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Recessions Are Racist (but They Don’t Have to Be)

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Anthony Hamilton’s voice sounds the way a recession feels: full of struggle and loss. In 2008, as the US economy came crashing down, the North Carolina crooner deployed his tenor in the ballad “Cool.” He wanted folks to hear that it didn’t take much money to have a good time. He sang that when all else withers, “we can fill up on love alone.” It was a beautiful song, but it was no match for Wells Fargo’s “ghetto loans.”

As the country fell deep into recession, black communities plummeted even further, into what Princeton scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. terms the Great Black Depression. Targeted by predatory mortgages for “mud people,” as Wells Fargo officials called them, then left behind by a color-blind stimulus package, black folks felt the financial crisis acutely. White unemployment hit a high of 9 percent to black unemployment’s 17. While 4.5 percent of white recent borrowers lost their homes, 8 percent of black recent borrowers lost theirs. The fall was tremendous, with black America losing half its wealth.

Ten years later, it has yet to rebound, and as global growth slows, as Donald Trump’s tariffs bite and the recession warning signals blare, America must proactively attack racialized inequality, or else racialized inequality will once again ravage America.

“‘Recession’ is a very scary word for black people in this country,” says labor economist and City University of New York professor Michelle Holder. In her book African American Men and the Labor Market During the Great Recession, she asserts that as unemployment rose in the last recession, the severity of workplace discrimination did, too. The swelling supply of labor activated employers’ bigoted preferences like an enzyme. In 2010, 18.4 percent of black men were unemployed—a higher proportion than for any other racial or ethnic group. “It’s the old adage that if white America gets a cold, black folks get the flu,” she says. “All economic indicators support that.”

Black women, too, feel exacting pain during downturns. They often work in sectors more sensitive to economic fluctuations, and since many are the breadwinners in single-parent households, when they lose their jobs, their whole family is imperiled. “As a female black economist, when I hear the term ‘recession,’ my thoughts automatically go to the black community, which will be hit harder than the white community,” Holder says. “That’s just going to happen. So we need to prepare.”

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Thanks !

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