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Melissa Harris Perry Lays Out The U.S. Wealth Gap In Black And White

I saw Melissa Harris Perry deliver the keynote speech for King Week at Emory University this past Tuesday. Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University, the new host of an unnamed MSNBC weekend show that debuts next month, and a columnist for The Nation magazine. There is something about attending King Week programs that has always made me feel my negro-ness, my african american-ness, my brown-ness all the way down to the tendrils of my DNA. It is one of those times of the year, especially in Atlanta, where positive African American stories and affirmations of black contributions to society are center stage.

After the program began, it took a few minutes for me to replace the image of the disembodied head shot that serves as Dr. Perry’s Twitter avatar with her feisty real life self that was talking and gesturing from the front of the room. And then something that I’ve seen more and more at these kinds of programs with each passing decade happened. The stated topic of her lecture, “King’s Legacy and the New Civil Rights Frontiers”, started to get in the way of what was actually happening in the world today, which in this case was the Republican debate in South Carolina that many of us in attendance had watched the night before. With the kind of references towards African Americans that some of the GOP’s candidates insisted on making during the Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach, it was obvious Dr. Perry would have been delighted to take the time she had to deconstruct it all.

But Dr. Perry stuck to her Powerpoint presentation, which was cool with me, because I like presentations where I learn something new. And details – specific, precise descriptions of how something real works or operates, which the good professor had in abundance. One of the most important parts of her presentation, where she talked about the huge wealth gap in America between blacks and whites, can actually be found almost word for word right here on the Big Think website. Dr. Perry is a part of our video library of experts, although on our site, she is catalogued under her previous name, Melissa Harris Lacewell. I’ve taken the time to transcribe the segment of the video I heard the good professor repeat on Tuesday because I think it is extremely important to call attention to a narrative you rarely see in our mainstream media.

“That wealth gap is a government created entity. When you look at America in about 1935 or 1940, there is no substantial thriving white middle class. There is mostly a white working and a white ownership or wealthy class. That middle class, that wealth gap right now, is driven primarily by the beneficiaries of the GI Bill, the FHA, the Interstate Transportation Act.

So in other words, in the years following WWII, our federal government looked out at the greatest generation and said to its citizens ‘you served your country well. In response, your country is going to invest in human capital through the GI Bill, in hard capital through the FHA to provide for you and your family moderately priced homes in good communities and neighborhoods where you can send your children to reasonable public schools, and by the way, we’ll build high quality interstates between your homes and these new suburban communities and into the cities where you will be able to actually come in and work and then return to your homes.’

Those types of policies of human capital, transportation, and hard capital in the form of housing were very real government based investments into a population and overnight, one generation – 20 years – you have a middle class that did not previously exist.

But because of the way those federal laws were written, they allowed state governments, particularly in the south, to not make those lending decisions, not make those GI Bill investments with African Americans soldiers who had served. So what that means is that right at that moment of investment, which has now grown over the generations, this is a large part of that eleven times wealth gap, is a result of really, really terrific government programs that invested in their people.”  

Melissa Harris Lacewell    What is the White community’s biggest misconception of the Black community

There was so much good information coming so fast that I wondered halfway through the program why I didn’t have a pen and a pad handy to take notes. There were a few other things I took away from Dr. Perry’s presentation. One of them was a shocking factoid—black women are the fastest growing demographic of our prison populations—that I will be exploring in more detail in this space in the coming weeks. Another was the notion that Hurricane Katrina still has as much of a hold on the psyche of the residents of New Orleans, where Dr. Perry lives, as the 9/11 does on the minds of New Yorkers City inhabitants.


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