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Is this racist? You can bank on it.

Part of the challenge of incorporating anti-racism into mainstream skepticism is that skepticism has been primarily focused on developing techniques of inquiry honed in material sciences (by which I mean the study of physical systems like cosmology, biology, and physics – not materials science which is an entirely different thing). Ask most mainstream skeptics, and they’ll display an admirable grasp on at least the basics of astronomy, evolution, mechanics, some quantum physics, and if you’re lucky a bit of biochemistry to go with it. Many questions that atheistic skeptics have had to learn to answer are focussed on the origins of the universe and of life, necessitating this basic ‘toolkit’ of scientific knowledge.

We have not yet, and I mean yet, turned our eye toward the study of human sociopolitical systems (although I am enthused to note that most people have a fair-to-middling grasp on some core psychology, which builds part of the foundation). I am certainly not exempt from these educational blind spots, despite my impression of myself as a skeptic who is more interested in sociology than average. Without the same basic knowledge of methods of sociological inquiry (which surely extend to history, literary analysis, and other things that aren’t, in the strictest sense, ‘sciences’), it becomes very difficult to parse the often labyrinthine mechanisms of cause and effect in human organizations, especially in a way that satisfies the more ‘tactile’ minds among us.

Luckily, every now and then racism expresses itself so clearly and unequivocally that it transcends the need for rigorous study to unravel the mechanism behind the effect:

Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest home mortgage lender, has agreed to pay at least $175 million to settle accusations that its independent brokers discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom, the Justice Department announced on Thursday. If approved by a federal judge, it would be the second-largest residential fair-lending settlement in the department’s history.

An investigation by the department’s civil rights division found that mortgage brokers working with Wells Fargo had charged higher fees and rates to more than 30,000 minority borrowers across the country than they had to white borrowers who posed the same credit risk, according to a complaint filed on Thursday along with the proposed settlement.

Wells Fargo brokers also steered more than 4,000 minority borrowers into costlier subprime mortgages when white borrowers with similar credit risk profiles had received regular loans, a Justice Department complaint found. The deal covers the subprime bubble years of 2004 to 2009.

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said the practices amounted to a “racial surtax,” adding: “All too frequently, Wells Fargo’s African-American and Latino borrowers had no idea they could have gotten a better deal — no idea that white borrowers with similar credit would pay less.”


Lending data showed, for example, that in 2007 customers in the Chicago area who borrowed $300,000 from Wells Fargo through an independent broker had paid an average of $2,937 more in broker fees if African-American, and $2,187 more if Hispanic, compared with white borrowers with a similar credit risk, the complaint said.

Similarly, it said, the data showed that nationwide, an African-American borrower who had qualified for a regular loan was 2.9 times more likely to be steered into a subprime loan, and a Hispanic borrower was 1.8 times more likely, than were similarly creditworthy white borrowers. Subprime loans, which are intended for riskier borrowers, carry higher interest rates.

This has been a point that has been repeatedly invoked by people discussing the racial component of the economic collapse - banking institutions acted in a ‘predatory’ manner, disproportionately steering lenders of colour toward riskier products. We saw a similar pattern months ago in looking at bankruptcy filings, where simply being black carried a de facto economic penalty that was not faced by white borrowers.

When we typically talk about privilege, we’re almost always referring to an attitude of selective blindness, (usually unwittingly) committed by members of a majority group that simply do not face the same challenges as their minority brethren. However, oftentimes these kinds of racial disparities operate in ways that leave all parties blinded to their effects – a privilege nonetheless, but much harder to detect because nobody knows about it to complain about it. In this case it took intervention by the federal Department of Justice to expose it, and I’m willing to bet most of the lenders of colour who were discriminated against by Wells Fargo still have no idea that they paid a penalty for being the wrong colour.

This is why it’s important to stop pretending that we live in a society in which race is no longer relevant, and instead devote the energy otherwise spent in shocked denial toward developing and honing our ability to parse the racial component in our everyday interactions. Skeptics, a group who spend a considerable amount of time learning how to find, expose, and overcome patterns of bad thinking and lazy argumentation, are supremely well-poised to make a real contribution to this effort.

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