By Nikhil Vaish
“Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as the custodians of the black experience.” — August Wilson
For me, the question of inequality between Blacks and Whites in America boils down to one simple question: how many black parents tell their kids that they can achieve the American dream, one where anybody can start from humble beginnings and with honest hard work and perseverance rise to the greatest heights?
If the American Dream is achievable for blacks, then tell me where are the black scientists, artists, nuclear physicists, painters and playwrights? Where are the black Nobel Laureates? Where are the black Walter Cronkites, Charlie Roses and Tom Brokaws? Where are the black Michael Phelps and Arnold Palmers? How many famous black historians, economists and army generals can you quote? Where are the black Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalkers? Can you name one black super hero? Where is the black David Ogilvy? For that matter in the liberal bastion of Hollywood can you find me a black studio head?
In Silicon Valley there are numerous Indian and Asian entrepreneurs, tech moguls and billionaire venture capitalists. Currently, Microsoft, Google and Adobe all have Indian born CEO’s at their helm. Yet, I struggle to name one black startup founder, tech mogul, hedge fund billionaire or even Wall Street tycoon.
It is hard to argue a case for blanket racism in America because many non-white immigrants tend to do extremely well, across many different industries and fields, from medicine to science and technology. In fact, Asian-Americans continue to have the highest household incomes in America (Source: Pew Research article). I want to know why the American dream continues to seem largely unattainable for black people outside of music and a few sports.
Across every major statistic used to measure social mobility and economic progress, there is huge disparity between whites and blacks in education, unemployment and income. In fact, after the financial crisis things got worse for blacks; the income inequality between black and whites is now the worst it has been in America’s history. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households….” “These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.” (Source: Pew Research Center). Hispanics fare badly too but are still considerably better off than blacks.
All this data has been debated and discussed to death but nobody has really provided sufficient answers as to why this should be the case. Why does the plight of black people in 2017 still seem dire, one hundred and fifty years after slavery was abolished?
The first place to start is to think about the images that have consistently been portrayed through Hollywood movies, mainstream television and media; black people have long been stereotyped as thuggish hoodlums in hoodies and portrayed as drug dealers and petty criminals. Even Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop had a disdain for rules and broke the law while the white cops were disciplined and anal about upholding and following the law.
To this day we are bombarded with mugshots of black criminals and rapists on national and local news every night. Until very recently politicians routinely talked about the black community’s desire to live off the welfare state as a truism. They made it seem like all blacks were lazy and that black youth were a lost cause, choosing to live off handouts, sell drugs or join gangs versus getting an education and lifting themselves out of poverty. For too long we have been told that the reason for the black community’s lack of social mobility is that they are inherently lazy, lacking determination and self-motivation.
Before we default to this lazy argument, we should look at a few things in America’s history that can explain the inter-generational disenfranchisement and lack of mobility among the black community.
For years, corporate and mainstream America buried its head with tokenism. I remember when ad agencies were told by clients to put one black person in the ad to check the box for diversity. In the same way that clients added a token black person in an ad, to prevent being sued for lack of diversity, the same false reality gave rise to the Cosby Show, Eddie Murphy and the Arsenio Hall Show. It was tokenism that allowed white Americans to feel better about the opportunities being provided to black people; it was never real social or racial integration.
Consider that, “approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates” (Source: US Department of Justice, 2014). “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males…. “If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime—compared to one of every seventeen white males”(Source: Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013).
These two statistics alone are alarming and led to my investigating why it was that the US prison system is overwhelmingly filled with black males, in spite of the fact that black people are no more criminally prone than Indian, Chinese, white or any other ethnic group in the world.
To fully understand this anomaly, we need to go back to the abolition of slavery because there is a common misconception that it ended with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; this assumption masks a reality that slavery silently got institutionalized into other forms of legally sanctioned barriers against blacks that exist even today.
I recommend watching Ava Duvernay documentary, ’13th’. It chronicles the institutionalisation of slavery from 1863 to after the civil war, through the war on drugs started by Nixon, broadened by Reagan and codified by Bill Clinton into the industrial prison complex we see today. It explains the insane rates of incarceration we see among black youth today.
As a non-white immigrant, I felt there was something dramatically wrong in America because I realised very early on that I had a much greater chance of achieving the American Dream, in virtually any profession, than a black person born here.
It is worth noting that the majority of successful non-white immigrants from India, Middle East and Asia who came here in the 1950’s were typically middle class, well-educated and came of their own free will and volition; for this reason I believe they have never been viewed through the same lens as blacks, who were all brought here in servitude and never considered equals by their white masters. Every black person in American can trace their ancestral roots back to a slave. I believe this stigma still prevails among white Americans, albeit unconsciously for the vast majority.
You might ask how it is possible after so many generations that these imprints might remain in people. Interestingly, there is science that suggests that our DNA also contains within it the traumas and experiences of our ancestors.
“According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.” (Source: Discover Magazine). Coupled with the images we have been repeatedly fed of the stereotyped black person through Hollywood and the media’s lens, both exclusively controlled by white people, this can help to explain our perceptions and biases today.
For our purposes here I want to share a few historical facts to illustrate why I am convinced that the black experience in America is not only unique but explains the lack of social and upward mobility and among blacks.
When Southern Democrats took power after Reconstruction they passed a series of local and state laws and social rules to oppress blacks and disenfranchise them. These became known as the Jim Crow laws and etiquette and were in effect from around 1877 until the 1960’s. They legalized segregation in transport, education, restaurants and bathrooms. Below are just a few examples of the types of things that Jim Crow etiquette mandated:
- “A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal.
- Obviously, a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.
- Under no circumstance was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female — that gesture implied intimacy.
- Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.” (Source: Ferris State University site).
The effect was to relegate blacks to inferior status and make them second class citizens in their own country. The laws also ensured voting restrictions such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that prevented the majority of blacks (and the poorest whites) from voting, leaving southern blacks politically crippled and economically disadvantaged.
While the laws in the southern states were overtly segregationist, discriminatory practices were prevalent even nationally and began to get institutionalised. One of the most heinous was a policy known as redlining, which was designed to prevent black neighbourhoods from receiving housing loans.
It, “was introduced by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, and lasted until 1968.” “Otherwise celebrated for making homeownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to black people or even other people who lived near black people.” Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.”(Source: The Atlantic). We know that to thrive and grow every community requires investment in jobs, housing, infrastructure, etc.; such investments were discouraged in majority black communities across America.
With the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, people believed, like with the Emancipation Proclamation, that they would magically bring equality for all Black Americans. In 1963, “a Gallup poll found that 78% of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in. “When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60% had an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything.” (Source: Roper Center, Cornell).
These laws were necessary to end segregation, ban employment discrimination and give blacks the right to vote, but once again what American society failed to realise was that to change deeply-ingrained beliefs and multi-generational prejudice would require much more than the passage of a law; especially when there were still white people in power determined to maintain the status quo and the inequality between Blacks and Whites.
If you find this hard to believe, consider that, “as recently as 2006, a city government report found that affluent, non-white Milwaukeeans were 2.7 times likelier to be denied home loans than white people with similar incomes.” A study by the National Institute of Health from 2009 concluded that “that white people prefer to live in communities where there are fewer black people, regardless of their income.” (Source: NIH Study “Does Race Matter in Neighbourhood Preferences).
A field study conducted by CNN in 2008 found that, “Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a call back relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background.” (Source: CNN article). The US Department of Justice settled a lawsuit with J.P. Morgan Chase in January 2017, for charging “African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher rates than white borrowers from 2006 to 2009, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.” (WSJ article).
Based on this historical evidence it becomes clear that numerous policies purposefully put in place to institutionalize racism; these policies were designed to silently prevent black people from gaining mobility and integrating with white America. The impact can be felt to this day.
Upward social mobility requires each generation to move one step up the social ladder, which then allows the following generation to gain access to better housing and higher quality education which leads to better jobs, better pay and a higher standard of living – more than any other non-white group, black people have been denied the ability to gain social mobility.
Think back to the fact that currently 1 in 3 Black American men face jail in their lifetime and then consider that a criminal record pretty much disqualifies you from participating in US society; even for low-level, non-violent offenses, for which the majority of black people are jailed. “Even your lower-paying fast-food jobs are now doing background checks,” he said. “How can I pay child support if I can’t get a job?” (Source: NYTimes article).
Without question we have come a very long way, but the fact is that many of these biases are still prevalent today and we must be aware of them in order to move forward. I believe that to heal these long simmering racial divisions (that have come to light more starkly under the first black President) and mend this broken narrative, Americans need to start by acknowledging and owning the sins of slavery (much like Germany does about the Holocaust) and gain a deeper understanding of how the subsequent years of institutionalised racism have ravaged the black community.
This is not about retribution or pity; it is about understanding the starkly different reality a black and white people in America face.
Until Americans fully appreciate this reality, we cannot begin to do the necessary work to ensure that the American Dream becomes real for future generations of black children.