A Conversation on Race

It has been said that in this country we are cowards when it comes to talking about race.  So I thought I would share a conversation I had about that subject that had a great impact on me.

Some background…

I know some people that grew up in an environment that is extremely racist.  I am always shocked at the things that they say.  So once, I asked one of them some questions about his views.  I am transcribing it as accurately as possible.   I have changed his name.

Bob:  I don’t want black people moving in to my neighborhood. 

Sarah:  Why?

Bob:  They don’t keep up their houses, they bring crime and drugs.  They ruin the neighborhood.

Sarah:  Well, what if it was a white family that put a car up on blocks, had their dogs running around, and set up a meth lab?

Bob:  I wouldn’t want them either, but they don’t usually do that.

Sarah:  Alright.  What if Michael Jordan moved in on your street?  Would you have a problem with him?

Bob:  No, no.  He’s not black.

Sarah:  Well, yeah he is.

Bob:  No.  He wouldn’t be a problem.

So, the conversation continued.  I keep digging to find what he really objected to versus what he was saying.  The more I prodded the more it became clear that he didn’t have any issues with African Americans that had succeeded.  If they were rich, they weren’t really black.  So Bill Gates isn’t really white?  And I came to the conclusion that racism for many people is a more acceptable way of masking their classism. 

America is supposed to be a land without a class structure.  If you think we never have conversations about race, bring up classism at your next book club meeting.  Sure, it exists in other places, but certainly not here!  This is the land of opportunity!  There is nothing here to hold you back except your own lack of ambition.  And while most people believe that, it is a load of hooey.

African Americans as well as poor whites suffer from a lack of the one thing that will pull them up the class ladder:  education.  There is nothing else that can compare with the impact of that one little thing.  Children that cannot read cannot excel.  And the way Amercia provides education puts the lower classes at a huge disadvantage.  Poorer neighborhoods have crappier schools and less money to improve them.  We keep the cycle in place.

When any group of Americans feels disenfranchised, they turn to their own methods to better their lives.  Can you blame them?  

Our history is riddled with ethnic groups that were not welcome, and pushed to the margins of society.  Irish were reviled.  They flooded New York with poverty and crime during the potato famine.  “No dogs or Irish”  was the infamous sign.  Chinese laborers were brought to the West to build the railroad.  We were so afraid of their different ways that it was illegal for them to own property.   And why did these groups assimilate and African Americans did not?  Simple.  Once they started to make money, they were accepted.  The key to that is that they were ALLOWED to make money.  And slowly, grudgingly, they were accepted.  They didn’t suffer from a systemic effort to keep them from achieving that success. 

From this country’s inception to the 1960’s this country told a group of its own citizens that they had to be separate.  Not because they were empirically inferior, but because we were afraid of them.  Geez we were a bunch of assholes.

As another example of our unwilllingness to really talk about what race means in this country, let’s look at scholarships.  I know a woman who is part Asian.  She needed help with her college tuition, so she went to the Financial Aid office at the school to talk about minority scholarships.  She was Asian, she is definitely a minority in this country.  But the Aid office told her that Asians didn’t qualify as a minority under the scholarship guidelines.  Excuse me?  Nope.  She could not qualify.  So why aren’t Asians, who are a minority, eligible for minority scholarships?  Because they are perceived as wealthy.  These programs are designed not to help minorities, as is the stated mission, but to help poor minorities.  So again, despite what we say is about race, is really about class.

I am not trying to say that true, hard core racism has been swept clean from the USA.  It most certainly has not.  But if you probe racists with questions that do not attack them, that simply try to get to the root of what they don’t like, you will find that for most of them it boils down to class.  It is just easier to express that as prejudice against African Americans.  

Because Americans hate poverty.  They hate the fact that it happens here, in the land of the free.  So if someone is poor, they must choose to be that way.  It is the only possible explanation.  If you can’t make it in this country you are lazy, or working the system, or addicted to drugs.  Poverty is bad, so poor people, for all our lip service, must be bad as well.  And for worse, white America sees African Americans as the face of poverty.

So, please, let’s have conversations on race.  Let them ring from the high rises, let them flow like the rivers.  But maybe first we need to look at what racism really means in this country.  Only when we know the causes will we be able to start working on a solution.

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