When he was still in office, President Barack Obama liked to take an optimistic tone when talking about progress in a general way. It might be hard work, he argued, but the result of that work was always forward momentum.
“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress,” he said.
Any rational analysis of our times would indicate he’s right. In his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” the well-known linguist, psychologist and philosopher Stephen Pinker lays out a pretty convincing scientific case that, despite the headlines we read, humans have never been safer and more prosperous than they are now.
While my rational side “knows” this to be true, a steady diet of news often leaves me wondering. For every step forward on the road to progress, it’s hard not to see so many steps in the opposite direction.
The obvious data points here are the biggest headlines. Another mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at a public high school in Parkland, Fla., is the third mass shooting in six months to claim double digit lives. And again, we are left asking the same questions about solving gun violence that have been asked for more than a generation.
One story that definitely left me thinking that the road to progress is really just a hamster wheel was last week’s report by Aaron Glantz and Emmanuel Martinez for the Center for Investigative Reporting and published by WHYY that revealed remarkable racial bias in bank lending in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia.
The story found that, while banks had loaned $154 million to white home buyers, they had denied nearly twice that amount in loan requests from African American home loan applicants. The news prompted Point Breeze councilman Kenyatta Johnson to call for hearings.
“I was disturbed to learn that Philadelphia’s home loan market has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, reminiscent of old redlining practices,” he said in a statement. “The data, compiled and analyzed by The Center for Investigative Reporting, is alarming. After controlling for a number of different variables – including income level and loan amount – it still shows a significant disparity in the rates of denial for black and Latino applicants in the market for home purchase loans and home repair loans.”
As any student of recent history knows, “redlining” was a component of federal lending practices after the New Deal’s Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation stepped in to issue home loans during a time when lenders and borrowers were understandably skittish. As beneficial as the FHA was for the economy, it refused to make similar loans in black and other minority communities. Maps kept by the HOLC from the era show whole neighborhoods marked for “no lending.” They were redlined.
That a practice like redlining – one that was fought in the courts during the Johnson Administration – would once again rear its ugly head, is not a hopeful sign for the constant march of progress. As residents of Philadelphia and the U.S., we need to demand better.