Joshua Heath: What white people don’t know Part 2

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

My recent column “What White People Don’t Know” took a lot of heat. Readers called me racist, ignorant, terribly offensive and more. And while I reject all of those attacks, (the piece, after all, was grounded in data and history), there was one criticism in particular that had some merit.

Namely, I agree with those who said the structure of my argument was needlessly crude. The column presumed, with its title “What White People Don’t Know,” that all white people are uninformed when it comes to race.

This was overly broad, bad writing. It didn’t recognize those whites who approach the African-American community with thoughtfulness and compassion.

But — and there’s always a but — even if one accounts for these enlightened individuals, there is still a serious ignorance problem in white America regarding this subject. That’s not just my opinion. We have polls to prove it.

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of whites in this country believe that racism toward white people is as pervasive a problem as racism toward black people. That’s a delusion, to be perfectly frank, and by the time you get to the end of this column, you will understand why.

In my initial piece, I briefly mentioned the term “redlining” while discussing the racist practices of the New Deal Era. It’s worth explaining what that was. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration undertook a nationwide effort to ascertain which neighborhoods were safe for home loan assistance.

On the maps the agency produced for this effort, all-white neighborhoods were often shaded green, the highest grade possible, while African-American communities were colored red, which denied the residents who lived there the chance to obtain a government-insured mortgage.

As a result, homeownership in early- and mid-twentieth century America was for whites only, which is why the grotesque racial wealth gap exists today. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the median black family has only $7,000 of assets to its name, while the median white household holds more than 15 times that.

This lack of wealth in black communities means many African-Americans go through life lacking a safety net. The money in the bank that millions of whites have to send kids to college and weather chronic illnesses and periods of unemployment just isn’t there for them.

This was not caused by black culture or any personal failings on the part of black people. It is a result of public policy — “big government,” as conservatives would say — that artificially created winners and losers in one of the most critical races there is: the fight to accumulate wealth.

Now let’s consider the broader economy. Over the last 60 years, the black unemployment rate has remained twice that of the white unemployment rate. In good economic times and bad, and despite the fact African-Americans are far more educated today, that truth has remained constant.

The existence of this disparity is largely attributable to rampant discrimination in the labor market. According to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, job applicants with white-sounding names get called back 50 percent more of the time than those with African-American-sounding names, even when their resumes are identical in qualifications and experience.

Employers are influenced by racism when they make their hiring choices, plain and simple, which disproves the idea that affirmative action programs have given blacks an advantage over whites.

And these practices lead to a consistently higher black unemployment rate, which only serves to validate the bigotry of employers, thus creating a vicious cycle.

The public education system could make an effort to teach young people — the employers of tomorrow — why notions of black inferiority are grounded in hatred, not fact, but this does not occur.

Instead, students are treated to a whitewashed version of U.S. history that contains no critical examination of race, no framework for understanding the lived experience of African-Americans in the past and present.

White people simply do not experience discrimination equivalent to any of these injustices, and yet, as I mentioned earlier, a majority of us believe racism against whites is as big a problem as racism against blacks.

In light of these facts, it is obvious that far too many whites don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to race.

Now for my final thought: many of the comments I read about my piece sounded something like “You want to criticize, but what do you know, college kid?” And in response to this, let me say, I don’t understand very much about race either.

On so many issues — housing segregation, inequities in the public education and criminal justice systems, voting rights, the interplay between poverty and culture — I have so much more reading and studying to do.

But what separates me from the average fellow is this: though I know relatively little, I understand enough to see that the dominant narrative about race in America is wrong. We are not yet in a post-racial society in which citizens of every skin tone are afforded the same opportunities.

As my columns have demonstrated, the legacies of our racial history, and the persistence of bigotry in the present, continue to have a disproportionate effect on black people — on where they live and work, eat and play; on their ability to see a doctor; and fundamentally, on their capacity to dream.

The unfairness of that ought to offend anyone who believes America should be a place where every citizen has the same chance to thrive.

I don’t ask The Signal’s readers to agree with everything I write, but only to recognize what’s clearly in front of our faces: this nation is far from a fair place for black people, and that fact calls for humility and compassion from all of us as well as thoughtful reflection regarding what must be done to make a better world.

As individuals, we are never more exceptional, nor closer to God, than when we stand before those we harm and seek redemption. The same can be true of this nation in its relationship with African-Americans.

Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.

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