For months now, I’ve dedicated a huge chunk of my reading time to race in America. Obviously, the injustice of black Americans killed by police is a motivating force for that. But there’s more to it. At lunch after the Sanders / O’Malley Town Hall during Netroots Nation, a friend made the point that we can’t hope to achieve lasting social justice unless we achieve economic justice.
I don’t disagree with him, but I think the obverse is equally true: We won’t achieve lasting economic justice unless we achieve social justice. In other words, the two are inextricably connected. I bungled this a bit in my op-ed last year, Dr. King’s Nightmare, in which I made the observation that the Forbes 400 list members controlled more wealth in America than the entire 40 million plus African-American population. There, I put the relationship between black/white wealth inequality and racism thusly:
By the time African-Americans broke mostly (but not entirely) free from racist constraints on their economic mobility, they were whacked with a new obstacle: the almost equally suffocating injustice of extreme inequality. They’re not the only ones suffering. But because they were locked out of the egalitarian economic progress that took place during Dr. King’s lifetime, they’re disproportionately represented in the group now stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
The use of the word “mostly” in the first sentence was a terrible choice on my part. Compare my logic to Paul Krugman’s from a few month’s ago in Slavery’s Long Shadow:
Yet racial hatred is still a potent force in our society, as we’ve just been reminded to our horror. And I’m sorry to say this, but the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens.
The second paper, by the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, was titled “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?” Its authors — who are not, by the way, especially liberal — explored a number of hypotheses, but eventually concluded that race is central, because in America programs that help the needy are all too often seen as programs that help Those People: “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”
See the difference? I said Black Americans simply were trapped at the bottom in America’s extremely unequal society because they were late to the party. Krugman is saying that America’s extreme inequality is the result of White antipathy towards Black Americans.
I’d say Krugman was a lot closer to the mark than I was.
I recently read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m not sure I fully grasped everything Coates said, so I should to read it again at some point, but one of Coates’ central points seems unassailable: that White Americans go through life as if in a dream in which they’re blissfully ignorant of all the wrongs that have been (and continue to be) committed against Blacks in America and how their affluent society was built on the backs of Black suffering.
Coates nails it on that. My Dr. King’s Nightmare piece was a case in point. I actually was aware that racism was alive and well in America when I wrote the piece, but missed entirely Krugman’s point about the contribution of racism to our extreme inequality. Ironic, huh? I title my piece Dr. King’s Nightmare, when I myself am personifying “the Dream.”
The Dream is not always silent. We often hear the Dream when white Americans express their feelings about programs such as affirmative action, with the message usually is “C’mon, it’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act. Haven’t you people caught up yet?”
Indeed, the country’s number one insipid op-ed writer, David Brooks of the NY Times, treated us to a written expression of the Dream in his pushback piece, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White. Scott Kaufman of Salon summed up Brooks’ absurdity well:
That his beloved abstraction — “the American dream” — might be a daily nightmare for millions of his fellow citizens is a point someone who castigates Coates for “excessive realism” is never likely to understand. But I suppose it’s all well and good to talk about “transcend[ing] old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow” when the only place you’re likely to encounter the legacy of them is on the way home from the airport.
Abandoning reality for being too “excessive” is basically his job, after all.
I’ve read one other thing by Coates, an article he wrote a year or so ago in The Atlantic, in which he made the case for reparations to be paid to Black America for the wrongs of the past. Coates’ reasoning was more nuanced than a simple case of White America owing a debt to Black America. He made a strong case.
So I wonder: How many White Americans would be open to a full-fledged public consideration of the case for reparations? The closest we’ve come to reparations is affirmative action. Affirmative action, however, is not really compensatory. Rather, it seeks to limit the perpetuation of White advantage that results from past injustices by awarding Blacks their proportionate share of the spots in colleges and professional schools. A compensatory scheme would go further, by awarding Blacks more than their proportionate share of those spots, as reparations for past discrimination.
Yet, despite the minimalist nature of affirmative action, most Whites oppose it, with some of the opposition being openly hostile. Reparations, logically, would be out of the question in their minds.
Which brings me to this passage from Brittney Cooper in I could have been Sandra Bland: Black America’s terrifying truth:
White people resist seeing themselves in the face of the oppressor. That mirror reflection is almost too much to bear. I get it. So then they resent the person that holds up the mirror. But let me just say as directly as I can: White people must begin to see themselves in the faces of the mostly white police officers who keep committing these atrocities against Black and Brown people. This will not stop until you recognize that you are them. These officers are your brothers and sisters and aunts and cousins, and sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, and friends, and church members. You are them. And they are you.
It’s a hard truth. It’s a truth that will infuriate each and every white person that floats through life on the cloud of individuality, fooling themselves into thinking that the assumptions, presumptions and privileges of growing up white in a white supremacist society somehow missed them, while touching an alarmingly large number of people who look just like them.
Those words stung when I first read them a few weeks ago. I’m still struggling with them.
Is Cooper’s assessment right? On one level, no. Many White Americans recognize intellectually that they likely would not be in the position they are today had they lived in black skin. But I think Cooper is speaking more to whether we take responsibility, personally, for that reality. On that level, Cooper may well prove correct.
It seems that it’s up to Us White People. If we act, both individually and collectively, to address the injustice and not rest until the job is done, until we’ve created a society that truly is color blind, that truly is free of structural racism, a society in which whiteness is not an advantage, then perhaps Cooper had it wrong. If not, we’re all guilty as charged.