... as in skin color.
I read the text of Barack Obama's speech on race-- I thought he did a great job confronting a difficult topic. I couldn't help noting, of course, that one of the main things he cites as dividing the races, as well as one of the main things that can unite them, is, basically, money.
Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.
I'm glad he talked about these things so clearly. So often, I think people politely (or not) sweep issues of race under the rug and want to pretend we're all totally past it. I don't often blog about this issue but when I touched on it in one of my early posts, "What Color is Your Millionaire," there were some fairly heated comments. Somewhat later, I was interviewed and talked a little bit about the controversy that post generated. That part of the interview-- which included a comment along the lines of "I didn't say the author of The Millionaire Next Door was a racist, I just said he was ignoring the issue of race in a disingenuous way, and the statistics supporting his message make it absurd"-- was completely edited out, and as far as I could tell it was the only part that was edited out! Whoa, guess that got a little too divisive and controversial!
So I'm glad a politician has managed to frankly acknowledge that we have a legacy of an uneven playing field, and that we need to work together on the common economic goals and aspirations that unite us.
[In case anyone's wondering, this isn't meant as a "run out and vote for Obama" pitch. I am still undecided as to who our best future president would be. Also, though my family is ethnically mixed, my experience is that of a white person.]