By: Dr. Jacqueline Scott, Working Credit Board President

In my “day job” I am a philosophy professor who works in the field of Critical Philosophy of Race. I have coined the term “meta-oppression,” and I use it to describe an existential state for many people of color—particularly US black folks: we have dealt with racialized oppression to such a degree, and for so long, that it has brought about an additional stressor. Just as prolonged anxiety can trigger a clinical depression, prolonged racialized oppression seems to be triggering a profound sense of resignation, weariness, and despair at the looming realization that American racism will not change significantly—ever. This is meta-oppression (the oppression of being oppressed), which has historically taken root and intensified over time as a result of the deepening the chasm in the space between the ideal of the American Dream and the actual societal dream offered to most people of color.

What does my day job have to do with Working Credit? As President of the Working Credit Board of Directors, I have helped the nonprofit credit building organization understand the historic role of credit systems in perpetuating this meta-oppression for people of color. For example, a dual credit market (one for white people and another for people of color) was baked into many New Deal Programs in the 1930s, the remnants of which still exist in real estate covenants across the country. Then, African Americans in particular were subject to redlining (systemically excluded from buying homes in specific neighborhoods). Today, structural racism shows up in the form of divestment of traditional financial institutions from communities of color and neighborhoods comprised of people earning lower incomes. In their place exist mostly unregulated, high-interest, and often predatory financial services providers. A former Working Credit colleague, Deborah Ragbir, describes this as “Jim Crow Credit.” Keith Corbett, Executive Vice President of the Center for Responsible Lending explains, “…if one community is paying no more than 15% to borrow money and the other community is paying 300-400% minimum, the [latter] community will never get out of poverty.”

At Working Credit, we see firsthand the impact of this dual credit system on participants of color every day, who describe entering our program having internalized racist assumptions in terms of credit: they are not good money managers, are not smart enough, do not work hard enough, need to be patient. This is meta-oppression at work. As result, many experience a deep sense of shame that their degraded financial state is their own fault. They suffer from the belief that there is little that they can do to further expand their own life chances or those of the next generation. Many no longer see the point in trying to access the “other” credit market or trust that they can leverage mainstream products like credit cards to build better financial lives for themselves and their families as so many white households have done over generations. A symptom of meta-oppression is the inability to imagine a future that is much different from the present. A way to interrupt these embedded systems of racial oppression is to be the “sunshine” that helps people who are targets of systemic racism to see these structures, to understand that these systems were created by people (not “normal” or “natural”), and to reinforce that their present condition is not primarily of their own making (as systemic racism had convinced them).[1]

At Working Credit, we partner with participants of color in particular to acknowledge, and understand the impact of meta-oppression, and interrupt it. We envision an equitable and inclusive credit system for everyone. We do so, primarily, by providing credit building education, one-on-one counseling and coaching, and access to products necessary to thrive financially. And it is working. We continue to establish proof of concept that our efforts, while beneficial to all, are especially powerful for participants of color. For example, a 2019 randomized controlled trial of our work with young adults in Boston, conducted by Northeastern University found multiple (positive) significant effects on the treatment group, including lower car loan interest rates. The study also established that young Black men in the program fared the best. A subsequent study by the Urban Institute affirmed and expanded these findings: Black and Latinx participants not only make credit score gains, but they exceed the gains of their white counterparts. After 18 months in the program, credit scores increased by 44 points for Black, 45 points for Latinx, and 11 points for white participants respectively. More importantly, the share of participants with prime scores increased 14 percentage points for Black participants, 21percentage points for Latinx participants, and 11 percentage points for White participants.

At the same time, interviews with Black and Latinx participants reveal that more is happening than credit gains. Interviewees share that they feel empowered to combat systems of oppression, have expanded views of their life possibilities, and experience a renewed sense of self-worth. Their comments suggest that our efforts offer sunshine to counter the racialized ways that systems of credit have historically prevented people of color from accruing the knowledge and skills needed to avoid problematic debt, and to promote the use of credit as a tool for life-flourishing and wealth building across generations.

Working Credit is currently pursuing a second study with the Urban Institute, funding in part by Capital One, to better understand how past experiences with – and feelings about – the credit system affect credit gains among Black, Latinx, and white participants. This research will further inform our program design and the field at large.

[1] “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.” Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge.