Guest columnist Alan Lipp: The structures of racism are no longer invisible

  • In this July 26, 1990 file photo, President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. AP

Published: 6/22/2021 2:54:30 PM

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn there were no disabled people. I’m quite sure of it. I can’t recall ever seeing a person in a wheelchair. Not on my street, or in my school, or on the D-train. There weren’t any in Coney Island; none in Prospect Park or the Bronx Zoo. None visiting the Hayden Planetarium; none in my synagogue. And no one in my six-story apartment building used a wheelchair either. There were no disabled people, see?

This was in the 1950s, four decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. I realize now that I never saw people in wheelchairs because every building and every street corner was a barrier. There were no ramps, no curb cuts and no accessible public toilets. Municipal buildings, libraries and museums were all off limits. There might as well have been signs saying, “People in wheelchairs not welcome.”

This was a time when there still were signs saying “Jews and Negroes need not apply,” but I didn’t see those either. The racism in New York was more subtle than that, almost as well hidden as the wheelchairs.

The invisibility of wheelchairs is an example of structural inequality. Wheelchair-bound people were excluded from public life by the physical structures of the city. It took an enlightened law to provide the access that invited people with various limitations to join public life.

Today we hear a lot about “structural racism.” But what structures? There are no signs proclaiming, “Whites Only,” or “Coloreds use the back of the bus.” Thankfully, those physical remnants of Jim Crow are long gone even in the South. In their place, however, are less visible structures carrying the same messages. They were all around me when I was growing up, but I never saw them. And that was the point.

In the 1930s as the country emerged from the Great Depression there was, as today, a mortgage crisis. Millions were in danger of losing their homes. In response, the federal government set out to evaluate the riskiness of mortgages. The Home Owners Loan Corporation was established during the New Deal to refinance mortgages in default and homes already foreclosed. It examined thousands of neighborhoods and graded millions of homes as good, risky or hazardous. The hazardous ones were marked on their maps in red, giving us the now infamous term “redlining.” The red zones were largely areas where African Americans had settled.

Redlining has now been outlawed, but its effects are still with us. Those areas marked hazardous receive less federal funding and fewer grants to homeowners and small businesses. Implementing mortgage relief along racial lines is resulted in black ghettos avoided by big business, which resulted in fewer jobs, fewer services, longer commutes and higher prices for residents.

This helps account for the wealth gap, the health gap, and the education gap between whites and Blacks today. And it was all done deliberately.

I knew nothing of this growing up in Bensonhurst. All I knew was that Blacks were as hard to see as wheelchairs. I grew up not knowing any Black families, with only movie and television stereotypes to help form my understanding of this hidden race. So redlining not only impoverished Black families financially, they impoverished white families who knew blacks only through “Gone With the Wind,” “Amos and Andy” and “Tarzan.”

So while the legal structures of racism were largely dismantled in the 1960s, the most insidious and most invisible structure remains. It is the stereotypes we breathed in as children. It is what made me cross the street as a young man if I saw a Black man approaching me. It is what made my parents have our once-a-week Black housekeeper eat by herself in the kitchen. It is what continues today in what is taken as normal business practice.

I heard one bitter example of this last May. A Black single woman wanted to refinance her house and when the appraisal came in far below what she believed the house was worth she tried a different company with the same result. Finally, she asked a white friend to pretend she was the homeowner. The third appraisal more than doubled the value of the property now that it was for a white woman.

I don’t think all of these appraising companies are run by rabid racists. I think it is far more likely that they still believe in their hearts the myths that called such properties hazardous nearly a century ago. This final barrier to social justice is the most difficult to overcome because it is the most difficult to see. Until recently it was as invisible as were wheelchairs in my Brooklyn.

There were physical structures as well, but we were all trained not to see them. Al Jolson singing, “My Old Kentucky Home,” in blackface and Confederate statues throughout the South and in the halls of Congress itself were there to remind African Americans of their place in society. What I saw as normal was anything but. Jolson’s home was a place where slaves suffered unimaginable brutality. The monuments of generals were celebrating traitors to the American dream of united states. I would have been shocked to see a statue of Benedict Arnold or Quisling, but I was numb to these statues.

But the monuments are toppling. Today we can read about different appraisals for the same property, we can see videos of police murdering Blacks, and we can see the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy being paraded through our Capital on Jan 6. The structures of racism are no longer invisible to anyone willing to look.

Alan Lipp lives in South Deerfield.

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