulnerable children, school lunches provide their most nutritious—or in some cases, their only—meal of the day. Good nutrition gives children a solid foundation for the rest of their lives. It builds their brains, aids the development of their immune systems, and sets them on course for healthy growth. But when children do not receive nutritious food, we see instances of poor academic performance, especially among elementary-age children in math and reading.

Instead of shaming children or putting their health on the line, schools should work with parents to find solutions for the underlying issue. Fortunately, there has been some progress to stop this abhorrent practice. In March, New Mexico passed the first law in the United States to prohibit lunch shaming, setting an example the rest of the country should follow.

That is why I am proud to join Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) to introduce the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, which would ban schools from singling out children because their parents have not paid their school meal bills. The bill would prohibit shaming tactics, including the practice of throwing a child’s meal away rather than extending credit for meals. It would shift direct communications about debt to the parent, not the child. This is how it ought to be—a child should not be a go between for an institution and a parent.

The time has come to ensure that students no longer walk into the cafeteria afraid of humiliation. We have a moral obligation to end lunch shaming once and for all.


First Person

Pell Grants Put Me Through College. Now Trump Wants to Cut Them.

I started college when my daughter was only 14 months old. We had been homeless six months earlier. My life up until I discovered I was pregnant had been blissfully unplanned. I worked a lot at random jobs, and figured someday—when I finally admitted I was a writer who would take writing seriously—I’d settle down and go to college.

But the pregnancy was unplanned, too. So was the abuse from the father. So was him kicking us out in the middle of a particularly snowy winter in northwest Washington.

A few months before my daughter Mia’s first birthday, I worked with a friend, eagerly taking up the slack in his landscaping business. I crawled through flowerbeds and junipers and pulled weeds. By the time the season ended, Mia and I had an apartment paid for mostly by a housing grant. But I knew if I expected anyone to hire me for a job with benefits, I needed a degree.

My parents didn’t raise me with an expectation that I would go to college. When I approached my dad with a list of schools I wanted to apply to during my junior year of high school, he said, “Who do you think’s gonna pay for that?” So I moved out of my parents’ house and went to work full-time for over a decade. That had seemed all right. Respectable, even. But now I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

I was able to go to college, and get the degree I knew I needed, because of a grant the federal government provides to low-income students—the Pell Grant. It covered my entire tuition at my local community college, leaving me a few hundred bucks to live off of. I crept along that way. I found full-time work as a maid. I worked late at night, often past midnight, and through the weekends when my daughter was with her dad.

I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

Transferring to a four-year college, for me, meant moving to a different state. I moved to the place I’d intended to go before I became a mom. I moved because, when I visited, I found a progressive community that’d be supportive of a single mom working her way through college. I moved because I needed to hold myself accountable to my dream of being a writer that I’d had since I was ten. I needed my daughter to see me pursue that dream, and not settle for anything less, because I never wanted her to think life wouldn’t afford her the same opportunity.

By that time, I paid for books and tuition with the Pell Grant and a scholarship created for survivors of domestic violence. I also took out the maximum amount of student loans to cover living expenses through the school year when I was only able to work part-time as a maid.  I lived off of a little over $1,000 a month, and my daughter bounced from preschool to the various homes of classmates when I worked or attended class. Neighbors watched her for free, and I rented the other bedroom of our apartment in exchange for help with child care.

Since I was juggling work and child care, I couldn’t take a full course load during the semesters. Instead, I took classes every summer. When the summer courses finished, I worked 10- to 12-hour days doing move-out cleans, landscaping gigs, and any other work I could find until the academic year began again.

A month before my daughter turned seven, she watched me walk across the stage to get my bachelor’s degree.

A year later, I was working full-time as a freelance writer. A year after that, I celebrated my first book deal for a memoir about my time in college, when I worked as a maid. We no longer need government assistance, but we only got here because it was there for us when we did need it. Especially the Pell Grant.

These budget cuts keep people shut behind closed doors.

In his recent budget, President Trump proposed cutting the Pell Grant’s surplus funds by $3.9 billion.  That surplus was set aside, with bipartisan support, so that recipients can attend summer school like I did. Trump also wants to cut funds for the work study program and TRIO, which mentors, tutors, and finds resources for students in need—including low-income single moms.

Trump’s plan to cut this funding will diminish opportunities for first generation students, single parents, disabled students, and low-income populations to get an education.  All that does is keep the cycle of poverty spinning. It keeps people shut behind closed doors, with the belief that opportunities just aren’t available to them.  It hurts students who can’t get the support they need through their families—because their family has no money, or no one has ever gone to college, or no one expected them to go, either.

I write today as a success story, heartbroken that others won’t have the same opportunity I did. Decreasing funds for these programs puts up road blocks that stop people in poverty from ever setting foot on a college campus, all for the sake of tax breaks for the wealthy that leave the path of the privileged pristine.



Why Trump’s Supporters Haven’t Abandoned Him

Just 100 days into his presidency, Americans no longer expect President Donald Trump to keep the promises that got him elected. He walked back his promises on China, delivered nothing on his pledge to create infrastructure jobs, and—instead of “draining the swamp”—filled his cabinet with billionaires tied to corporate interests. The policies he has supported would do real harm to some of his staunchest supporters—white men without a college degree. Yesterday’s House vote on the American Health Care Act, also known as Trumpcare, will kick millions off their insurance. And he has proposed the elimination of half of the federal programs designed to help workers in coal country, and flirted with trade wars.

Nevertheless, 96 percent of the people who voted for Trump say they’d make the same decision today.

When I was growing up—in the 1970s, in the deep South—I struggled to understand why some low-income white Southerners voted against their own interests. They dismissed unions, and supported politicians that let their states lag behind the rest of the country in every indices of health, livelihood, and employment.  They routinely supported candidates who opposed everything from access to affordable childcare, to unemployment benefits and investing in good jobs, to Medicaid expansion today.

But now I realize they’re not voting for policy. They’re voting for white privilege.

They’re voting for white privilege.

White privilege runs deep in America, and it still shapes white concepts of social standing and entitlement. Those entitlements can be symbolic—for example, the power that whites have in the South to maintain Confederate emblems with public prominence and high esteem. They can also be very literal, as with public policies that help whites build and sustain wealth while keeping doors of opportunity closed to blacks (think redlining, predatory lending, unequal access to higher education, and lack of investment in communities of color). That helps explain why black people in poverty have higher death rates than white people in poverty.

Perhaps because it plays such a central role in life in America, “white privilege” is not a comfortable phrase to say—not now, and certainly not in my childhood. Back then, Southerners only used this term—or its counterpart, “white supremacy”—to indicate that someone supported the Ku Klux Klan.

Most white Americans still prefer to define racism in those overt terms. It’s a convenient approach that limits discussion of racism to bygone “whites only” signs and burning crosses, and that argues inequality in our schools ended in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Few people—and even fewer white people—ever spoke the way famed basketball coach Greg Popovich did recently when he called out white privilege for what it really is:

If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage educationally, economically, culturally in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, a neighborhood sense with laws, zoning, education.  We have huge problems… that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve… People don’t really want to face it.

Our most pernicious social ills—the ones that create the privilege that Popovich described, and that many of Trump’s voters cling to—are rooted in policies that were designed to target people of color. We can measure racism by the impact of redlining and toxic mortgages. We can see it in the justice system, where black defendants receive twice as severe sentences as whites convicted of the same crimes. We can find it in classrooms that are still highly segregated, leaving children of color in schools that receive dramatically fewer resources.

America is essentially a racist nation—riddled by racial markers—that is levying its harshest economic and psychological toll on the 1 in 3 African American children and more than 1 in 4 Hispanic children who live in poverty.

Trump appeals to a strain of American racism

Trump appeals to a strain of American racism every time he calls for a border wall, or calls inner cities “a disaster,” or swears he’ll ban Muslims from entering the country. That is what many of his voters—who are disproportionately likely to hold dehumanizing views of black people—want.

By backing Trump, conservatives have coalesced around maintaining a racially divided nation, and so progressives must now coalesce against it. Decisively.

Unfortunately, liberal politicians hoping to woo white voters have also skirted acknowledging white privilege, out of fear that talk about race will strain coalitions. Even the progressive hero Bernie Sanders was slow to talk about racial disparities in America  at the beginning of his presidential campaign—before Black Lives Matter activists protested at his rallies. Silence concerning white privilege is a form of complicity.  It’s the hypocritical denial of reality experienced by blacks that fosters disunity between minorities and white progressives, and discourages minority voters.

The time has come for whites who understand what white privilege means—and who know in their hearts that they want no part of it—to join people of color in a way which is neither compromised nor complicit. Then, through shared power, people of color and white progressives can grow our political strength.



The House Just Voted to Put People With Disabilities One Step Closer to Institutions

This afternoon, House Republicans voted to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, slash hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, and otherwise harm the health care of seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and the vast majority of Americans. The American Health Care Act (AHCA), or Trumpcare, is an extraordinary statement of contempt towards any member of the public who might actually need health care in the coming years (hint: that’s all of us).

Though some of the damage that this bill does has been well publicized, there is a particularly odious impact of Trumpcare getting very little attention: It threatens to force seniors and people with disabilities into nursing homes and institutions.

For the last several decades, disability rights advocates have fought to expand funding for Medicaid-funded home and community-based services, so that seniors and people with disabilities can live in their own homes, control their own lives, and be fully included in society. Thanks to generations of advocacy, millions of Americans with disabilities receive Medicaid-funded home care today.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, legislators started to prioritize funding for programs that provide people with disabilities with services in their homes, rather than relegating those who require additional support to institutions and nursing homes. Through the ACA, Congress created several programs designed to reward states with additional Medicaid funds if they expanded in-home care for seniors and people with disabilities.

The AHCA sunsets this program in 2020

One of the most successful of these programs is the Community First Choice State Option (CFC), which provides funding for services that help seniors and people with disabilities get out of bed, dress, and perform other activities necessary for daily life. A 2015 review of the four states that have been using the CFC the longest found that the program was serving over 500,000 people—today, that number is likely much larger. But the AHCA sunsets this program in 2020, cutting about $12 billion in funding from in-home care from seniors and people with disabilities over the next decade.

That is only a small part of the $839 billion in Medicaid cuts AHCA imposes overall, which themselves will devastate Medicaid-funded services to seniors and people with disabilities across the country. AHCA also sets “caps” on each states’ Medicaid funding that will grow at a much slower rate than the existing Medicaid funding system, cutting hundreds of billions of funding over the next decade relative to current law. In addition, the caps also freeze in place state funding decisions at the time they’re made—so a state that offered relatively stingy benefits to people with disabilities or children in 2017 would no longer be able to access additional federal funds to expand those services in the future.

Some Republican House members realized the harm AHCA will cause to their constituents with disabilities. Rep. Daniel Webster (FL-10) bemoaned the likely impact AHCA’s Medicaid cuts would have on seniors living in his district, so he introduced an amendment to exempt nursing homes from AHCA’s caps on Medicaid funding during the March push to pass the bill. The amendment did not offer protections for home care, so it actually would have worsened Medicaid’s longstanding bias in favor of institutional care.

The GOP leadership still refused to adopt Webster’s amendment. For them, even weak protections for seniors and people with disabilities go too far.

Despite stating clearly on Tuesday that his “concern that Florida will be penalized under the American Health Care Act because demand for Medicaid-funded nursing home beds has not been fixed,” Webster voted in favor of the American Health Care Act today—in exchange for “assurances” from the Trump White House that his concerns will be addressed in the future.

Republicans in the House continue to put their faith in Donald Trump, instead of insisting on meager protections of their own constituents’ needs. For too many members of Congress, the needs of seniors and people with disabilities are taking a backseat to trusting Donald Trump —and advancing his health care bill—at all costs.