Friday, November 9, 2007

Credit Scores: Guilty Before Proven Innocent

Imagine. A straight “A” student with a stellar performance record in and outside of the classroom applies to college -- and gets rejected. Why? Because she’s African American and statistics show blacks tend to fairly poorly in college. Outrageous?

Not according to the auto insurance industry, which would have us believe people are guilty despite documented evidence of their innocence. Their rationale? Low numbers on a credit score.

Charging drivers higher insurance premiums -- for no reason other than a spotty credit history -- is not only unfair, but also immoral. Why should I, with zero moving violations against my record, and no accidents or other claims filed in more than 20 years, pay for my neighbors’ carelessness and aggressive driving – simply because his credit is better than mine?

The car insurance/credit score debate in Delaware opens a Pandora’s Box about issues surrounding the finance industry. I’ve personally spent hours, days, even months cleaning up factual errors in my own report. Fixing reporting errors and fighting the three credit bureaus alone could be a full time job.

To point out just how troubling the trend, I personally know several fine and otherwise upstanding people who suddenly find themselves in a chokehold because of credit score errors and the horrors of trying to fix them.

To be honest, I’m still baffled at why a friend who wrote of all her debt and declared bankruptcy has a better score than mine, when I decided to pay off my creditors instead. Isn’t that what banks what? People who pay their debts? Apparently not according to our scores.

And just what does any of this have to do with driving? My same friend has filed several car insurance claims in the ten years I’ve known her. I haven’t had one. She lives in a relatively high crime area. I don’t. But my insurance rates should be higher?

The insurance industry’s own arguments for the practice are the most troubling. “The score can’t predict accidents,” admits Jeff Junkas, a spokesperson for the association that represents insurance companies nationwide. “They only indicate the likelihood of a claim,” he explains.

When pushed about the fairness of the practice: “We don’t know why it works, but it does work,” he quips, as if the ends really justify the means.

Using his argument, we should charge women in the workplace higher health insurance premiums. Why? While we can’t predict they’ll get pregnant, we do know there’s a likelihood sometime during their career they’ll have kids. Consequently they will strain health benefits they’ll not only need prenatal care but also expect maternity leave and ultimately have higher incidences of absenteeism (to care for sick offspring, among other things).

What’s next? Charging higher health insurance premiums to employees over 50? Denying them completely when they turn 60?

True, it’s accepted practice to charge more for life insurance as buyers age. But even here, we don’t arbitrarily treat every senior the same way. Buying a policy early in life entitles the purchaser to the same premium as someone years younger.

I don’t know about you, but to me there’s something sinister about punishing people in advance for things they haven’t done.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Today's Rant: Diary of a Black Woman in the Peace Movement

I am humbled and honored to be reminded how unusual it is to have a woman of color serve as major spokesperson for an internationally recognized peace organization. In practice, I am also reminded of the real, decision-making power it takes to succeed and accomplish all that I set out to.

It’s a power I’ve had to fight for, regardless of the titles put behind my name.

A quick review of articles written by Black activists in the movement reflects what has often been my experience – I have worked with many well-intentioned, well-meaning colleagues. Then suddenly, there it is. I walk face-first into what can only be described as that age-old paternalistic racism: I’m not taken seriously for what I know or what I do.

The pattern replicates my experiences placing “well-heeled” minority professionals in leadership positions with high-profile nonprofit boards.

Here’s a snapshot of these experiences.

Being marginalized -- treated like a ‘token.’ Often the slight is innocent enough. I once had a key person in authority tell colleagues it was fine to schedule a meeting to plan media outreach without me, the DIRECTOR of media relations. The reason? “Because it’s hard to schedule everyone together at one time.” I, the DIRECTOR of the program, can catch up later. Say whhaaat???

Other times, it’s more blatant -- like the time organizers planned a hip-hop concert, inviting press and doling out press passes without my knowledge. Luckily for the organization the only media that arrived was press I arranged -- and they didn’t need passes. An added sting was that same individual being named as a “champion of diversity” by another staffperson.

Being expected to serve as “spokesperson” for my race, or always asked to give the “minority perspective.” This usually happens when I least expect it. Like the time when, after a planning research session, a colleague asked me for the name of a good Black pollster. Problem is she had already approached someone else for her primary contact list, never thinking I might know more than minority pollsters.

Another time, I was having a congratulatory conversation with a key volunteer after the close of an exhibition. The discussion started out innocent enough then without warning descended into a question of ”why Blacks on public transportation were so loud” -- as if I had insight into a group people I didn’t know, on a train I didn’t ride, in a community in which I didn’t live.

Dealing with nonverbal and/or disparaging, repressive attitudes or remarks. This is the one I find hardest to stomach. I have to admit I haven’t perfected not falling into that classic stereotype of a loud, angry, hands-on-my-hips Black woman when this occurs.

Having my leadership constantly challenged:
And how. Similarly, many black activists site a resistance by established peace organizations to share leadership with, much less follow the leadership of, activists of color.

For example, in the days leading up to peace marches held around the start of the Iraq war, a group of activists of color wrote an open letter reflecting upon racism in the anti-war movement. In it they observed:

…the failure of predominantly white organizations to endorse or participate in anti-war activities sponsored by people of color groups; a discussion climate that excludes or demeans the contributions of activists/organizations of color, and disparaging or insensitive remarks by individuals. These practices have alienated individuals and organizations, and they have prevented cooperative bonds from forming as we work to build broad and deep opposition to war.

They went on to write:

Serious attempts have been made in the past to build anti-racist/racial justice politics among white activists. Yet we still see white activists and predominantly white organizations acting in ways that effectively marginalize and disrespect activists and organizations of color in anti-war work. While many of these individuals and organizations view themselves as anti-racist, their words and actions consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not - effectively marginalize and disrespect activists and organizations of color.

The reality is, I believe, many peace activists have a keen awareness that they need to bring more Blacks into the movement. However, they are less clear on what to do with us when we get here.

Interestingly enough, I love what I do. Over the years, I have met a wealth of wonderfully inspiring people: Cindy Sheehan for example, the "peace mom" who camped out at President Bush’s Texas estate. Celeste Zappalla, Sue Niederer –- mothers who lost sons to the Iraq war and people I’ve come to love and admire. These ladies have always been genuine in their support and I see them as an oasis in an otherwise murky sea.