Anita Hill shares her vision of economic inequality

OPINION - Today's public discourse is a sad stage of affairs, inhabited by a bevy of bad actors who have never known a day without bread -- in their mouths or their pockets...

I remember the day Mama bought her first house.

It was small, just two bedrooms, but had a full basement. We didn’t have a lot of furniture. I remember buying a colorful stripped sofa and a couple of nearly new end tables from a salvage sale. The refrigerator came from a reseller, the kitchen table and chairs from my Auntie’s basement.

But it was ours

My mother put everything she had into the white, single story house. She’d cashed in the shares of stock she’d earned working for Marriott Hotels. Thanks to years upon years of paying every bill on time, she had perfect credit and had no trouble qualifying for a mortgage. That was my mother’s way. Go to work, pay your bills.

She landed her first job as a restaurant waitress at the Marriott O’Hare in Chicago in 1969, the year after I was born. In all, she spent 37 years on the job before retiring her position as Director of Human Resources. The years brought new cities, first St. Louis and then Atlanta.

Reading Anita Hill’s new book, Reimaging Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home, got me to thinking about my mother’s story. A conversation about the current housing crisis and its very real impact on working people, Professor Hill follows the stories of women like my mother, women who survive, cope and make it in a society that does not always pay value to their struggle.

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Starting in Lone Tree, Oklahoma, Professor Hill takes us back to her family homestead, which her mother and father built themselves. Self-sufficiency and prudence are major themes. But then, so is the tragedy of redlining, segregation and sub-prime lending— issues that continue to divide and destroy communities.

“If I could speak to them today,” she says of her parents and grandparents, “I would want more than anything to reassure them that none of their efforts were in vain.”

It seems now, in the worst economic downturn in modern times, we have been too caught up in bailing out banks deemed “too big” to fail” with money from working families who are too small for anyone to care about.
In 1994, my mother used her life savings to purchase a corner ranch house in an Atlanta suburb. Ten years later, then on Social Security and facing a mound of medical bills with only a part-time job as a church receptionist, she nearly lost it. She found a lender who promptly re-financed and lowered the monthly payments — at least for a time. It’s been five years. The house is now worth a fraction of its original value and the payments have ballooned.

When others might have simply turned the keys over to the lender, my mother is too proud to walk away, too proud not to find a way to pay what she owes. Her American Dream sits in a now crumbling neighborhood on a corner lot with a two-car garage. Still, she keeps a neatly cut lawn, cleans to gutters and adds a new coat of paint when she can afford it. And at 70 years old, despite pressing medical issues, she still goes to work.

Something is wrong with that.

It says something about us as a nation when we spend nearly a trillion dollars to save the hides of Wall Street bankers who made billions betting against the housing boom they themselves created. It says something about us when we allow predatory lenders to take advantage of the least of these — the poor, elderly and disproportionately people of color. It says something about us when we keep sending people to Washington whose only agenda is keeping their jobs when the unemployment rate continues to soar.

Owning and keeping a home has become increasingly difficult for people of color and single women. Specifically, African-American wealth, driven mostly by the housing market crash and scourge of foreclosures, has all but evaporated. Today, the black middle class is all but non-existent. Most of our wealth was tied up in the homes sold on the courthouse steps.

To hear Mitt Romney tell it, we should simply let the housing market hit rock bottom. And if you aren’t wealthy or don’t have a job, blame yourself, says Herman Cain. The market crash was three years ago, he quipped.

Today’s public discourse is a sad stage of affairs, inhabited by a bevy of bad actors who have never known a day without bread — in their mouths or their pockets. None seem to know the reality of a pink slip or a foreclosure notice. Cutting Pell Grants, and other means of access to opportunity, seems right and reasonable because they’ve never had to apply for one. It’s telling when we elect people who are so willing to demonize poor, working class people while celebrating the top one percent. I am a capitalist to my core, but as Elizabeth Warren said, “nobody got rich on their own.”

“Americans,” says Professor Hill, “are in need of a 21st Century vision of our country.”

She’s right about that.

Home ownership has always been central to the American Dream. For too many, that dream is out of reach. Until a meaningful, national conversation is held, until we are deeply honest with ourselves about how we got here, we will never find the road back.