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Race is Reality, Not Illusion, by Clarence Page

ClarencePage Opponents of affirmative action will find a lot to dislike in the PBS series Race: The Power of an Illusion.

Judging by its title, it would appear to give further aid and comfort to those who already feel that race no longer matters in America.

Indeed, it does offer a wide array of historians, biologists, sociologists and legal scholars to methodically deconstruct what most of us might view as racial characteristics.

But, after showing that race is more of a social and political construct than a biological fact, the three-part series examines why and how race was constructed in America and how your race still can affect your life changes and opportunities.

That's not what opponents of affirmative action want to hear.

"I don't see race," the modern narrative goes. "I see people. My family didn't own any slaves. We came here with nothing, we worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Why don't your people do that?"

Left out of the narrative is the array of opportunities for jobs, housing, education and wealth accumulation that were open only to whites -- or to those who could pass for white.

The final episode is particularly suited to those who want to know why nonwhites did not advance as rapidly as whites did after the great wave of 23 million newcomers arrived, mostly from eastern and southern Europe, between 1880 and 1920.

The Europeans were regarded as not-quite-white, but, at least, in the transitional stages of becoming white.

They would receive the hardest, poorest-paying and most dangerous jobs, often alongside blacks, Mexicans, Chinese and members of other allegedly "inferior" races already here.

But the process of "becoming white" opened doors to unions, among other benefits, that locked nonwhites into low-paying jobs or kept them out altogether.

And government programs significantly protected and encouraged racial inequality, even during Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."

And, the Federal Housing Authority, created in the 1930s to help families obtain easy-term home loans, followed national appraisal rules that judged any neighborhood containing nonwhites, regardless of their education or income, to be "unstable" and therefore less worthy of financing.

The result, as black home-buying opportunities opened in the 1960s, would be "white flight" spurred by unscrupulous real-estate agents.

The impact of this disinvestment was well-described by Larry Adelman, the series' executive producer, in an NPR interview when he compared the Long Island house his parents paid $20,000 for in the 1950s with the one that the parents of his black associate, Cornelius Moore, bought for the same price in Chester, Penn.

The Adelman house, in a neighborhood where Mr. Moore's parents would have been barred by their race, sold for $300,000 in 1990. The Moores' house sold three years ago for $29,500.

"Cornelius and I have made the same money, exactly same salary," Mr. Adelman said, "Yet, my net worth is several times that of his."

Today, average net worth (your assets minus your debts) for blacks is less than half that of whites, a gap that actually has grown since the 1960s, according to various experts. A major reason is the head start that today's generation received from the racially biased access to home ownership, the biggest item in most American families' nest eggs.

Since Mel Martinez became President Bush's Housing and Urban Development secretary, he has launched some innovative programs such as the American Dream Downpayment Initiative, aimed at helping 40,000 more minority and low-income families make downpayments on new homes.

Modest as this outreach effort may be, I've actually heard some affirmative action opponents criticize it as "reverse discrimination."

If by that they mean "reversing" the legacy of past "discrimination," they're right. But instead of opposing such action, they should applaud it. Before you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it helps to have boots.


This editorial was published in the Palm Beach Post, May 2, 2003. Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is cpage@tribune.com.

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