As I see it: By Cynthia Tucker
In the midst of a severe financial crisis — a meltdown fueled by clueless homebuyers, greedy lenders and money-grubbing financiers — some observers have decided to blame "minorities" for the mess. Though wiser heads have proclaimed the emergency too serious for partisan gamesmanship, some in the conservative commentariat still can't resist playing the race card.
Several days ago, Neil Cavuto, host of Fox News' "Your World," proclaimed, "Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster."
On WorldNetDaily, a compendium of loopy half-truths, pundit Drew Zahn declared that "when federal regulators demanded parity between racial groups in lending, the only way to achieve a quota would be to begin making intentionally bad lending decisions."
The conservative National Review Online trotted out a favorite whipping boy, the Community Reinvestment Act, claiming that the legislation was the result of "racially inflammatory campaigns" that forced banks to "make mortgages available to people without much in the way of income, assets or credit."
Why would anyone inject skin color into a debate over credit?
There is certainly no evidence to support this claptrap. Federal regulators have never "demanded parity between racial groups in lending." Not ever.
The CRA — designed to stop banks from "redlining," or withholding loans from entire neighborhoods — has long been under attack by conservatives, but for entirely different reasons. Critics called it vague, contradictory and useless. They claimed it was unfair to banks and thrifts, which were regulated, while other financial institutions were left to lend money as they saw fit.
That's where the argument tying the CRA to the credit crisis breaks down. The lending frenzy developed during the past few years, a period during which banks and thrifts made less than 25 percent of mortgage loans. (The law has been in place for 30 years, during most of which time there was no mortgage meltdown.)
"The heart of the crisis was caused by unregulated and lightly regulated mortgage brokers and independent mortgage bankers and affiliates that are not subject to the CRA. It would be quite odd if an act ... caused institutions not subject to its perview to do things that were inappropriate," said University of Michigan law professor Michael Barr, who has studied this legislation.
I hold no brief for dumb homebuyers, be they white, black or brown. But minority homeowners were frequently the victims of aggressive practices by mortgage brokers who received higher commissions for steering buyers into high-cost, subprime loans, even if the buyer would have qualified for a prime loan. The Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research group, examined 50,000 subprime loans nationwide and found that blacks and Hispanics were 30 percent more likely than whites to be charged higher interest rates, even among borrowers with similar credit ratings.
Again, lenders didn't push those loans to comply with any "affirmative action in lending" programs. They did it to make money. That's the same reason Wall Street's masters of the universe created all those exotic investment vehicles — instruments they didn't understand any better than some homebuyers understood their adjustable rates.
If Wall Street was motivated by greed, President Bush was motivated by his belief in an "ownership society." In 2003, about the time that conventional lending standards evaporated, he said, "We want more people owning their own home. It is in our national interest that more people own their home." The White House bragged on programs to make borrowing easy, including an initiative to allow the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages for first-time homebuyers without a down payment. The administration touted a record increase in homeownership, and Alan Greenspan dismissed the idea of a housing bubble.
Suffice it to say, the credit crisis is an all-American disaster, a melting pot of greed, recklessness and myopia. Those all-too-human traits aren't limited to any particular race or ethnic group.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.