Racism cannot be separated from capitalism

May 30, 2018
By Yanique Redwood

In response to a lawsuit filed by attorney Aristotle Theresa against the District of Columbia alleging classism, racism and ageism embedded in the District’s housing policies, Dr. Derek Hyra, an American University professor and author of Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City, stated that “Developers want to maximize their return. This is not a conspiracy. This is capitalism.” The suggestion inherent in his quote is that land happens to be cheap in African-American communities and if developers buy low and sell high, well that’s just capitalism in action.

I wonder if Dr. Hyra and others who hold his position would refashion their thinking about capitalism if they more deeply considered its genesis in America. For example, the capitalism that drove the success of cotton and other industries was predicated on land stolen from Native Americans and the unpaid labor of African Americans. The capitalism that drives gentrification depends on a history of racism and segregation. Going back as far as the 1800s, African Americans in DC were relegated to alley housing with cramped living conditions and no plumbing. Later, African Americans would again be segregated into neighborhoods through redlining and restrictive deeds and covenants sanctioned by the federal government; these neighborhoods would then suffer from decades of disinvestment. It is not a coincidence that African-American neighborhoods have lower land values, fewer resources and poorer health outcomes. These were intentional actions, and these wrongs were never rectified.

I don’t know of any government entity that has reached out to the people who suffered under years of oppressive laws to say “We are sorry for this harm, and we will rectify this wrong.” Instead, our local governments forged ahead with policies, programs and services to treat the symptoms of these actions, oftentimes deriding communities along the way for the problems created by government action and inaction, rarely addressing the obvious root causes. And to add insult to injury, our governments then created new policies to displace African Americans and bring in new people to the District. The data are clear—these new people are white, affluent and young.

Mr. Theresa’s legal approach harkens back to the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully created gains for African Americans. But given the history of our judicial system as documented in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the barriers that have been erected requiring proof of racist intent, I am not sure that a legal battle alone will save us, though I know it is part of the solution.

I reached out to Dr. Ibram Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and professor at American University. He is glad to see this lawsuit. He stated, “The outcome of DC’s recent policies or lack thereof are indisputable: A declining percentage of Black people in the city Black people built. When I look for racial discrimination, I look for disparate outcome. I do not look for intent, which is easy to hide and extremely difficult to prove.”

In addition to legal approaches, the District needs a moral reckoning. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Morality cannot be legislated.” We must all come to terms with our past and how structural racism continues to play out in the policies and practices of local governments, developers, the business community, nonprofits, and philanthropic institutions. This reckoning is happening. Several jurisdictions in our region have passed racial equity resolutions. Grantmakers and community leaders are getting schooled through WRAG’s Putting Racism on the Table series. I see glimpses of it every day, and I am hopeful, but it isn’t fast enough. It isn’t urgent enough. Mr. Theresa’s lawsuits and others like it buy us time. What will we do with it?

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