Friday, August 19, 2016

“It is not my Responsibility”: 
White Americans refuse to take Racism Seriously

The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh has begun a series of discussions on race in the city. The meetings are private and by invitation only. Little information is available. But one Black participant reports that she has attended a number of “conversations about race” but that this is the first one where Whites participated as well as Blacks.
At this meeting, someone else reported, the conversation began with Black attendees speaking until someone asked whether the Whites in the room had nothing to contribute. One white man spoke up complaining that he was tired of conversations about race. “I did not own slaves, I did not participate in a lynching, or refused to hire African-Americans for jobs they were qualified to perform. It is not my responsibility.” In short, “It is not my problem. I am not interested. I do not want to talk about this.”
We do not know anything more about this speaker. Let us imagine that he is a solid citizen. He has to be to be invited to the Mayor’s private conversations about race. Let’s assume that he has been teaching history in High School for more than thirty years. He is also a successful soccer coach for the girls’ team. He is well respected by his colleagues and many of his students love him. Alumni remember him fondly and gratefully.
Our man is a practicing Catholic. He understands that his religion commits him to opposing injustice and to help where help is needed and deserved. He condemns overt racism and opposes politicians who seem to exploit the racist sentiments of voters. He is not a bad person. You would like him if he were your neighbor, the teacher of your children.
His complaint needs to be taken seriously.
We ask him about his home. He owns his free and clear. He bought it when he was fist married and had just embarked on his career as a High School teacher.
Teaching did not pay well then. It still is not a way of becoming rich. How could he afford the down payment? His in-laws helped out with the down payment, he admits. His wife’s grandfather, on his return from World War II, got a cheap government guaranteed mortgage through the GI Bill. Ever since the family had had a small but solid financial cushion through home ownership and their savings.
We ask him: “You are a history teacher. Did you know that the GI bill did not work the same way for Black veterans after World War II as it did for Whites? Banks refused to give mortgages to Blacks, regardless of the fact that they too had just returned from fighting in Europe and in the Pacific and were entitled by law to government backed mortgages? Did he know that?” No, he says, he did not know that.
He therefore also does not know that the median net worth of white families is about $265,000, while it is just $28,500 for Blacks. The average nest egg of White families is about 10 times that owned by Black families.
He admits that that is unjust but continues to insist that he did not run any banks after World War II--he was not even born--and therefore is not responsible for this discrepancy in White and Black ownership of assets.
We remind him that the Black families who were treated unjustly are Americans just as he and his family. They belong to the same nation, they work, pay taxes, and when necessary go to war. Can a good citizen, as he tries to be, ignore injustices done to other citizens? Do we not owe solidarity to other citizens?
We may well be right about this, he thinks.
We ask him another question: How did he choose where to buy his home? It happens to be in a lily white suburb. The school where he has been teaching for years has about 5% Black students.
He answers: his house is a few blocks away from that of his in-laws. His wife wanted to be close to her parents.
We ask: Why not live in a neighborhood of White and Black families? Our man is a decent person. He hesitates. He realizes that it would have been difficult for him to persuade his wife and his in-laws, who provided the down payment, to accept that choice. He admits, embarrassed, that he himself would have had to think very hard about that choice.
We tell him that social science research confirms that housing segregation is widespread in the US and that White preferences not to live with Black neighbors is one of the major causes of this continued racial segregation. When it comes to Black families being confined to Black ghettos, Whites cannot shrug off any responsibility.
He admits that he is no longer quite as sure that he has no responsibility at all for the plight of African-Americans. He leaves us, saying ” I need to think about what you said.”
And so do other White Americans who protest that racial inequities have nothing to do with them.