Yes, Institutional Racism is Real
This is the second in an irregular series on Building an Anti-Racist Conservatism. The opening post is here.
Conservatives have spent all kinds of bandwidth castigating the concept of white privilege and institutional racism – and in the process, we have politically handicapped ourselves for no good reason whatsoever.
I’m old enough to remember when conservatives made the effort to explain the errors of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the late 20th century, “that man” and the welfare state he sponsored were still debated on the American political right.
Yet one policy – arguably the most egregious – was largely left undiscussed. FDR made racial segregation the law of the land. Ta-Nehisi Coates provides the hideous details.
In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.
“A government offering such bounty to builders and lenders could have required compliance with a nondiscrimination policy,” Charles Abrams, the urban-studies expert who helped create the New York City Housing Authority, wrote in 1955. “Instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.”
In other words, the most successful political Democrat in American history instituted a policy specifically aimed at making it harder for Black Americans to acquire property. If that isn’t institutional racism, then nothing is.
Yet for all my time in conservative and Republican politics (since 1988), the first I heard of the Federal Housing Apartheid was in 2014. Not a single Republican has ever bothered to put forth any kind of way to redress a thirty-plus year government distortion of property markets. Indeed, removing that hideous policy (which finally was repealed in 1968) was more popular among the Democrats who imposed it than the Republicans who initially opposed it (GovTrack).
To which I can only ask: why?
The conservative movement has spent decades – rightly so – talking about the unintended consequences of various government policies. They – we – have railed against plans that we believe would change political climates for the worst. I can’t count the number of times I have read conservatives warn against government creating a culture of dependency among the populace.
Yet we cannot consider the possibility that racists past and present could stamp their hatreds on government policies?
We weren’t always like this. Conservatives used to recognize that government policy could hurt Blacks disproportionately: Davis-Bacon, government school monopolies, etc. We were more than willing to acknowledge that institutional racism really did exist; it was even one of our reasons for skepticism of big government in general.
I’m not sure what happened. Maybe hearing the left talk about white privilege triggered our anti-left impulses beyond reason. Maybe time eroded our memories of how racist FDR’s welfare state actually was.
Or … maybe I was one of the few conservatives who really cared about this, as opposed to using it to disguise the white supremacism until Donald Trump gave the impression the ruse was no longer necessary.
Whatever the reason, conservatives have by and large sought comfort in denial, leaving the entire field to the left. This is not good for conservatism – or for the country.
White supremacy is now part of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian arsenal against democracy. It must be fought by all patriotic Americans – and especially conservative Americans. That includes white supremacy that has survived within our institutions over the years and decades. Otherwise, conservatives and Republicans risk going down in history defined by supporting Big Government for Whites Only.