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White House Watch: The Hazards/Opportunities of Rising Expectations

This Juneteenth, things have really changed, with pollsters saying never before has US public opinion changed so dramatically and so fast as in the 26 days since the gruesome killing of George Floyd. If only history showed that such turning points were typically the beginning of more easily achieved improved circumstances, like for those carrying “Black Lives Matter” banners across the country.

It can happen if black and white society is braced for the big challenges still ahead that may have been amplified rather than diminished and remain to be resolved in law.

A certain old fossil of a reporter, slightly injured covering the 1968 race riots, has seen it go the other way.

Alexis de Tocqueville, whose insights about America back in the 1850s proved to be accurate enough to survive time’s test, sets the stage. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested.”

So now it seems the legacy of slavery that can be measured by so many metrics, to which white America has been chronically oblivious, has reached the intolerable stage. Those metrics have been so obvious for anyone who looked, and so repeatedly suppressed, even erased by deficient textbooks and convenient history, that every time they have been resurrected into public consciousness it seems inevitable that justice will prevail.

There was that feeling among many after the convulsions of the ‘60s. One of those metrics that at the time seemed so powerful somehow receded back into the murky depths of the re-established status quo. With this one metric you don’t need any other illustrations of slavery’s legacy to realise its hold on even modern America.

In fact the disparities that are its ingredients are so overwhelmingly large they may not be believed unless you look them up for yourself. If they are unfamiliar look up how much the tax breaks over the years, mandated by law, have added up for generations of the white population and how little for the black population.

Do we mean the mortgage interest deduction, that has pumped close to a hundred billion dollars a year – its deflated equivalent in past years – to homeowners? Do we mean homeownership equity, against which college educations and small businesses can be financed, for those who own homes. And what proportion of American homes are owned by blacks? By whites?

Sure, the mortgage interest linked to home ownership is a big part of it but just a part. The tax law actually directs a lot more in breaks for those who can enjoy lower tax rates on dividends and long-term capital gains. What’s the proportion of the black population that owns stocks?

There’s the deductibility of state and local income, sales and personal property taxes. There are deductions for contributions to the old-style pensions, most of which went to those with higher incomes.

So starkly less home ownership and income means the black population has received a trickle of tax breaks over decades compared to whites, a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, inequitably dispensed by the federal government and tolerated by many, many Congresses.

Accumulated black family wealth, therefore, is a tiny fraction of accumulated white family wealth. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family ($17,150), says the Brookings Institution, using 2016 figures. All the numbers have all been carefully tabulated year after year by foundations and academics and other researchers and are freely available with a few key clicks. Up to now, though, facts without follow-up. Again, it’s all become intolerable for perhaps the majority of whites as well as blacks. A lot of catching up to do.

So there is a science of expectations versus disappointment, again with research easily Googled. There is in addition a history of expectations versus disappointment, not a happy story.

Rising expectations can be among the very most powerful societal developments. Denied so long expectations ignited can power a breakthrough that changes the world, though maybe not by way of an easy transition.

After the late ‘60s the societal reaction hardened and there was an only muted transition that fell short. This time could be different.

Colin Lambert

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