We are all, as Sean Gonsalves wrote, morally exhausted from dealing with and talking about race. But, to borrow from an old spiritual, we have little choice but to “run on, see what the end will be,” because the exhausting race is the only way forward. It’s the door through which we must pass into a shared future. And, from all we’ve heard lately, the way is still steep, and the race is still long. Sometimes we’re tempted to stop and declare it finished, even won. But we know better.
In the past few weeks, we’ve heard from voices as politically diverse as Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Condoleeza Rice. For all that they represent different points on the political spectrum, there’s a surprising degree of harmony in their remarks on subject that Americans are still comfortable dealing with; subject stretching all the way back to the beginning of our shared history. That harmony suggests the presence of something else: truth.
Both Obama and Rice, despite their political differences, address slavery in similar terms, and suggest that its effects are still with us, in ways sometimes – but not always – less visible than in the past, but no less real.
I’ll leave aside (for the moment) the double standard of Obama having to distance himself from Rev. Wright, while other candidates are not called upon to do the same where people like John Hagee are concerned. (Though the fact that he must do so is pertinent to this discussion.) In a speech that current racial realities required him to deliver, Obama speaks in terms of “this nation’s original sin.”
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
But Americans don’t want to hear that it’s unfinished. They don’t want to hear that we’re not “there” yet and that there’s more work to be done. When blacks in the south told white southerners that things were going to have to change and they’d have to change too, the reaction was strong and violent.
Condoleeza Rice, in a Washington Times interview, spoke of a national “birth defect.”
“Black Americans were a founding population,” she said. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together – Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”
As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, “descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that.”
“That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today,” she said.
Her remarks echo what Obama said about the tangible connection between the past and present reality.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
In putting together the series “The Society of the Owned,” I’ve seen what Obama and Rice address played out in the current economic crisis, as a direct line between the subprime debacle and the ongoing consequences of slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of discrimination. It’s something I intend to address in an upcoming installment, but in his post about, The Color of Wealth, the recently published book by a group of multi-racial researchers at United for a Fair Economy, Gonsalves traces it back to lacking the basic building blocks of wealth: assets. As Obama and Rice point out, Black Americans came here as assets, and were for centuries thereafter prevented from accumulating assets.
None of these tip-of-the-iceberg facts means that white Americans haven’t really earned it, or worked hard. But it does point to the inescapable importance of previous generations’ economic status in explaining present day wealth distribution — whether a family’s financial foundation goes back to the 1862 Homestead Act when millions of acres of land were given to whites exclusively; or involves GI Bill college benefits used by millions of white World War II vets not accessible to most blacks because of segregation; or traceable to restrictive property covenants that prevented white home owners from selling to black buyers until the 1950s.
One example of what Gonsalves writes about is a story I blogged about a month ago, concerning retired black policemen in Georgia who receive hundreds of dollars less per month in retirement than their white counterparts. That’s because until 1976 those black officers were barred from joining the state-supplemented retirement fund. The state legislature has repeatedly refused to give them credit for those lost years.
So, despite dwindling numbers, they will probably take their fight to court. Meanwhile, 81-year-old James Booker worked as a crossing guard in 2006 – bad knees and all – to make up for the pension he doesn’t receive for his decades of service, because he was (and is) Black.
Booker’s story, and others like it, aren’t what we want to hear for the most part. Or, upon hearing them, we might even ignore the rest of the story and praise him for “taking the initiative” or “embracing personal responsibility,” working into his old age to make up for age-old discriminations. Stories like his are a reminder of Fauklner’s words, cited by Obama, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
We don’t want to hear it. We are a nation of “rugged individualists,” whose national mythology celebrates the ideal of being “self-made,” utterly unconnected to the past or affected by its consequences. It’s a mythology that, as Gonsalves points out, allows many middle and working class white Americans to earnestly believe that they’ve enjoyed little to no privilege based on their race. Though Booker’s story, and those of the other retired Black officers in Georgia illustrate precisely the kind of historical advantage and privilege that Gonsalves addresses, as well as how it impacts the present even decades later.
For that matter, it’s the same mythology that allows George W. Bush – who once famously referred to himself as “a Republican white guy who doesn’t get it “ – to evoke the air of a self-made man, and quietly deny the significant advantages he’s gained from his family’s wealth and connections (or, for that matter, the advantages that his father and grandfather enjoyed as a result of the Bush/Walker family fortune). It’s the same mythology that makes it impolitic to ask – despite pundits claiming that Obama wouldn’t be running for president if he wasn’t black – whether George W. Bush would be where he is, had he been born to a family without the Bush family’s wealth and political power, with only his innate talents, skills, and intelligence to rely on.
Ann Richards once famously said that George H. W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Another Texas politician once joked that the elder Bush was a man “born on third base, [who] thought he hit a triple.” Most middle and working class white Americans weren’t born on third base. But the reality of race and economics is that some Americans are born on second, first, the batter’s box, or at least “on deck,”, and some born in the dugout are still waiting to find out if they’re on the batting list. Race, the uniform we’re each issued at birth, is a deciding factor in our starting positions.
Perhaps that’s one thing at the heart of the subject of race that makes it difficult to address on all sides. The truth is that on both sides of the race discussion there are fears and insecurities that make people want to run for cover.
Being part of a maligned minority sometimes means that somewhere in the farthest, darkest corner of your soul you absorb all that has been said about you as – in my experience as a black man or and as a gay man. You hear and absorb every implication of inferiority – and some part of you wonders if it might be true, or maybe even believes it. In either case you don’t want it confirmed, because it means you are not who you were taught you are. You might respond to it with anger or activism. You might laugh about it. (Some of the most cynical jokes about minorities are, after all, sometimes told by and laughed at hardest by those same minorities. But those same jokes take on a different tenor when told someone outside of that minority.) But you cannot afford to have it confirmed.
That’s the experience on at least one side of the discussion. (There are many.) I can only imagine what insecurities white Americans have to contend on their end. I think I got an inkling when I saw, Born Rich, Jamie Johnson’s documentary about young people with immense, inherited wealth. I think I expected to see a certain degree of swaggering confidence in the participants. After all, they’re young and rich (and, all of them I think, white). I was surprised at the degree of insecurity among some of them, who know that much of what they have they didn’t earn, except by being born into their particular families. Perhaps that’s the other side of the coin. I can only guess — since I can’t know — that maybe some white Americans would rather not wonder how much of what they have, they have in part because of the color of their skin, and because of the socioeconomic advantages and privilege that come with it.
In a presidential race during which both Geraldine Ferraro and Ann Coulter have declared that Barrack Obama is where he because he’s black (or “half black,” as Coulter see it), maybe white Americans don’t want to be told that they are where they are and have what they have because they are white. The effect is similar to the one mentioned above: you are not who you think you are, or who you were taught you are.
Perhaps that’s one reason for the ferocity of some of the responses to both Obama’s and Rice’s comments. Not long after Obama’s speech, Pat Buchanan let loose with a screed declaring that black Americans should be grateful for slavery. No sooner was Rice’s interview published, than Lou Dobbs (not to mention the folks at Free Republic) erupted over which “cotton picking” people should be moderating the discussion on race, right after declaring that most Americans don’t have a problem talking about race.