I grew up in a HUD home. My parents were young and my father’s job paid little to nothing. He had turned the G.I. Bill into a college education and was offered a job as a high school teacher. They applied for a subsidy and whomever it was in charge at the time decided to give my folks a break and they became homeowners in part on the taxpayer’s dime. My family lived in this home for more than thirty years and once all six of us children were gone and my parents retired, they were able to sell that home at more than four times its original value. This sale funded their dream retirement home and has enabled them to live a life where they routinely serve others and give to those in their new community and family.
That was a great home.
When we look at today’s problems surrounding race and poverty it is easy to forget how we got here. It is even easier to misunderstand why we are still here now. Often times people like me, white middle class folks who are trying to be good people, disregard accusations of racism, whether leveled at us personally (which almost never happens) or more likely at American society in general. We reject these accusations because we just don’t see it. We often don’t see it because we don’t really know what we are looking at.
So let’s look at my family’s HUD home.
I grew up in a stable household in large part because someone did something good. Someone signed an application or approved a form that gave my parent’s an opportunity. Maybe they deserved it, I like to think they did, but they got a house they wouldn’t have been able to afford on their own. That is a great thing. I consider the fact that I didn’t grow up in a public housing project a good thing. Not that projects are inherently bad, but most projects are rougher and more volatile environments than the one I enjoyed during my formative years. There were other HUD homes in the area of course, but I have no idea which one’s they were; they didn’t have signs in the front yard. Everyone knows which developments are projects. I’ll bet that whoever owns that house now has no idea it was originally built with government money.
When homes like mine were being built it was against the law to sell them to Black people. That law was changed, much like most similar laws, and since then we have fooled ourselves to think society changed too. We haven’t.
What I mean is that there were good people back then who weren’t trying to be racist, just like there are people not trying to be racist now. I have no doubt when the individual who approved my parents’ home purchase did so; they were not intending it to be a racist act. That person was likely just trying to give my folks a chance. It was a good thing to give them a shot. I’m glad it happened. But then, and too often now, this same chance isn’t given to Black people. This is how modern racism works.
Racism doesn’t have to mean the proverbial “you” hates Black people. Often times people where I grew up never even thought about Black people. I am willing to believe that the HUD official in Salt Lake City gave no thought to anything even remotely race related while doing his job. In his (at the time it was most likely a he) world race laws had little to do with his daily life and it just so happened that HUD loans weren’t available to Black people. It didn’t have anything to do with him.
Today most things work exactly the same, just without the laws. We don’t need a law, or need to hate anyone, to give someone else a shot. Hating a Black person doesn’t have anything to do with helping out someone in need. Helping is always good.
But reality is that we most often have sympathy for, and help, those with whom we can most closely relate. We sympathize with the young couple fresh out of school. We see their potential and have some faith that all they need is a push, we often forgive the small discretions in the past having faith that those things are bygones.
And more often than not those we choose to help are the same race as the helper.
There are exceptions of course, especially with government programs. Lots of white social service workers helping lots of generationally poor Black folk. I am amazed at how many of those white folks resent the help they provide. Amazed. I have helped, and seen others efforts to help, and watched as those given a shot completely blow their chance. People lack gratitude. People are lazy. People make profoundly poor choices and squander what little resources and opportunity they have. All people do this.
What so often happens when help is rebuffed or executed poorly across racial lines is that the helper starts looking for where it all fell apart. Everything made sense in the mind of the helper in the beginning, but still it failed, and the helper is left to explore the things they don’t grasp. Most of us don’t understand race. I have seen quite a few white helpers come away from failed ventures with newly entrenched racist ideas. They didn’t intend to become racist, nor do they leave hating Black people, but race is the thing they don’t get and it becomes the fly in the philanthropist’s ointment.
This happens again, and again, and again; and it happens today, and people form opinions and policy accordingly. That is how it has always worked.
I grew up in a HUD home thanks to a policy written and implemented by people who look like me. Other G.I.’s raised their families, or at least tried, in projects and ghettos and the “hood” not always because of some overt hatred, but because they weren’t given the same break.
Things like this don’t change magically over time. We have to change them intentionally.