Coming to terms with race and resolving racial disparity in America feels like an insurmountable, unfinished task, because it is unfinished. The work was started and abandoned, started and abandoned many times by generations before us. But it’s only insurmountable to the degree that we tell ourselves the work is finished - or "finished enough"- choose to leave the rest of the work to those who will come after us.
But if it seems hard now, it will only be harder then. Yet it’s easy enough to start, once we assess where the previous work stopped.
In his book, Ending Slavery: How We’ll Free Today’s Slaves, scholar expert Kevin Bales describes the steps he believes are necessary for communities and countries all over the world to end the modern-day slave trade - from sex-trafficing to forced labor in jungles of Brazil to bonded labor passed down through generations in India. Key among those steps is the rehabilitation of freed slaves. Emancipation, Bales says, is insufficient without investment in rehabilitating freed slaves, who require medical care, education, and reorientation of their skills, which he describes in New Slavery: A Reference Handbook, as "restor[ing] the personhood of the person."
The essential condition of bondage is in the minds of the people. …They have been conditioned to accept that their place is at the periphery of society. The process of release and rehabilitation is to restore the personhood of the person, to restore self-esteem, confidence, and the feeling that they too can win.
He goes on in Ending Slavery to describe how that process stopped short in America, after the Civil War.
After the American Civil War freed slaves also knew what it would take to build a decent life in free dome. Their work experience told them that forty acres and a mule could feed a family and grow enough of a cash crop to make a life and get the children to school. American slaves never got their forty acres and a mule.
Without collective investment in rehabilitation and restoration, Bales writes that many freed slaves return to slavery, either by choice or compelled by circumstances unchanged except for simply having been released.
Bales goes on to note that the gains made by former slaves in the American south were quickly reversed, and they were plunged into what author Douglas Blackmon describes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery By Another Name, calls a "neo-slavery" that persisted for nearly another century after emancipation.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible "debts," prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations-including U.S. Steel Corp.-looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.
Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude. It also reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the modern companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the system’s final demise in the 1940s, partly due to fears of enemy propaganda about American racial abuse at the beginning of World War II.
I know a bit about that system, for I was born one generation removed from it. My great-great-great-grandfather, Henry Heath, was among those slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and other legislation Blackmon mentions. Like many he he did not head north (some of my mother’s branch of the family did migrate to Pennsylvania), but stayed very near the plantation where he’d been a slave owned by Georgia planter John Burge Heath. He and his descendants were sharecroppers until my father’s generation left the farm as the system Blackmon writes about was in decline. My father’s "emancipation" came in the from of a draft notice, he often joked that he "stepped from behind the plow and started marching."
As near as I could tell, from the research I did back in college, he was born in 1847, and would have been 18 in 1865, when the civil war ended. From that point on, he and his descendants were sharecroppers, in a system that bore a remarkable resemblance to the system they and the nation had supposedly gotten shed of.
Though I was unaware of it then, remnants of that system were still visible during my childhood. Visiting my grandmother in southern Georgia always felt like a trip to another world, because she lived in a home that was very different from the one we lived in. It was an unpainted sharecropper shack, really, that resembled the abandoned shacks we saw along the road on our way down south. It didn’t have running water. Instead, the water came from a pump in the yard. Instead of an indoor bathroom, there was an outhouse. And baths were taken in a metal tub, filled with water that had been heated and drawn from the pump. To my sister and I, it was an adventure. But to my father, I’m sure it was a reminder of what he had escaped.
He was, in fact, one of the first (if not the first) in his family and maybe the first in his generation to leave the farm and the dying system it represented - one that had lasted for nearly a quarter of a century after slavery (which had gone on for more than 240 years by the time of the end of the civil war), and eventually gain a foothold in the American middle class. My mother’s route was to enroll in cosmetology school, and open her own beauty shop in an extension built onto her parents’ home. In 1955 (some 90 years after my great-great-great grandfather was freed) they bought their first home, and were most likely the first in their families to live in a home they owned, on property they owned. Even then, they did it without the help that young couples just starting out might get from their families, like a gift or loan of money to help with the downpayment. Instead, for years, they sent money home to their parents, who relied on them as a partial means of support.
They did all of this, in many ways, for us - their children. I heard them state over and over again that they didn’t want us to grow up as they had, though by that point the system in which they grew up picking cotton and walking behind a mule was long gone. They had both managed to finish high school, which made them even more aware of the importance of education, and they constantly expressed its to us. In 1987, decades after my parents left the farms - the mule, the plow, the cotton fields, etc. - I became the first in my immediate family to go to (and later graduate from) college.
From many perspectives, my parents were a success story; one of climbing into the middle class and sending their children out into the world with educations and opportunities they never had. If it was a success story, it was one delayed and deferred for generations. But I knew even then that our story was more the exception than the rule in many ways. We were not that far removed from the past, nor from its echos in the present, and our perch somewhere in the middle of the economic ladder may even have been more precarious than my parents let us know.
But that’s not usual for any recently-gained foothold. Those who have been climbing for generations may have further to fall, but they have several more rungs to go than those who have only recently started. As much as that was the case for my parents, so it’s the case for many African-Americans today.
So why, then, even after the end of the "neo-slavery" system, did African-Americans still lag behind whites economically? Well, there’s the reality of persistent segregation and discrimination in the south, that went on for several more decades, and necessitated the modern civil rights movement. But, why, after the civil rights movement, then, did African-Americans still lag behind economically? Addressing this requires debunking what Paul Rosenberg dubbed "theoretical core of color-blind racism."
…an ideology that facilitates continued white dominance in a post-Civil Rights Movement era, while denying that it is doing so. While colorblind racism is the main public face of movement conservatism, which allows it to blend in with the mainstream of white American thinking on race, there is always an element of old-fashioned racism present as well. Indeed, colorblind racism and old-fashioned racism repeatedly interact with one another, as the framework of colorblind racism makes clear.
…Minimization of racism is a frame that suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances ("It’s better now than in the past" or "There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there).
…Naturalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences.
You hear an echo of the latter in an earlier quote from a conservative blogger, which takes the ideology a little bit further by suggesting that anyone who thinks more needs to be done to address racial disparities, in the context of history’s present day consequences, is actually the "real" racist. (Or, if that individual happens to be black, just "lazy.")’
To his credit, James Clyburn at least acknowledges that the objections of Mark Sanford and the GOP governors are not racially motivated. Still, it is a bit demeaning to suggest that African Americans in particular would be hurt by the decline of stimulus funds. It somehow implies that African Americans are incapable of succeeding unless they are crippled and dependent on government
The intention is to silence anyone who suggests racial disparities require action, because it rules out any cause other than "personal responsibility" for those disparities. Thus effectively reinforcing the unspoken and outwardly projected belief that "African Americans are incapable of succeeding unless they are crippled and dependent on government," while ignoring centuries of history, and absolving the believer of his or her own "personal responsibility in relation to it."
"The essence of political power," as Rosenberg writes, "is the ability to define. The ability to define ’us’ and ’them.’ … The ability to define what is and what is not a political problem."
The truth is that the present disparities in racial disparities in wealth (and thus in the benefits and opportunities it provides) date back far beyond the pre-Civil Rights era. And, despite the successes of the Civil Rights movement, those pre-existing disparities were perpetuated by conservative economic policies that favored the those who were already among the wealthiest. And an economy geared to benefit the wealthiest will, by definition, benefit very few African-Americans, and will threaten and likely reverse the progress some have made.
The period Blackmon writes of was followed by a period long period of legal segregation discrimination, which was followed by what Paul Rosenberg calls "The 30-Years Conservative Nightmare," that perpetuated long-term economic disadvantages.
Traditionally, the American Dream has most often been described in terms of each generation sacrificing to provide a better future for their children. This has come about though two distinct, but connected phenomena. First, each successive generation of a given population is, on average, more educated, more skilled and more productive than the one before it. One can think of this in terms of moving from one income group to another–from the bottom decile (10% of the population) or quintile (20% of the population) to the next, for example. New immigrants come in on the bottom, and each generation climbs up the relative income ladder.
This was not, of course, true of African Americans. During most of our history from colonial times to the present, they were predominantly slaves, and after that they were predominantly locked into a system of sharecropping that kept them tied to the land, and subject to legal and economic restrictions that kept them from advancing, while new immigrants quickly advanced over them.
With the end of legal segregation in the South, and legal discrimination throughout the nation, it was assumed by many that this unique dynamic would end, and blacks would advance similarly to other low-income groups. The following two charts clearly indicate one reason why this did not happen. As can be seen, the very well-balanced economic income growth from 1947 through 1979 was replaced by a pattern of income growth highly concentrated at the top. As a result, even those blacks that did substantially increase their skill levels over that of their parents did not receive the full benefit that others had received before them. They received a skill bonus, but only a very meager generational bonus. The escalator no longer took everyone up at a nearly equal rate. Instead, it virtually stopped for those at or near the bottom, it slowed significantly for those in the middle, and it only really kept working for those at or near the very top.
I’m fortunate that my family made it somewhere near the middle before the escalator slowed down. It enabled me to keep moving upward, even if not at the rate my parents did - leaping from sharecropping to suburbia in one generation. At the very least, I haven’t lost any of the ground gained, nor have my siblings. But the reality is that, for the first or second generations to make that climb, the trip back down is only a few steps, and can be made without being chosen, and before we even know it. After all, we’re only a generation or two removed, if that.
General Motors is sending out notices this week to more than 2,000 dealers that it wants to shut down as the company struggles to stay afloat. Minority dealers are especially worried that GM’s restructuring efforts could wipe out years of progress toward building their ranks.
At Michael Chevrolet in Chesterfield, Mich., outside Detroit, a sea of unsold cars sit in the lot, and there are no customers in sight. Michael Johnson, the owner of this dealership, got his start through GM’s Minority Dealer Development Program.
"When I first got into the business, there were probably about 110, 115 African-American General Motors dealers, and today we are down to 40."
Johnson’s office looks out onto the showroom floor. The desks where salespeople used to sit are mostly empty. Johnson has cut his staff by half in the past year. He says while his business problems are shared by others, minority car dealers expect the worst as the company decides which dealerships get the ax.
…Desmond Roberts is a car dealer in the Chicago area who heads the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers. He says those criteria could doom most minority car dealerships.
"Minority dealers came to the party late. We had the worst opportunities in the worst locations," Roberts says.
Growing up in Augusta, GA, I remember some white-owned car dealerships that had been in business all of my life (and some may still be in business), standing prominently at heavily trafficked intersections, in some of the busiest retail areas, with huge signs bearing the owners’ family name. They were family businesses, handed down from one generation to the next. or launched with the help and capital of family members who were in or had been successful in the same business. As I grew up, and on trips home from college, I could practically track the "line of succession" - the inheritance of the family business or the opening of new branches by the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of sons and daughters of the first entrepreneurial generation - by the television commercials in which those sons and daughters touted their roots in the business. (Longevity, after all, inspires confidence and loosens up credit.)
Not that these business owners didn’t work hard to make or keep their family ventures successful, and even expand them, but they have an advantage over the first generation, minority entrepreneur with no family history in any business, no investment or "seed money" from the previous generation. And certainly not a childhood spent learning the business practically by osmosis, punctuated with visits or even internships at Daddy’s or Mommy’s dealership. It reminds me of some of the kids I went to school with, some of whom already knew that when they graduated, they would have a job waiting for them at Dad’s law firm, bank, office, etc. Not that they wouldn’t work hard to get whatever and wherever they got.
According to the report, "Foreclosure Exposure: A study of racial and income disparities in home mortgage lending in 172 American cities," African-Americans who purchased a home were 2.7 times more likely to get a high-cost loan than white borrowers. In addition, Latino borrowers were 2.3 times more likely to get a high-cost purchase loan than white borrowers.
Minorities also were more likely to get high-cost refinance loans, with African Americans 1.8 times more likely than white borrowers to get a high-cost refinance loan and Latinos 1.4 times more likely.
Further, in 68 of the 172 metropolitan areas reviewed for the Acorn report, at least one out of three loans was high-cost and likely to have its rate reset. More than half of loans were high cost in Detroit, Laredo, Texas; McAllen, Texas; and Jackson, Miss.
"Too many of our neighbors were steered into unaffordable exploding ARMs without being given an option for a fixed rate and now face foreclosure, which harms their families and our communities," said Maude Hurd, national president for Acorn, in a news release. "We have seen a sharp increase in foreclosures in some of the urban and minority communities that most need to build wealth through homeownership."
A new report says the subprime mortgage crisis will cause African-Americans to experience wealth losses of between $71 billion and $122 billion over its duration. The racial bias of subprime mortgage lenders accounts for a 40 percent difference in losses between whites and people of color.
This will mark the fifth year that United for a Fair Economy (UFE) has published a State of the Dream report on Jan. 15, the actual date of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, which will be officially celebrated on Jan. 21. This year’s report is called " is available at .
…The report details the types of subprime loans developed and offered by the industry since 1995, presents evidence of their effect on minority and low-income communities and outlines potential solutions.
United for a Fair Economy is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that spotlights the growing economic divide and works across races, ethnicities and classes to help shrink it. Visit them at www.faireconomy.org.
Those recently-gained and newly-lost gains in homeownership were, in many cases, made by people who became the first in their families to own a home. This was progress made without help or downpayments from parents or family, and without the benefit of shared generational experience in home buying, and by people who never thought homeownership - and the path to middle class security and stability it’s supposed to represent - would be open to them.
Without the history, support and resources that come from generations of climbing the economic ladder and securing a foothold, they are gains that will not be recovered in most cases, because circumstances will not afford a second chance. Unless some recognition of the link between past and present, between history and her and now, is possible.
That recognition requires taking of our blindfolds, so that we can finally see all of the elephant in the room, and finally decide what to do about it.
In other words, after the all the progress made since the end of slavery, and in the wake of the civil rights movement, we’re not only still left with an unfinished task. In many ways we are left with the hardest part of the job before us, as it was before all of our forebears, and not just on the issue of race, but equality itself. There are lots more elephants in the room. Recognizing them means taking off our blindsfolds in order to see them, but also to see where we stand in relation to them.
Some of us know of the elephants in the room, and where they are located, because we’ve lifted our blindfolds or someone has lifted them for us. W e keep them on only because we know we must in order to get along.
The BET reporter tugged at Obama’s blindfold, knowing full well that the president knew there were elephants in the room and where they were, but perhaps also knowing that Obama in particular must keep his blindfold on most of the time.
James Clyburn lifted his own blindfold, though he too knew of the elephants in the room, only as a man who has spent a lifetime navigating around them can - especially one who represents a state soaked in the history mentioned above, and still reeling from its consequences. He went so far as to point out not just the elephants in the room, but also to point out to many people that they were wearing blindfolds they appeared not to know they had on.
Some of us cannot afford to live with blindfolds, and some of us believe we cannot afford to live without them. And as we walk the path in and out of history, we bump into each other at times, such as a story I blogged about a year ago. It caught my eye because it came from my home state, and it occurs to me now because it illustrates how we continue confront and refuse to confront the consequences of our shared history, when the injustice of the past yields the disparities of the present.
A "whites only" sign was still hanging on the precinct house water fountain in 1964 when James Booker joined the suburban College Park police force. He soon learned it wasn’t the only thing off limits to Georgia’s new black recruits.
Until 1976, black officers were blocked from joining a state-supported supplemental police retirement fund. Today, white officers who entered the fund before that year are taking home hundreds of dollars more every month in retirement benefits than their black counterparts.
The now-retired black officers have been lobbying hard to change that, but eight years after they began an effort to amend the state constitution and give them credit for those lost years is stalled in the Legislature. The Georgia Constitution prohibits the state from extending new benefits to public employees after they have retired.
Booker, who was 76-years-old at the time, worked 30 years for the police force during a time when black officers couldn’t arrest a white offender without a white officer present, couldn’t change uniforms at the station house, and couldn’t wear their uniforms to work. He would be getting about $770 more a month in pension if he had been allowed to join the pension fund at the beginning of his service, as his white counter parts were. Last year, he was working part-time directing traffic to make ends meet.
If James Booker is one who can’t - and never could - afford to live with a blindfold on, the Georgia state legislature is populated by many who can’t afford to live without their blindfolds.
Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, said he knows of no other state with a similar pension situation. "Only Georgia is shameless enough to still have this out there," Hampton said.
The Georgia House has twice passed an amendment resolution but it has gone nowhere in the state Senate. An amendment requires a vote of two-thirds of each chamber as well as approval by voters.
"We can’t fix everything for everybody," said state Sen. Bill Heath, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee.
Heath, a Republican, argued that making retroactive changes to retirement benefits "opens up a can of worms and could destroy the pension system."
In Georgia, and in other places, it seems the time for justice is not always right now. In fact, some injustices are so old that and affect so few that we hope they can be forgotten. Booker asked of the legislature, "[A]re they just waiting for us all to die?" And in a sense, they are, though not so much as for Booker and his fellow officers to die as for an opportunity to finally and forever forget. They want to keep their blindfolds on, and not be reminded that they have them or that there’s an elephant in the room.
That’s because there is a price for taking our blindfolds off.
CEO and CNN guest columnist Al Vivian is one who has accepted that price, because the price of keeping our blindfolds on is higher, as he explained in a column adressing the response to Holder’s "nation of cowards" comment.
Privilege can be a dangerous thing. It releases you from the task of thinking about things that others must. I am an African-American male and I am privileged. Not on race; but on gender, education, religion, income and many other areas.
As a man, my authority and intellect are not second-guessed. As a Christian, my moral code is not questioned, nor am I subject to post-September 11 profiling. I have privilege in these areas, and I realize that this privilege creates blind spots. An advantage to any group creates a corresponding disadvantage to all others.
…Elaborating on history, we must acknowledge that whites have been the benefactors of centuries of history that included half-truths that socially affirmed them to the detriment of all others. Addressing this privilege will take extreme courage, for there will be many loud dissenting voices.
For example, there has never been a discussion in America about whether we should or should not celebrate a White History Month. That would be an irrelevant waste of time, because white history has been the basis of practically all that we have been taught. Being able to sit in a classroom and open history books that positively portray a plethora of people that resemble you has been, and continues to be, the exclusive historical privilege of whites.
This privilege psychologically and economically benefits every member at every level of the advantaged category so profoundly that its members never have to question their place in society. And that place is on top: the expected and accepted norm.
There are many types of privilege, some of it earned and some of it unearned. Unearned privilege may be based on anything from race, to gender, religion, social class, to inherited wealth. With the exceptions of religion and sexual orientation, I can claim many of the privileges that Vivian does. But, in an America still wedded to a mythology of "self-made" "rugged individualism," pointing out privilege punctures that balloon of exceptionalism, causing a lot of anxiety and even fear. Fear, because the recognition of privilege carries the price of responsibility.
A year ago, I attempted to adress the above in a post following not only Obama’s speech on race, but remarks by African-Americans as diverse as Jeremy Wright, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, that all echoed the same themes as Obama’s speech.
But we don’t want to hear it. We are a nation of "rugged individualists," whose national mythology "self-made" ideal, utterly detatched from and unaffected by the past. It’s a mythology that, as Gonsalves points out, allows many middle and working class white Americans to believe that they’ve enjoyed little to no privilege based on their race. Yet, Booker’s story - and others - like it illustrate precisely that kind of historical advantage and privilege, and how it impacts the present.
It’s the same mythology that allows George W. Bush - who once 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 advantages he’s enjoyed due to his family’s wealth and connections. It’s the same mythology that makes it impolitic to ask whether George W. Bush would be where he is without the Bush family’s wealth and political power, with just his own talents, abilities, and intelligence to rely on.
Ann Richards once said that George H. W. Bush was "born with a silver foot in his mouth." Another Texas politician 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 white Americans were born on second, first, the batter’s box, or at least "on deck," and some born in the dugout are still waiting for a spot 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. On both sides of the race discussion, fears and insecurities make people want to run for cover.
What we are running from is, on one, hand recognition of how our reality is connected to that of others’, and on the other responsibility.
Sometimes being part of a maligned minority means that in some far, dark corner of the soul absorbs all that has been said about you as - in my experience, as a black man and as a gay man. It absorbs every implication of inferiority - and some part wonders if it might be true, or even believes it. But you don’t want it confirmed, because it means you are not who you were taught you are. You may 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 white Americans have to contend with 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 expected to see a certain degree of swagger and confidence in the participants. After all, they’re young and rich (and, all of them, white). I was surprised at the degree of insecurity among some of them, who know that what they have they didn’t earn, except by being born into their families. Perhaps that’s the other side of the coin. I can only guess - 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 socio-economic advantages and privilege that come with it.
Until we recognize the reality that Obama, Clyburn, Holder, Rice, Powell, Wright, Vivian and others have pointed out to us, the work of resolving our racial past with the reality of our present will remain undone, because we will continue to refuse to accept responsibility for the present, in the context of its relationship to the past.
On one side, there’s a responsibility that comes with the recognition of privelege. We become responsible either for perpetuating it, and the injustice and inequity it relies upon to exist, or we become responsible for undermining it and - in the course of becoming the America we’ve always hoped, claimed, pushed and plodded towards becoming. - risk losing that privilege.
On the other, light is finally shed on the elephant in the room. And once seen, we become responsible for our part in doing something about it.
But, it’s the only way forward, if not for the elephant, for us - finally, out that suffocating room, and its presence.