Bloomberg Businessweek created quite a stir last week when it illustrated a cover story about the return of risky mortgages with artwork that was widely interpreted as racist because ... well, see for yourself.
The cartoon drawing showed only people of color -- people who were, as Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review put it, "grabbing greedily for cash." White homeowners, who make up the vast majority of delinquent borrowers, are not shown.
But, bad as it is, that's not the most racist thing about the Businessweek cover.
The largest figure in the cartoon is an African-American man with a wispy moustache, one eye gleaming with money-lust and a cash-filled fist raised as if he were "tossing the bones" at a sidewalk crap game. An illustration like that, in 2013? It's like something out of Amos and Andy.
But that's not the most racist thing about the cover either.
In the upper left is a young and pigtailed African-American girl who seems to feeding a bowlful of cash to a mangy one-eyed dog. Opposite her is a young minority woman in makeup and tight pants who seems to be burning money in her fireplace. In the lower left an overweight Hispanic woman (another classic stereotype -- and is that the trace of a moustache on her upper lip?) ecstatically grabs for cash.
All that's missing is Ethel Waters and the cast of Cabin in the Sky. (Who holds the mortgage on that cabin, anyway?)
By placing its story of no-look bids and other risky loans in Phoenix, the Businessweek article subliminally evokes the mythological bird which resurrects itself from its own ashes. That's not a bad analogy for our irresponsible banking sector (although the ashes were those of the taxpayers who rescued them, not their own).
But the Phoenix location underscores the gratutious bigotry of the cover, since Phoenix's population is overwhelmingly (71 percent) white. Only one in twenty residents is African-American.
And even that isn't the most racing thing about the cover.
Minorities have overwhelmingly been the victims of predatory lending - not its perpetrators. That's why a group of Minnesota civil rights groups just released a report called "The Wall Street Wrecking Ball: What Foreclosures Are Costing Minnesotans and What We Can Do About It," which notes that "the racial disparities in subprime mortgage lending have been well documented." As the report correctly notes:
Minority borrowers were much more likely than white borrowers to receive high-cost subprime loans. The bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent recession has fueled a record-high wealth gap between whites, African-Americans, and Latinos nationwide.
The impact on minority households was equally disproportionate:
Banking predation has amplified economic inequality. The Minnesota report notes that
Minority households experienced greater losses because home equity constituted a relatively large portion of their wealth compared to other types of assets. Median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households, 53% among black households, and just 16% among white households.
the median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. These ratios are about twice as high as the ratios that existed before the onset of the housing crisis and recession.
African-Americans are suffering from a "disproportionately high unemployment rate," according to a Congressional Committee's new report. "With a jobless rate of 13.8 percent in January 2013," the report notes, "black workers are more likely to be unemployed than workers of other races and ethnicities."
Meanwhile, the government's much-celebrated foreclosure settlement with lawbreaking banks has turned out to be cushy deals for the perps, not restitution for the victims. A recent editorial asked if it has "left communities of color behind."
The answer is becoming increasingly clear: Yes. And another cushy bank deal, which was hurriedly put into place after the banks rigged an earlier one, provides banks with an incentive to help high-end homeowners and bypass those in minority communities.
Bloomberg's coverage of the banking sector is typically reliable. The housing story itself is a solid piece of reporting, and it points to the growing danger posed by the return to risky lending. Why wouldn't they go back to their old tricks? Nobody's been punished for past misdeeds, so there's no reason not to return to the scene of the crime.
The problem isn't the story. The problem is the cover. This illustration reveals a naked and ugly bias -- one which is all too prevalent among our nation's leaders, business executives, and journalists. That bias says that greedy minority borrowers created their own problems. Conservatives even claim they created the fiscal crisis itself.
The facts say otherwise. Minority borrowers were overcharged, and were shunted off into higher-cost subprime mortgages even when they qualified for standard loans. And delinquency rates for higher-cost homes and commercial real estate put the lie to conservatism's myth that, when it comes to the fiscal crisis, "the subprimes did it."
The myth of money-grubbing minority borrowers is very useful for Wall Street. It lets them off the hook for past misdeeds and creates the groundwork for further abuses.
By displaying an ugly stereotype, the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek have helped perpetuate a social climate that allows Wall Street executives continue to evade their responsibility. The cover's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But many small bigotries, added together, lead to a society that's blind to its own morality.
Most bank executives, and most of those who report on them, would be appalled to be called "racist." But bank exploitation has disproportionately harmed minority communities, and that's more than simply accident or chance. Sometimes we can't see our own biases -- but in this case, you can see it in the numbers.
Economic exploitation can't take place without dehumanization and caricature. It could be argued that the most racist thing about this cover is the culture of exploitation which Businessweek's editors, consciously or unconsciously, served so ably last week.