Opinion by John Croes
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Litchfield Mirror, LCTV, LCM, the Town of Litchfield or it’s elected officials.
A few years ago, it suddenly hit me that Blacks in America probably think about being black everyday. What will happen to me or my family today because we are black? Will I have to have the talk with my children today about how to talk to the police? Will the police stop me or my son? What slights will I confront today? Will I be shortchanged at the store because I’m black? Will I not get promoted today? Will I be turned down for the Small Business loan? What epithet will be thrown at me? Will my child be shot? Will the mortgage I’ve applied for be approved but at a higher rate than for Whites? Will I not get that job? Will I not live through the day because I am black? Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense, “60 Minutes” 8/22/2021: “There’s not a day in my life that I didn’t wake up and think about the fact that I was a black man.”
As a white person, I’ve never thought much about being white. I haven’t had to. It’s one luxury of being white. I’ve been proud of my heritage. My paternal great grandfather, a poor Pennsylvania carpenter, signed up with Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1871, assisted with Reconstruction in Tennessee, explored the Black Hills on Custer’s expedition, fought the Indians in Kansas and the Dakotas, and homesteaded in eastern South Dakota. My maternal grandparents fled the Russian pogroms in 1906 and passed through Ellis Island on their way to better lives in America. I’ve always loved those connections to my ancestors and their part in America’s history.
However, I’ve been doing some soul searching, and “The Mirror” is an appropriate name for my recent and ongoing introspection on race and social justice in my own life. Certainly, I’ve long been aware of race and racism. My parents belonged to the NAACP. I read Soul on Ice, MLK’s “Letter From A Birmingham City Jail,” The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Slaves in the Family, Black Like Me, watched “Roots” and “Eyes on the Prize” on T.V.
But systemic? My first inkling of “systemic” racism, although it wasn’t called that, came 10 years ago from a book that detailed the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks.* Obviously, having few assets accumulates little and passes on little. In contrast, wealth accumulates and passes on, generation to generation.** In my life, without my immigrant maternal grandparents’ eventual ownership of successful liquor and furniture businesses, I wouldn’t have been able to attend a private college in Minnesota. When my parents died, my brother and I inherited money that has helped us purchase homes and that we can use in our retirement. We’ve benefited from ancestors who had wealth to pass on.
We’ve owned 6 houses, 3 with mortgages. I now realize that compared with other middle class and poorer people, being white helped get those mortgages at favorable rates in locations of our choosing. And our savings, in part passed on from ancestors, along with profits from the first 3 home sales helped us avoid more mortgages. While institutional and systemic assistance has aided us, it has penalized others based on race.***
In Rapid City, S.D. named after the creek where Crazy Horse was born and whom my great grandfather fought in the 1870’s Indian Wars, we lived on land promised forever by treaty to the Lakota Sioux nation. Within 3 decades, the government reneged on two treaties letting the land be stolen for the sake of a goldrush. My father had a 99-year lease on land in the Black Hills that the Supreme Court decided in 1980 had been wrongfully taken from the Sioux Nation. My college now begins commencement exercises and zoomed lectures to alumni with recognition that the land I studied on had been Native land, taken illegally. I’m now forced to consider that while much of my life has been advantaged over Blacks and on land stolen from Native peoples, generations of American minorities have been systematically, systemically, and intentionally prevented from accumulating wealth. With all that in mind, I’m not so proud of those connections.
My entire teaching career was with immigrants, refugees, and people in other countries, so I’m very comfortable with and curious about them when I meet them. “Where are you from? What languages do you speak?” “Your English is so good!” Through an online course I took earlier this year, I’ve realized that for some people, innocent and well-meaning statements like these point out that I see these people are different, foreign, not like me. And I remember being asked questions like this in various countries and feeling suddenly judged and stereotyped in some way. I had never realized the hidden, unintentional message behind them. Now I wait until I know the person better.
I hear lots of people declaring they don’t see race or color. I’m not one. I realize that I do see race, and I’ve wondered if that makes me racist. I see Blacks as black or dark, and it occurs to me–nonjudgmentally–that they are Blacks. It doesn’t cross my mind that white people are white. I notice that mixed race couples are mixed. I am conscious of believing I can often detect a speaker’s race on the radio and phone based on how they talk. As a Peace Corps volunteer for over three years, I was one of only two white people living and working within 30 miles of my home. On reflection, I now suspect that at least some of the respect and deference I held–even from the other teachers–was quite possibly due to my whiteness.
Addressing these realizations in public like this is rather humiliating, but it’s my step in addressing social justice. I’m sure there are other institutional and systemic ways that my life has been assisted–ways that minorities’ haven’t been able to claim and that have worked against them. My point in all this is that as a country, I believe that we all need to do some introspection. We all need to take stock of our own lives and beliefs. There are plenty of opportunities to really listen to others’ experiences, if only on the radio and television. NHPR and PBS have provided excellent opportunities to take a closer look at American history myths and reality. We need to not knee jerk reject the claims of systemic racism without some honest introspection. Just maybe, it’s really true and we’ve benefited.
* Of the total wealth in America in 2016, white families owned 89% of it while Black and Hispanic families owned 3% each.https://apps.urban.org/features/wealth-inequality-charts/
** “In 1963, the average wealth”–measured by family assets–“of white families was $121,000 higher than the average wealth of nonwhite families. By 2016, the average wealth of white families ($919,000) was over $700,000 higher than the average wealth of black families ($140,000) and of Hispanic families ($192,000).”
*** Redlining, higher mortgage rates, application denials, and hidden factors such as credit score algorithms that funnel applicants into unconventional fees, above average APRs, and high-risk loans often leading to foreclosure. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2020/01/racial-discrimination-in-mortgage-market-persistent-over-last-four-decades/
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