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What's holding America back? 'Racial hostility,' author Eduardo Porter says

American society is collapsing "into a heap of pathologies simply due to a lack of empathy."

As coronavirus disrupts the global landscape, some of the sobering questions about U.S. preparedness revolve around what we don’t have in place — health care for everyone, affordable child care and paid leave, and basic benefits for the nation’s poorest families.

In his timely and provocative new book, “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise,” to be released next Tuesday (March 17), New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter argues there’s a pretty simple reason why the country is an exception among industrialized countries when it comes to a lack of national safety nets — with “so many stories of people falling over the edge,” he tells NBC News, and intractable marginalization and poverty.

It boils down to race.

In the book, Porter argues that all Americans — including nearly 20 million white Americans living in poverty, twice as many as African Americans — have been made poorer because at different junctures in U.S. history, the country opted not to extend benefits and policies to everyone if they were going to also help blacks, Latinos and others seen by whites as different.

“We’ve been unable to understand ourselves as the same thing,” Porter tells NBC News. “So a lot of the policies have been driven by the barriers rather than by the commonality.”

"American Poison" by Eduardo Porter.
"American Poison" by Eduardo Porter.Penguin Random House

In his book, Porter traces how race dominated the political calculations around the most basic issues of housing, education, aid to poor families, education and health care.

Not implementing comprehensive safety net policies, Porter argues, explains why we’re outliers amid changing global forces.

Globalization, writes Porter, “struck everybody, the French and the Germans and the Canadians and the Japanese.” Yet it's the U.S. that is collapsing "into a heap of pathologies simply due to a lack of empathy."

Porter sprinkles the book with ways in which the “lack of empathy" for those we perceive as not as deserving of public spending affects communities as a whole.

Communities with a larger income gap between white and black Americans, for instance, choose to spend less on public goods like police and fire departments, according to researchers. Americans choose to live in smaller, whiter towns with fewer resources than share goods and services with larger, more diverse regions. Yet overall, the lack of social services and safety net policies has boomeranged as more predominantly white communities across the country increasingly grapple with poverty.

"Race is, in fact, everywhere"

A large "shot across the nation's bow" when it comes to race-tinged policies is California, according to Porter. In 1978, after the growing influx of immigrants had started to change the state's demographics, voters approved to drastically cut property taxes —and hence public funds — through its Proposition 13, “a cross-generational ‘f--- you’ to California’s nonwhite future,” Porter writes.

"Most were short, Catholic, brown, Spanish-speaking Mexicans. Why spend on them?" writes Porter.

Decades later, it’s come back to haunt the state, which now has the highest poverty rate in the country — 1 in 5 Californians — and some of the worst school graduation outcomes. Yet the majority of voters in a recent poll still support Prop 13, he notes.

Porter’s insights stem from a sort of outsider’s perspective. While he was born in Phoenix to an American father and a Mexican mother, his family moved to Mexico when he was young and he subsequently lived and worked in different countries before he returned to the U.S. in his mid-30s.

He especially noticed, while covering California’s growing Latino population for The Wall Street Journal several decades ago, that “race is in fact, everywhere,” determining where a person lives, goes to school and “how you fare when you run into the cops.”

In fact, Porter notes wryly in the book that the concept of “Latino” is a uniquely American thing, lumping together people from different countries into a group that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Porter cites other examples of how racial hostility is reflected in policy. States with larger black populations, Porter notes, have more stringent requirements for the nation’s latest version of welfare, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. In Louisiana, only 4 percent of poor families qualified for TANF benefits in 2014; in Vermont, benefits went to 78 percent of families who applied.

Eventually, Porter argues, restricting benefits has resulted in more dismal overall outcomes — the average white American baby born in 2018 will die five years sooner than in Japan, and two years sooner than in Portugal.

The blame goes all around

Perhaps one of the book’s most important takeaways, Porter points out to NBC News, “is that this feeling of mistrust across racial lines has been bipartisan.”

After the 14th Amendment, presidents and legislators from both parties allowed states to codify Jim Crow laws, denying blacks parity in work, voting, education and even staying alive — in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t back a Senate anti-lynching bill for fear of alienating Southern Democrats, Porter notes.

The book traces the racist history of American labor unions, from the exclusion of blacks starting in 1869 with the railroad unions, who were also key backers of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the fact that in 1960 Washington, not one black was a member of the electrical workers’ union that "controlled all hiring for electrical work in the nation’s capital.”

President Richard Nixon, Porter points out, tried to “redeploy welfare” by extending federal assistance to blue-collar whites “to deliver Republicans a lasting political majority.” But when his plan backfired, Nixon ditched welfare reform and turned his attention to crime, “the more effective way to pick white voters.”

As the presidential campaign heats up, along with discussions around immigration policy, health care, Medicaid and minimum wage, Porter says it’s worth keeping in mind that the “racial line in the sand is just there, and political parties navigate with the understanding that it’s there.”

What we haven't done, Porter says, is more openly acknowledge that.

When asked if an increasingly diverse country will become more tolerant and unified, especially when it comes to policies, Porter is ambivalent.

"How do we overcome this? My really honest answer is I don't know," he tells NBC News.

In fact, the next few years could usher in what Porter calls “institutional lock-ins” through gerrymandering and the selection of judges, for example, that would cement in structural inequities for years to come.

There are some bright spots. Porter writes of the 1975 and 1983 Mount Laurel court decisions in New Jersey that mandated, after much resistance, affordable housing units in all towns — including affluent ones — bringing better living opportunities to thousands of families of color.

It’s an example, Porter says, of how the country can self-correct.

“Maybe the United States even has a shot,” Porter writes, “at forging a melting pot for real.”

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