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Wall Street in Black and White

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Courtesy of TheRoot.com

The offensive new vogue in cable TV talking points goes something like this: Wall Street is melting down because the government forced banks to make loans to poor people—especially poor minorities. They claim that the entire weight of the global financial collapse rests on the shoulders of unqualified poor, minority borrowers who got loans as a form of economic affirmative action. The evil institutions in this talking points scenario are the formerly quasi-government secondary home mortgage-lending creatures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

For several days, I had been hearing a diluted version of these talking points around the edges of various cable news shout-fests. It wasn't until Larry Kudlow, cable host, former Reagan administration official and former Bear Stearns principal, appeared on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC that I was smacked into full alertness. My jaw dropped as he began talking about the subprime mortgage crisis. "Not everybody can own a home. Some people have to rent, that's just the way it is," he said. Kudlow rattled off his theory that Congress forced banks to make low-income loans with no documentation of a borrower's ability to repay. Countrywide Financial, the notorious subprime lender, was forced to make loans to neighborhoods that banks once "redlined." Wracked with liberal guilt, lenders folded under government coercion to make bad loans, he claimed.

The co-hosts rejected this nonsense and escorted Kudlow from the set, not completely in jest. As Kudlow was escorted off, Joe Scarborough could be heard saying incredulously, "Watch the Kudlow show, where you will probably hear that poor people are responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy."

If only it were just a joke. In reality, these cable talking points have now morphed into an orchestrated Internet campaign of "homemade" videos with shades of Willie Horton. The fake story line reintroduces the trope of the irresponsible welfare queen who was given a house but who was so stupid and unthankful as to lose it all in an entrepreneurial misadventure. The argument then descends into standard racial farce.

Usually, the videos feature white males glaring into the camera, while their eyes dart back and forth to a script off-camera. This band of outraged Joe Six-Packs gives the example of a beneficiary of an "Extreme Makeover" new home who used the home as collateral for a loan to fund a small business that failed. The house went into foreclosure and was sold at auction. This is a sad story that has absolutely nothing to do with the subprime loan crisis.

Another Mr. Six-Pack shouts that the entire financial crisis was caused by a Congress "hellbent on affirmative action, using mob-style extortion tactics to threaten" banks into making bad loans to "predatory borrowers" without documentation.

No need to dance around it: The story line is a complete lie.

The campaign to racialize a global financial meltdown operates in a fact-free zone. A national study of the performance of banks covered by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) shows that these government-backed banks were much less likely than other lenders to make the kinds of risky, high-cost home purchase loans that helped fuel the foreclosure crisis. The average interest rate for CRA loans was much lower than other lenders. CRA banks were more than twice as likely as other lenders to keep the loans they write instead of selling them off to the highest bidder.

By and large, the problem with subprime lending was that independent, unregulated brokers pushed inappropriate loans to poor borrowers and to many American middle-class and wealthy consumers who could not qualify for their second or third vacation home and who took a "liar's loan" from brokers, not covered by CRA. These loans were then sliced and diced into mortgage-backed securities by Wall Street investment houses that then sold them to the financial institutions of the world.

The Wall Streeters often used shaky accounting schemes to buy the loans from brokers who were not regulated by anyone. These brokers took their generous commissions and ran. Like the first people to cash out of a pyramid scheme, the brokers were out of the picture before they could be held accountable for fraud, misrepresentation or other coercive tactics they used to sell the bad loans. Thus, a system of non-accountability flourished outside of the regulated financial system, in what Floyd Norris of the New York Times calls the "shadow banking system."

For more on this story, visit TheRoot.com.

Emma Coleman Jordan is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where she teaches Banking, Commercial Law and Economic Justice. 

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