04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from Black History: The Present Is Reflection of the Past

As part of the Roosevelt Institute's weeklong "Lessons from Black History" series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog from Feb. 15-19, I was asked to reflect on what lessons from the past should be heeded to advance social justice in the future. Here's my take.

African-American history offers important lessons for America regarding the origins of the current economic crisis, how most effectively to climb our way out this mess, and how best to avoid a similar calamity in the future.

In his first State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama described the nascent economic recovery this way: "The worst of the storm has passed... but the devastation remains." This astute description of the economy can also be applied to the effects of the aftermath of more than a century of discrimination.

One of the most profound and current lessons is that failure to address the unique problems of the most disadvantaged households in America can allow those problems to spill over and overwhelm the nation as a whole. The current collapse of the housing and credit markets have their origin in unfair, reckless, and deceptive lending practices that disproportionately targeted communities of color for more than a decade before finally spreading beyond minority neighborhoods throughout the nation. Predatory lenders principally targeted communities of color because those neighborhoods had never recovered from - and therefore remained vulnerable as a result of -- more than 100 years of legally permissible discrimination in employment, education, housing, financial services, and practically every other aspect of the economy and society.

Failure to address the disproportionate damage to communities of color resulting from the current crisis will leave the US economy as a whole in a tenuous position as the nation moves further into the 21st Century. Within 35 years, more than half of the nation's population will be people of color. Even before the current crisis, this fastest-growing segment of American society disproportionately lacked access to meaningful and secure employment, quality education, decent and affordable housing, dependable health care, reliable retirement savings, and other wealth-building opportunities. The disproportionate high levels of foreclosure in communities of color, combined with double digit unemployment rates for African American and Latino workers, may result in the greatest loss of wealth for those communities in nearly a century and will further economically marginalize those families and communities for years to come.

Broad-based policies to rebuild our economy are essential. But universal policies that fail to address the complex challenges of historically disenfranchised communities are insufficient in themselves. Ensuring the civil rights of and providing opportunities for, people of color is critical to enabling minority families and communities to achieve their greatest potential. Sadly, neither universal policies nor targeted interventions have been forthcoming on a scale adequate to deal with increasing foreclosures, staggering unemployment, and a financial system badly in need of reform.

And, the dire long-term implications for all Americans from this reality, appears lost on many in Washington.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.