The Impact and Malleability of Money Design

Christine Desan –

9780674970953Mehrsa Baradaran’s book teaches us that money has a color, an arresting proposition to fans and foes of capitalism alike.   As she points out, economic orthodoxy posits that the transactional medium is itself a formal instrument:  money expresses but does not affect the value of the substances it measures.  Critics of that orthodoxy agree even as they bemoan the results:  money denies through its very impersonality the social substrate of exchange.  Against that commonsense, Baradaran directs us to consider how the institutions of money creation in the United States – commercial banks – have systemically originated money in white hands over decades.  That is, considering money as a process – asking how value is packaged into the everyday units we call dollars and injected into circulation – reveals that we have designed a market that is racially discriminatory in its very medium.

Baradaran challenges us to recognize how much determinations about money’s design matter.  That proposition is particularly striking because they are also remarkably malleable:  altering the institutions that deliver credit in money can change the way people and groups relate to one another.  I want to underscore Baradaran’s argument about the practice of black banking by exploring an alternative vision.  Only when the monetary project of the agrarian populists failed did Americans settle on the exclusionary system that Baradaran describes.  The contrast suggests that designing money is shaping community; it can bring people together or set them at each other’s throats.

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Racial Myths, Market Myths, and the Policy Roots of Predatory Lending in 1970s Chicago

Beryl Satter – 

9780674970953In The Color of Money and in the opening post of this Symposium, Mehrsa Baradaran challenges the notion that markets exist outside of political power. What she shows for credit policy, I have shown for housing policy, particularly in my book, Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.  Here I’d like to discuss a shocking example of governmental policies shaping “markets,” or, rather, supporting investors to extract wealth from segregated black communities: the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act of 1968.

In 1968, after rebellions following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination finally focused Congressional attention, two laws were passed to address the problem of “the ghetto.”  First, the Fair Housing Act prohibited racial discrimination in the advertising, rental or sale of housing.  It included no significant enforcement mechanism.  Its solution to “ghetto” problems was to give those wealthy enough to move out the chance to do so.  “Fair housing does not promise to end the ghetto,” one senator admitted, but simply enables “those who have the resources to escape the… suffocating…inner cities of America.”

In contrast, the HUD Act attempted to address conditions within “suffocating… inner cities.” It created mortgage subsidy programs to help “lower income families in acquiring homeownership.”  It also reversed the workings of an earlier federal program that many felt had created ghettoes in the first place – the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)’s insured mortgage program.  Starting in the mid-1930s, FHA-insured mortgages had been denied to black or racially changing urban neighborhoods, thereby encouraging conventional lenders to similarly “redline,” or refuse to issue mortgages, in such areas.  In a major reversal, HUD specified that FHA-insured mortgage loans would be made in “older, declining urban areas.” Such areas need only be “reasonably viable” to qualify for FHA-insured loans.

The newly redirected FHA-insured mortgages were meant to spur the “resources…of private enterprise” to address the housing needs of “low income families.”  The HUD programs never acknowledged that racial segregation was unjust or even problematic.  Instead, they were built on the assumption that lending to blacks and Latinos was inherently risky. Those who needed protection were lenders, not borrowers.  HUD programs cosseted lenders active in what were euphemistically referred to as “certain neighborhoods”— that is, black, Latino, and racially changing ones — in ways so extreme that they damaged the very communities they were ostensibly created to help.

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Black Proprietorship and Crises of Value

Shirley E. Thompson –

9780674970953By shedding historical light on the development and practices of black banking, Mehrsa Baradaran’s excellent and thought-provoking The Color of Money demystifies some fundamental free market myths and strongly cautions against the widespread faith, among policymakers and activists alike, in banking as a means of overcoming long-entrenched and worsening racial disparities in wealth. In this response, I suggest that the history of black banking, even for its many failures, holds a unique perspective on property and its contradictions of value. It also contains a deep lesson about how economic strategies generate and are reinforced by affective practices—and how racist economic laws rested on public feelings of their own. The personal and the structural are closely interlinked.

From the debacle of the Freedmen’s Bank, to the rise of black-owned banks under Jim Crow, to the promotion of “empowerment zones” in more recent times, economically isolated black communities have consistently been urged to engage in “capitalism without capital.” Because black banks were cordoned off from their mainstream peer institutions, Baradaran shows, they could not effectively tap into the money multiplier effect, the means by which a bank stood on the good credit, financial security, and proprietor status of its patrons and generated value by lending its deposits through the system more broadly. Because black people did not own large stores of property, any wealth accumulated by black banks swiftly left black control as it sought greater prospects elsewhere: “once in the banking system,” Baradaran writes, “money flows towards more money.”

It is difficult to overstate the policy implications of Baradaran’s work. The story she tells of the institutional segregation and siphoning off of black wealth disarms the widely held premise that black poverty derives from some sort of cultural deficiency or a lack of personal financial literacy. By exposing the lure of “for-us, by-us” banking and “community empowerment” as “a decoy,” “an empty promise,” and a faulty basis for banking legislation and activism, she paves the way for a bolder vision and more creative experimentation in attempting to remedy a seemingly intractable racial inequality. Indeed, proposals such Darrick Hamilton’s and William A. Darity Jr.’s endorsement of “baby bonds” and Baradaran’s own call for the return of postal banking flow from such an understanding of the structural impact of racism on US political economy.

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Symposium: The Color of Money & Racial Capitalism

Mehrsa Baradaran –

9780674970953When I started research on the project that became The Color of Money, I wanted to write a book about racial disparities in access to credit. When I started digging into the history, I started to realize that there was a much bigger story here, one that undermined one of the most basic neoliberal myths about the free market. This history of black banks and the economy of segregation reveals how inextricably financial markets are tied to racial exploitation, and how the dominant economy can continue to extract from racially subordinated groups through “color-blind” market mechanisms.

I hope that the upcoming symposium on The Color of Money will help connect the historical work to contemporary law, building on LPE’s commitment to understanding and reversing the many structures of racial capitalism.

In particular, I try to debunk three market myths in the book:

  1. That money, markets, and trade exist outside the realm of political power
  2. That inequality is a natural byproduct of market forces rather than being created by the state
  3. And that people left outside of the structures of power can overcome their exclusion through local institutions or self-help

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