Feeling the economic legacy of racism or what we don’t talk about in polite company

Despite the fact that I am Black, I was born Black and I probably will be Black until the day that I die (can I do the Rachel Dolezal and identify as someone else?) and while I  understood since childhood that there were people who didn’t like Black people, it took a lot of years of being earthside to understand that racism is a system; an institution. To quote Charles Blow, who quoted the Aspen Institute “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”

A recent conversation with my first husband reminded me of the first time that I truly recall glimpsing into the face of systemic racism, yet at the time I didn’t know that what I perceived as personal racism was indeed part of the larger system of racism that impacts Black lives regularly. We were a young, dumb and in-love couple who had married early, like straight-out-of-high-school type early.

As newlyweds, we needed to secure a permanent place to live and this was before the Internet and Craigslist, so we went through the classified ads placing calls as we used to do back in the old days. I called about an apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview area. I remember clear as day, all these years later (24 to be exact) speaking with what appeared to be an older white woman on the phone. I explained that we were young newlyweds, looking for a place, she seemed excited to meet us and told us we could come view the apartment right away.

Less than an hour later we arrive, ring the buzzer, get buzzed in, my then husband, a white man walked ahead of me going up the stairs. He warmly greeted the woman, she responded with warmth. I was a bit laggy as I was with child and it was several flights up. A minute or two later I arrive, and her warm smile vanished at the sight of my then very slight, brown body. She looks at me and says coldly “The apartment is no longer available.” Obviously we go back and forth but it is clear that she has no intention of renting to us, a mixed-race couple. Hell, she didn’t even want to show us the place! (And I got to experience the same apartment-rental treatment, sans pregnancy, after I had hubby number two, except that time the landlord-not-to-be was a middle-aged white man.)

At the time, I had no idea that what felt like personal shame was part of business as usual in how Blacks and other non-whites have been kept out of good neighborhoods. That what felt so personal and ugly was just part of the system, the institution.

It would take a few decades for me to start seeing racism as a system whose impact still resonates with Black people today yet is often invisible to many white folks thus creating what I call the silo of whiteness.

I have shared before that my father was born and raised under Jim Crow in Arkansas. He spent most of my early years avoiding talking about his childhood other than how he had to pick cotton as a kid and how he was 11 years old before he lived in a place with indoor plumbing. Growing up, I knew that I had uncles who hated white people and for many years it didn’t make sense to me.

However, it started to make sense several years ago, when my father, in recognizing his own mortality after my mom’s death, made a series of tapes for our family. In these tapes, my father spoke more in depth about his life in Arkansas. How his childhood dream of being a scientist was shot down when midway through high school, a white teacher told him that was being a scientist was not something for colored boys but that he could be a good janitor. He spoke about the man who allowed his family to sharecrop on the land that my grandparents stayed on; he also shared how they left that land and ended up in the first public housing project built in his town, in large part because my grandparents wouldn’t give over one of their daughters to that landowner. Much of what my father shared made me proud of the resilience of my family but it also made me mad at what was denied. It made me mad at how much of this recent history is brushed aside by white folks who seem to think that slavery ended in the 1800’s and all became well for Black folks.

Recently I have started thinking of the economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow and racism of the past on today’s Black folks as I grapple with the reality that my father (who is now retirement age) has no retirement other than Social Security. That whatever he had, he and my mother put into my brother and I. That as the eldest kid in a family with only two kids, I find myself wondering how can I secure my own old age, finish raising my daughter and ensure that my father who already lives hand-to-mouth doesn’t end up in a cardboard box with a can of Alpo.

A few years ago, a white friend asked me why I helped my dad out and why hadn’t he planned better? It was the type of question that knocked me over at the time. I was still steeped in the shame and personal responsibility game and asking myself the same questions.  Yet now I can answer that question and answer it without shame: In a country that systematically denied access to opportunities for its darker inhabitants, my father like many found himself unable to plan for any future, much less save for it. He gave all he could to ensure that my brother and I might just do a little better than he did and I stand on his shoulders and in recognizing that honor, I give back because it is the right thing to do. I know that for every Neil degrasse Tyson (and who are we kidding, the sciences are not exactly overrun with Black folks), there were many who simply could not break those barriers and that doesn’t make them any less human, just that their excellence exists in other ways.

If it happened now, I would ask that friend: Did you ever question why your parents were able to help you? Have you ever thought about how wealth is created in the United States? Have you ever thought about the wealth gap and why it exists? Generational wealth is harder to obtain when you enter the race dead last and have to support parents and grandparents who were systematically denied any chance to build even a modest amount of family wealth.

In light of the Charleston tragedy, it seems we are attempting to talk about race as a nation, yet I would caution that no discussion about race is complete unless we delve into not only the institution of racism (and how it continues to be maintained) but also the real legacy of racism on Black people and how its effects can still be felt today despite this notion that all is fair and equal. Any less of a discussion and we are fooling ourselves about creating racial equity.
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11 thoughts on “Feeling the economic legacy of racism or what we don’t talk about in polite company”

  1. Your stories bring back ugly memories, too many to recount here, of attempting to secure housing in San Francisco and Philadelphia, going to college, securing employment, shopping, traveling and just navigating the world as a woman of color in these United States. The stories I could tell. “Waking up White” should be required reading for all white people. Maybe then, they would get it.

    • I often tell people specifically white people that my stories are not unique, they are the day to day stories of non white folks in America. “Waking Up White” really should be mandatory reading for all white folks.

      • I’m looking into a used copy of “Waking Up White” as it seems like perhaps more on target than I’d given credit for. I’ve been knowing for awhile that the stories aren’t unique, that the horribleness is deeply entrenched and living ugly. My awareness doesn’t reveal solutions, however, or even how to start movement building, so perhaps there is some of that in the book. There is a profound schizophrenia of the heart for most people who must be (essentially) viscous in the act of going to work everyday in an economy and society that abhors giving back to the earth equally as it takes, so that one is simply taking and taking and taking “for family” and meanwhile, leaving the same family sans future, because it’s not going to hold. Now we find that science is highly correlating smog as a primary factor in dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. My problem is that it seems a little too easy to simply blame big business when people are the brains behind it. They certainly are the muscle as well. And when I try the argument that I’m not saying we have to all quit our jobs, I understand that we have to go forward as we dismantle, I find myself greeted with a certain crankiness because there seems to be an implication that folks aren’t convinced that we need to move that fast, or perhaps they just don’t want to let go of what they have, or perhaps they are just happier being in denial. I don’t know, I don’t have enough statistics to render an empirical answer and intuition, which in my case is truly based on reading the signs from the Earth over and over, seems to be considered superstition and fatalistic!

        • Reading Debbie Irving’s book is an eye opening…..in hearing both Shay and the authors presentation at the Portland Public Library…. I was totally shocked to learn that well educated white people are so selective in their educational efforts. While I knew that I as a white woman was in the minority here in embracing the cause of the ” disenfranchised Americans of African descent “…..my lingo…. I did not know that I was that MUCH in the minority! But this largely reflects the fact that many northern whites including New England whites have never had to face the stark reality of the southern experience. Hence while their are pockets of hate in the deep south; their is as well an enlightenment that is not found elsewhere.

  2. Great response to this so Puritanical ideology that is ingrained into the American culture … “either you are ordained by your Calvinistic God to be wealthy or you are born to be damn”.

  3. “If it happened now, I would ask that friend: Did you ever question why your parents were able to help you? Have you ever thought about how wealth is created in the United States? Have you ever thought about the wealth gap and why it exists? Generational wealth is harder to obtain when you enter the race dead last and have to support parents and grandparents who were systematically denied any chance to build even a modest amount of family wealth.”

    God…this. I’m so sick of personal responsibility shaming, especially directed towards populations that live way back from the start line and are pretty much being kept back there by a wall of other humans who want them to stay there.

  4. Small world. I was just thinking today about how vehemently I don’t talk about money. I am so obscure about sharing about it that I actually fail to share certain of my more resilient energies (because I will always look poor I suspect, but I’m still walking around on “this dusty rock”). And, I wonder, if I did share better and then did make a truly concerted effort to think of a way to get my white peers to think about how much easier it’s been for us to “look poor, but still walk around” than it is for our POC neighbors on this planet, would I come up with a way to really help turn things around? I am keenly aware that money and economic privilege are so misunderstood that some white people have to turn it over into they had fewer obstacles, but never the less worked very hard to get where they are, which of course they don’t see as really very far, because they aren’t Donald Trump yet. I guess if I tell this it may help, I just have to figure out how to get where people (white) may listen: Due to a lay-off a couple of years ago, I was getting the cheapest health care I could find and found myself waiting for about an hour in a clinic in my town. The population here is about 27% black and maybe 35% Hispanic. My town is poor and this clinic helps care for the working poor and has another office in a more prosperous town nearby which probably pays the bills. Anyway, I was waiting a long time and struck up a conversation with a black woman about my age (early 60’s). She is a retired school teacher, with a Master’s degree in education. A Master’s degree! Very well spoken and articulate, yet enduring circumstances that white people like to call “fallen on hard times”! Actually, I would say the hard times had fallen on her and these little “cutesyisms” that it is our responsibility as white people to erase from our bag of euphemisms are all too prevalent in our deeply racist society. Anyway, I don’t have a master’s degree, and if I did, how would my white skin ever land in a small town poor people’s clinic? It seems virtually impossible! Now I hope that her presence there is a sign of cagey thriftiness on her part, but never the less, all that money and effort, just to get the job, and then to be barely above water at her age! Plus, I think the work out of achieving not even her goal, which would have made her an administrator, took a toll on her health because she’d had to give up teaching because of what ever it was (I don’t recall) that had brought her to the clinic that day. I know she wanted me to hear her well and must have hoped her words would register. Well, at first, I was so saddened to learn of this that I just lapsed into dumb silence and then her name got called and I did not see her again. Now I want to activate some kind of change. I’m looking for ways. I’ve learned of a group called SURJ. I hope I can keep and gain some momentum. It is privilege, it’s not obstacles, but clearly, a lot of white people are not feeling it.

    • SURJ is a good group, actually my organization is the Boston affiliate of SURJ, so definitely connect with them. Truth is that I am on track to be that lady you met in the clinic I have a Masters degree, hell my brother has two of them, including an MBA! Yet we still struggle and will have to work hard to ensure that my dad stays housed and fed as he ages.

      • Life circumstances includes “luck” and at every corner there is the chance that you will encounter that illness,that accident, that dysfunctional employer that will alter your life and your economic security forever . With no real safety net in the United States we are all vulnerable to this change of tide !

  5. Beautifully said and absolutely true …..as you perhaps know, the Talbots had the same experience as you had as a couple …..except that Jerry could pass for white if he had ever wished to do so while his lovely darker skin wife, Anita could not. Not only were they denied housing in Portland. Maine but the first federal government “fair” housing acts totally discriminated against American people of African descent as well. It makes a mockery of everything that the American Constitution and “Bill of Rights” are suppose to stand for — one wonders, however, what exactly do these documents stand for and for whom ?

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