Denial, Evasion Won’t Solve Racism

Published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, November 10, 2003

Although I’m not psychic, I know what many readers are thinking right now. “Oh no, here we go again, someone else complaining about racism. Why do we have to talk about this? Isn’t it time we moved on?” Well, no actually.

No matter how uncomfortable the topic, especially for those who are white like me, talking about racism and then actually doing something about it are the only ways to make the subject go away. It won’t disappear just because we choose not to mention it. Indeed, the problem is not talking about racism but racism itself: a stain on our national psyche that has yet to be wiped clean, no matter that its most blatant manifestations — slavery, Indian removal, Asian exclusion and segregation — are many years past.Contrary to popular belief, race is not merely a card played by those who wish to stir up resentment. Instead it is a real and persistent determiner of who has what and why in this country. To extend the metaphor of the card game, race too often determines who the dealer is, and who’s getting dealt.

Past racism continues to have an effect in the present. Since whites were able to own property, procure loans, hold jobs and attend schools all of which were off-limits to people of color, the wealth accumulated by those previously privileged whites, elevated by law above all non-whites, has been passed down. Today, the typical white family has twelve times the net worth of the typical black family. In large measure this is due to the head start whites have been afforded in the race to accumulate assets.

The problem is not just the residue of the past, however. For people of color, there are many reminders that even in 2003 they are often viewed as second-class citizens. Consider the recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT, which found that job-seekers with “white-sounding names” were 50 percent more likely to be called back for an interview than those with “black-sounding names” even when their qualifications were identical.

Consider that blacks, Latinos and Asian Pacific Americans with the same education and experience as whites, will earn, on average, between 10-30 percent less, and that blacks with a college degree are more likely to be unemployed than whites who dropped out of high school. So much for “reverse discrimination.”

Consider the data from the Department of Justice, indicating that blacks are twice as likely as whites to have their cars pulled over and searched for drugs, even though whites, when searched, are twice as likely to have drugs on us. Or consider that although blacks and Latinos combined are only 23 percent of drug users, they are 90 percent of persons incarcerated annually for a drug offense. Whites, on the other hand, are 72 percent of drug users, but less than ten percent of those incarcerated for drugs.

Consider the studies on housing, which indicate that at least 2 million cases of discrimination occur annually against people of color looking to rent or purchase a home. Even when credit history, income and collateral are the same, whites are 56 percent more likely to secure a mortgage than their equally qualified black and brown counterparts according to the Boston Federal Reserve Bank.

Or consider our racially selective response to terrorism. Since 9/11 most Americans seem to support racially-profiling anyone who looks Arab, but they applied no such profile to white men after Oklahoma City. What’s more, I dare say that if 19 members of the Irish Republican Army had hijacked those planes, or if 19 white supremacists had done so, we would not be rounding up white men, or applying a generalized suspicion to them in airports across the country, as we are with Arab and Muslim males presently.

Again, I know some are tired of hearing about these things. But however tired they must be of hearing it, people of color are a lot more tired of living it; and until whites join with our black and brown brothers and sisters to put an end to the kind of racial inequity described above, we’ll continue to be confronted with the uneasy conversations, as well we should be. And so long as this kind of inequity is allowed to stand, the promise of America will remain unfulfilled and hollow.


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