Joshua Heath: What white people don’t know


I’m white – Irish Catholic, to be precise. I’ve spent my life around white people, been raised in white schools, and lived in Valencia, a rather white town. And through my experience with this particular class of folks, I’ve realized something fundamental: Many of us don’t know what we’re talking about in regard to race.

When confronted with the problems facing African Americans, we frequently respond with crude answers that sound something like this: “The Civil Rights Movement succeeded 50 years ago. Blacks are treated pretty much equally. If they don’t succeed, it’s their own fault, and that’s that!”

While this is a comforting idea on the surface — for if true, I can just sit on my butt and ignore the protests of Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. But it is also entirely false. Fake news. Malarkey.

The fact of the matter is that horrific racism continues to rob blacks of a fair shot at the American dream in ways the average white citizen just doesn’t comprehend.

For evidence of this, consider the racial wealth gap: According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the average black family has a net worth of $1,700, while the typical white family has a net worth of $116,800. This disparity causes serious problems in African-American communities, making it more difficult for them to afford housing, health care, education and other necessities.

Furthermore, it has profound consequences for the structure of our society. Researchers have long noted that most kids grow up and achieve the same economic status as their parents — affluence begets affluence, poverty begets poverty.

Consequently most African-American children, raised in households with few resources, will end up in a similar circumstance themselves. White kids, by contrast, born to families with wealth, will accumulate wealth as adults.

Under such a status quo, racial justice will never come to pass, and that fact should bring shame to us all.

The origins of this despicable situation can be traced back to our country’s racist history. During the New Deal Era, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman sought to create a large middle class that would enjoy homeownership, good schools, decent wages, and retirement security — in other words, the American dream.

Achieving that worthy goal required a raft of new laws from Congress, which was then controlled by Southern Democrats, who would only collaborate on legislation if it discriminated against African-Americans.

The G.I Bill — which promised returning WWII soldiers massive economic opportunities — was administered at the local level, which gave the South the authority to ensure black veterans received few of its benefits.

And the housing programs that facilitated the massive suburban growth of the 1950s — through a discriminatory system of redlining and restrictive covenants — kept African American homeownership rates to a minimum.

Cumulatively, these policies and others created the racial wealth gap, which ensures that black children today, born in a post-Barack Obama America, will have a much more difficult time succeeding than their white peers. The ghosts of the old South hauntingly live on.

But even if African Americans try to overcome this injustice, they still will face incredible difficulties.

According to Princeton University, blacks with a clean background fare as well in the job market as whites with a criminal record. The reason for this reality is clear: employers continue to be influenced by racist stereotypes about black people’s humanity, work ethic, criminality and intellect. These notions, formed to justify slavery, still affect hiring decisions in 2017.

This discrimination has a tremendous impact on the ability of African-Americans to succeed economically, as black college graduates remain unemployed at twice the rate of their white peers. That’s a tragedy, a denial of the American dream to legions of hardworking, innocent people.

Many other racial inequities haunt black communities today – like mass incarceration, police brutality, and school segregation – but the two I’ve mentioned, the wealth gap and employer discrimination, are enough to show that racism is still a horrifying problem in America.

It is high time whites understood this. We must do away with the specious idea that argues the problems in black communities are due to the personal failures of black people themselves. They are not.

The only barrier to African-American success is this country’s racist past and it’s often-hateful present.

Whites must acknowledge this reality, think critically about what must be done to change things, and treat African-Americans with empathy and respect – something they’ve deserved the last 400 years and still do not truly receive.

Joshua Heath is a political science student at UCLA and a two-term delegate to the California Democratic Party. He lives in Valencia.

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