Don’t Sign That Document, Fool!

And other blunt warnings that could save your home.

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As I sat in George and Veronica Gallon’s kitchen, listening to them describe their months-long tussle with the mortgage industry, I couldn’t avoid the obvious conclusion: They’d made bad choices. Listening to them describe each small step along the road to foreclosure was like watching a predictable horror film.

Put that promotional flyer down!

No, no, don’t sign that document, you fool!

Can’t you see that broker’s lying?

The exploding interest rates at the end were no more unexpected than Jason’s return. So why didn’t they see the terror coming, too? The easy answers are greed, irresponsibility and a level of comfort with consumer debt that’s sadly typical in modern America—particularly among black folks and poor folks.

But I’ve been talking to borrowers like the Gallons—including those in my own family—for the past year as I’ve covered the foreclosure crisis for The Nation and The Root. Some typically American emotions have recurred, to be sure, but not the ones we always hear about with subprime loans and maxed-out credit cards. Rather, borrowers like the Gallons were guided by two articles of faith in which we typically place great stock: an optimistic belief in a more profitable tomorrow and a trust that the checks and balances of market and government would protect them.

So it was predictable, then, that the current crisis would  disproportionately hit black and brown Americans. Stereotypes aside, we are America’s most hopeful and trustful communities. We’ve had to be. As individuals, as families and as communities, it has taken ample servings of both emotions to propel us forward, generation by generation. Which is why the banking industry’s eagerness to prey upon our hope and our trust ranks among its greatest crimes.

The tidy life the Gallons have built in their quiet, suburban neighborhood on Jacksonville, Fla.’s north side stands in deliberate contrast to their roots. They both grew up “across the bridge,” as local parlance has it, in the city’s long-stagnant black neighborhoods. George got his lifelong interest in law enforcement while watching the segregated neighborhood’s black cops eat at his mom’s restaurant. Veronica became a caretaker, growing up in a family of 15 siblings with no money.

They met at a backyard barbeque George hosted while he was recruiting for the Jacksonville sheriff’s office. Veronica’s sister was his secretary. “He came out and dropped ribs at my feet, and we been together ever since,” Veronica laughs. That was more than 20 years ago.

They never had kids of their own, but Veronica is an administrator at a school for severely disabled youth, and she’s as quick as any mom to whip out cute photos of her favorite students. “They give up on ’em too quick,” she complains. She sees untapped potential where others see only disability. She’s always optimistic.

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