~ Is it “okay” for those who have profited so much from racism to be silent on the issue? ~
A conversation between Jenny and Joe.
Joe: Me? A racist? It’s unthinkable. I used to have a good friend who was black.
Jenny: Of course you did. Most racists say that to justify their bad attitudes. Your racism shows in more subtle ways, like in how you vote and spend your money … in your attitudes toward public policy … in the status quo you’ve accepted as “normal.”
Joe: What status quo?
Jenny: Like how minorities are at a much higher risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and infant mortality … and that black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Joe: It probably has something to do with genetics.
Jenny: Doctors say genetics and biological differences are not to blame.
Joe: Well then, it must be a problem with their lifestyle.
Jenny: Which is a valid point, considering their significantly higher rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and school drop-out. They also have less access to healthcare, which is a system created for whites. Are those disadvantages “okay” with you?
Joe: Well, I question your figures.
Jenny: Of course you do, but if you do your research and look at all the data, the truth is right in front of your face. You’ll see how we’ve accepted a status quo that we’d never accept for whites. Think about the Navajo Nation: 10 percent are without electricity and 40 percent without water in their homes. Is that “okay?” Is it “okay” that their access to healthcare is severely limited?
Joe: It’s not “okay,” but it can’t be helped.
Jenny: It can’t be helped. Meaning we herded them like animals onto reservations and now it’s not “convenient” for us to give them the basic infrastructure to survive, let alone thrive. And what about the median wealth of white households, which is 10 times that of black households?
Joe: This is a free country. If minorities want a nice home in the suburbs, they gotta get off their butts like I did and work damn hard to make it happen!
Jenny: And yet for more than a century after emancipation, blacks were intentionally kept out of nice neighborhoods like yours! By time they were allowed to live anywhere they wanted in the 1980s and ‘90s, wages had fallen so low and home prices so high that they couldn’t afford to move.
Joe: There’s a world of opportunity out there. You gotta grab it by the tail. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Anybody can be a billionaire if they put their mind to it. But you can’t make people work if they don’t want to.
Jenny: You say you’re not a racist and yet you have the audacity to accuse minorities of being lazy!?
Joe: You’re putting words in my mouth. Maybe it wasn’t so bad when folk were more segregated. At least then we didn’t have all these problems.
Jenny: You have got to be kidding! You want to send them to the back of the bus, not admitting that their blood, sweat and tears got you to your place of white privilege.
Joe: I worked hard to get where I am and there’s no way in hell I’m going to become a socialistic sugar daddy for all these needy people.
Jenny: Wow. How about dealing with your ignorance by studying the unspun history of racism in America? And how about dealing with your fear by making friends with people who are different than you, with no agenda apart from learning and listening and being a friend?
Joe: I’ve been around the track enough times to know that different kinds of people don’t mix well together. You can do what I said and still do it in a respectful way.
Jenny: Respectfully kick their asses out of your neighborhood.
Joe: I knew you wouldn’t understand. And I’m not a racist! I just wish they’d work a little harder because the America I know is a land of opportunity and we can damn-well make it great again.
Jenny: A land of opportunity for some people while others have huge disadvantages, because the cards have been stacked against them for centuries.
Joe: I just don’t see that being the case.
Jenny: I think I just heard the plantation owner tell me all his slaves are happy and well fed.
Joe: Those people got their freedom over 150 years ago, which is more than enough time to level the playing field.
Jenny: For most of that time, whites terrorized blacks with beatings and lynchings, in the North as well as the South. The Supreme Court said they weren’t even human. We’re still shaped by that plantation mentality, with poor people of all color having to work like slaves.
Joe: The Civil Rights took care of 99 percent of that problem.
Jenny: Just look at the penal system. Blacks are six times more likely to be sent to prison than whites for committing the same crimes. They’re three times more likely to get the death sentence for the same crimes. And you’ve seen all the racial profiling and police violence in the news.
Joe: Some folk make a big to-do about nothing, but the people I know and trust say it’s not a problem.
Jenny: And there’s not a racist in the bunch!
Joe: They’re good Christians who treat all people the same.
Jenny: And who am I to question your judgment?
Joe: I’m not a racist.
Jenny: It’s unthinkable.
Joe: Absolutely unthinkable.
Image by Esther Bubley, Wikimedia Commons.
This is a compilation of conversations I had with real people in recent years. Sources include:
“Racial Economic Inequality,” Inequality.org, https://inequality.org/facts/racial-inequality/.
“Four Figures That Explain Racial Inequality in America,” by Dwyer Gunn, PacificStandard, 27 February 2018, https://psmag.com/economics/four-figures-that-explain-racial-inequality-in-america.
“50 years after the Kerner Commission,” by Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson, Economic Policy Institute, 26 February 2018, www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/.
“Racial Inequality,” National Alliance to End Homelessness, https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/what-causes-homelessness/inequality/.
“Fact Sheet: Health Disparities by Race and Ethnicity,” by Lesley Russell, Center for American Progress, 16 December 2010, www.americanprogress.org/issues/healthcare/news/2010/12/16/8762/fact-sheet-health-disparities-by-race-and-ethnicity/.
“There is no Neutral; Nice White People can Still be Complicit in a Racist Society,” by Ari Shapiro, 9 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/09/873375416/there-is-no-neutral-nice-white-people-can-still-be-complicit-in-a-racist-society.