At a time where we can say that a black person has been President of the United States and at a time when the Vice President of the United States is currently a woman of black and Asian descent, it can feel as though race, skin color, and racism are no longer problems. It can feel as though we have overcome the shackles of the darkest truth of our collective history and as though there is no longer a ceiling for anyone willing to work hard and strive toward big goals. However, the truth is that our history of racism is still with us and still impacts the lives of many people across the country.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond shows how this is the case within the world of housing policy and low income renters. He writes, “over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments.” For almost all of American history, property ownership for black people was deliberately limited and threatened, beginning with the ownership of one’s own body. Slavery took ownership of one’s body away from black slaves and the end of slavery perpetuated this loss of ownership of ones body through Jim Crow laws, forced prison labor, share cropping, and other forms of disenfranchisement for people of color. Without being able to own property, whether in the form of their body, the form of common goods, or the form of reliable housing, black people were kept from the institutions which allowed white people to establish long lasting families and inter-generational wealth.
Black people were forced into ghettos over time, and even when explicit segregation was overturned, implicit segregation remained. Black people were exploited, their properties, businesses, and neighborhoods undervalued and disinvested. The legacy of this history cannot be erased simply by one man becoming president and one woman attaining the office of vice president. The long term community disinvestment that black people have experienced will take years – and likely targeted policy – to overcome. It won’t happen on its own, and it won’t happen overnight.