Sergio Lacueva / Getty Images

By 2004, it was known by public officials in Cleveland that a number of the city's working-class and often black neighborhoods were experiencing unusually high rates of foreclosures, and that this spike had shady lending as its cause. Alan Greenspan and the governor of Ohio at the time were alerted to the crisis and its seriousness, but they did nothing about it. Why? Precisely because the neighborhoods in question were working-class and often black. The white suburbs were doing just fine. So no need for alarm or a change of course.

Some on the right even argued that the crisis in Cleveland was proof that the working class and people of color lacked the prudence and work ethic of middle-class whites in the suburbs. Even by 2006, when something could have been done about the crisis, the government took no action. By 2008, the crisis had spread not only to the white suburbs but the entire economy.

Support The Stranger

I bring this episode up because President Donald Trump's (and therefore the government's) response to the catastrophe in Puerto Rico is structurally similar to Greenspan's (and therefore the government's) response to the subprime crisis in Cleveland. The island is in the middle of what will eventually happen in Florida and other Gulf states, but not much is being done to adequately address Puerto Rico's devastation because it is not rich and not white American enough. Indeed, Trump isn't granting the island money but is sending it a $5 billion loan to add to the $70 billion debt it already has. In the way that the government let Cleveland sink, it is letting Puerto Rico sink. And many white Americans will not care about this because they are under the illusion that Trump will not do the same to their neighborhood or town.

But the combined hurricane damage in Texas and Florida was nothing like the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, which was nearly total. In fact, Florida was on the path to becoming a Puerto Rico but was spared by a meteorological miracle. It is only a matter of time before the models get it right and a perfect storm hits and flattens Florida. At that point, when the bill for the devastation is too huge for the budget-obsessed and tax-gutted government, those under the illusion that their whiteness protected them from the moralizing and limited support that Puerto Rico received, will suddenly be told by their leader: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in [your state] forever!"

And here we will see the real value of racism. It's not just about making the lives of people of color miserable; it's about distracting and exposing working- and middle-class whites to exploitation. The function of racism, in this form, is to remove their natural class guard and antagonism by making them believe that they are somehow on the right side of their betters. But as with the crash of 2008, these whites will eventually discover that such is not the case. This lesson was quickly forgotten after 2008, which is why Trump is in power. But the rentier class that Trump represents knows that blacks and Latinos are already broke (whatever gains they made were lost in 2008). The piles of money that remain are found in middle-class white America—the beneficiaries of postwar social democracy (cheap homes and high wages). That group, and not the black athletes and what have you, are the real targets of 21st-century dispossession. The tool to extract this wealth is racism.