Footsteps of racial equality

Landmark cases aimed at correcting economic discrimination show how acknowledging past injustices moves societies toward fairness.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Olly Sholotan sits on knoll at Bruce's Beach, a seafront parcel on Manhattan Beach that was taken from Black owners nearly a century ago under eminent domain laws. Last week Los Angeles County formally gave it back to the Bruce family.

The International Monetary Fund projects that the wealth gap between white and Black people will cost the U.S. economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in lost consumption and investment during the 10-year span ending in 2028.

That offers one measure of the persistent disparities arising from a long history of structural discrimination in the U.S. economy. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged that harm. It reached a $24 million settlement with a Philadelphia mortgage company accused of deliberately denying credit to Black and Latino families. It is the second-largest “redlining” case in the agency’s history. The agreement requires Trident Mortgage Co. to invest $20 million in new housing loans in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

“Trident’s unlawful redlining activity denied communities of color equal access to residential mortgages, stripped them of the opportunity to build wealth, and devalued properties in their neighborhoods,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. The company has denied any wrongdoing.

That settlement followed another landmark restitution. Last week Los Angeles County formally handed back a 3-acre beachfront parcel seized under eminent domain laws from a Black family nearly a century ago. The property is estimated to be worth $20 million today.

“It is never too late to right a wrong,” said County Supervisor Janice Hahn. “We have set the precedent, and it is the pursuit of justice.”

These two cases won’t be easy to replicate (the return of the beach property to the Bruce family required a lengthy legislative and legal process). But they reflect how a widening acknowledgment of the systemic causes of economic inequality is resulting in an earnest pursuit of reconciliation and redress.

In January, 143 mayors signed a Compact on Racial Equity, dedicating themselves – as Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, put it – to “being held accountable for specific action in [our] communities to advance racial justice.” Across the United States, nearly 250 cities and counties have declared racism a public health crisis.

“There are, of course, moral, legal, microeconomic, and other reasons to promote a more just and equitable society,” wrote Janis Bowdler, counselor for racial equity, and Benjamin Harris, assistant secretary for economic policy, last week in a new series of blog posts on discrimination and economic policy by the U.S. Treasury Department. “The economic cost of racial inequality is borne not just by the individuals directly faced with limited opportunities, but also has spillovers to the entire U.S. economy.”

Societies become more just and compassionate gradually, through gestures and reforms that are not always widely evident or immediately felt. In the U.S., they may be gaining traction.

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