In Wednesday’s (8/24/2011) USA Today paper a writer proposed something interesting. She said,
The upcoming dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on Sunday — the 48th anniversary of King’s epochal “I Have a Dream” speech — provides us with a precious opportunity to consider how far we have moved toward that dream and how much we have left to accomplish. Our progress is substantial and undeniable, yet the distance to the goal can seem daunting at times. One step that we must take on this journey is to end the atavistic practice of identifying people by racial group.
I remember the precise moment when I decided that I would never check the race box again.
Her idea immediately appealed to me. Yes, why can’t we all be one big happy tribe, now that the Civil Rights era has achieved King’s dream? Sounds good. Then I did some research and some thinking, in that order, and I changed my mind. The following comments from a PBS discussion on the issue are, I submit, germane to understanding the issues. (Any emphasis is mine.)
The one statistic that best captures the state of racial inequality in America today is wealth, or net worth. Add up everything you own, subtract all your debts, and that’s your net worth. Today, the average white family has eight times the net worth of the average Black family. That difference has grown since the 1960s, and is not explained by other factors like education, earnings rates, and savings rates. It’s really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the cumulative disadvantage of race, or cumulative advantage of race for Whites, than net worth or wealth.
Economists have shown that 50 to 80 percent of our lifetime wealth accumulation is attributable, in one way or another, to past generations. The house, the Lexus, the big bank account – these aren’t just the pot of gold at the end of game, they’re also the starting point for the next generation. Until we address the underlying inequalities and structures that advantage whites at the expense of other groups, we’re stuck with this paradoxical idea of a colorblind society that is totally unequal by color.
Why are there such different understandings of the “difference that race makes?” It is partly due to the fact that many Americans – especially white Americans – are deeply invested in the idea that individuals (or groups of individuals) are solely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus they attribute success or failure solely to a person’s “effort,” “culture,” or “values.” Perhaps if all Americans were to engage in a more concrete, historically informed discussion about “opportunity” and “achievement” in the U.S., including the role that institutions have played (and continue to play) in shaping people’s lives, we might have a very different understanding of “race” and its implications.
Perhaps opponents of racial equality embrace colorblindness because eliminating race consciousness conveniently eliminates accountability for white supremacy. Witness the latest Ward Connerly incarnation in California: the so-called “Racial Privacy Initiative” that would eliminate collection of statistics that use racial categories. This “colorblind” initiative would relieve the state of any accountability for racial disadvantage.
Other people have thought deeply about the racial colorblindness issue as well. In fact, I found a Wikipedia page devoted to it. Embedded in it was this statement:
Insistence on no reference to race, critics argue, means black people can no longer point out the racism they face.
I see two principal truths in the material here. One is that people don’t start out even in life. Just as Isaac Newton acknowledged that he benefitted greatly from learned people who had gone before him, the accumulation of inheritable wealth confers significant advantage to members of specific families and classes of people. Some, because of wealth or relative wealth, have more stable upbringings, better nutrition, better habits and better education. The other is that ignoring prejudice not only won’t eliminate it, it would probably make the problem worse.
I believe that racism is natural to human beings because we evolved socially in small tribes. Tribalism is, or at least was, a positive evolutionary survival factor – there is comfort and safety in having help in shared knowledge and food-gathering, hunting and in mutual defense. Seems self-evident to me.
Certainly, the Civil Rights movement has brought progress and I see much evidence in life and in the press of racial mixing all over the world. Even in Finland, I note in a recent Smithsonian article on Finnish education that children of all races, including Somali, are being successfully integrated into their society. I even see mixed couples in Joplin where such would have been an outrage when I was a boy. Worth noting too is the success of the U.S. Armed forces in providing a job structure of equality, regardless of race. For my own part, as a boy from a blue collar family I might never have had a college education but for the Navy.
But prejudice will not go away easily. I am prompted to recall an incident involving my wife. We were living in a suburb of Boston during my last duty tour in the Navy and she had decided to look for some part time office work. She was interviewed by an M.D. for an office assistant position. He took one look at her resume’ and said he would not be hiring her. “Why not?”, she asked. “Well, I see that you are from Virginia. People from the South are slow.” And that was that. This is a true story.
When I drill down to basics in the current rhubarb between the Democrats and the Republicans, I see class warfare, of which race is but one component. At the risk of generalizing, Republicans generally wish to retain and enhance the advantages that their wealth has accumulated for them over the generations. Democrats crave what the Republicans already have, and they want as many obstacles removed from their path as possible. There is much demagogic rhetoric on both sides, and there is abuse of conduct on both sides, but it boils down to class warfare – so far mostly nonviolent, thanks to the like of MLK. He deserves his statue, in my opinion. And by the way, I am going to continue to check the race block. Maybe someday we will all be one tribe, but we’ve got a long way to go.