ESSAY #12 – 10.17.20 POSTED 5.18.21

Where We Are, Part III, 4th in the Series

The continued economic stagnancy of the last 40 years for the American middle class has left both Blacks and Whites with a lot of unmet expectations. Some of us have blamed these unmet expectations on others, which perpetuates misunderstandings and mistrust, and gets in the way of further progress. We do have the knowledge and the ability to move forward. The question is, do we have the will?

Where We Are, Part III

Fourth in a Series of Essays on

Race, Repair-ations, and Reconciliation: Resetting the Relationship

In Part II of this series, I mentioned how, beginning in the ‘80’s, the stagnation of real earnings for the American middle class stunted the economic progress of our black community. I want to return to this topic now because it is a big part of the story of “Where We Are.”

While making it difficult for black people to sustain economic progress, this wage stagnation (which has now persisted for over 40 years) did something even worse to the white working class. It took away something they already had, something they thought was theirs to keep. And rather than seeing their loss as the result of wage stagnation, they instead believed that someone had taken it from them.

Ingrained beliefs

Now, when I say it was worse for white people, I mean it in the sense that having something and losing it is usually a much worse experience than the experience of never having had it all—it’s that relative reality thing again. Having something supports a sense of entitlement that is hard to shake. For example, think about one of your favorite beliefs. Now, just give it up like it never existed.

How did you do?

Right. A belief is an idea gripped tightly, and letting go of beliefs is not easy. In fact, chewing nails would be easier. Speaking of beliefs, what do busing, Affirmative Action, and a stagnant middle class have in common? On the one hand, nothing, other than that, though they are all cultural phenomena, they are experienced as personal, and that they are all things that have happened here in the United States. On the other hand, unexamined, it might appear (and people might believe) that they are things that happened to white people because the government was taking the side of black people.

So, here is my big picture: Everyone has a little picture—their story about their life and how things have landed upon them. Their story, which is the truth to them, tells them how they feel about their world, and how their world feels about them. We don’t need to determine whether their story is right or wrong, good or bad, valid or invalid, we just have to understand that it is their story and that story gives them their view of life. In this way, we can begin to understand and accept them where they are—they are living in their own paradigm.

We are talking about “Where We Are,” and where we are is that there is a large group of white people who believe, among other things, that they have not been treated fairly because government policies favor black people, which means that something has been taken away from white people.

Now, that is a gross generalization, so don’t take what I am saying as an empirical truth. It’s more like I’m saying that these beliefs are embedded in some of the threads that make up the tapestry of our racial relationships. Nobody has to fix anything here because nobody can fix what people think, unless someone’s curiosity offers a door to enter. Just see that no one is to blame for what they think or feel—not even you. But the hurt is real. It looks like animosity, but that is just a protective coating, and you can’t fix it by minimizing it, criticizing it, or ignoring it. See it and let it be, and maybe it will change you.

Untapped potential

I spoke earlier about the progress that has been made since the ‘60s, and it has been significant and broadly experienced. However, we are far from being a society where equal opportunity can be taken for granted. Although Blacks have succeeded and excelled in almost every arena, there is not yet parity with the white population. We have big pockets of black inner city poverty, and black people in rural communities lacking the resources to either move to places of greater opportunity or bring opportunity to the places they live. When I say resources, I am including the education, training, and experiences that are essential foundations for success.

Okay, I can hear it in my head, so there must be someone out there who will ask, “Well, whose fault is that?” I have three answers:

1. What difference does it make?

2. It’s nobody’s fault. There is no single person to blame. It happened over time with or without intention. And it is systemic.

3. At some point, it might be useful to trace the history that has brought us to this place, but we don’t need to go down the rabbit hole of assigning blame right now, and we probably never will (see answer #1).

With the contributions that Blacks have made to our society over the last fifty years, it must become obvious that the amount of brilliance and potential contribution that is locked up in inner city ghettos is immense. I’m not guessing—it is a mathematical certainty. The American way of promoting on merit really works when it is working, but as part of that ideal, we must see where it isn’t working—those places where merit is stifled—and then act to free it up (for all of us, not only for Blacks). The good news is that we know how to do what needs to be done. We have success all around us, and we have the models and the data to do what needs to be done. We also have all the resources, but we have to understand fully that this is an investment in all of us that will reverberate endlessly to everyone’s benefit. We understand what works, but we need to be willing to apply it. Do we have that will?

Setting the intention

There was something more I wanted to point out in what Janey said in Part II of this series: “We are all first-generation college graduates, but our parents were middle class hard workers and owned businesses.” When I was on that local school board where I met Janey, I insisted that we adopt an Affirmative Action policy for every employment level in the district, with targets that we could aspire to. My driving concern was that I thought (and still think) that every child should be able to see adults who looked like them doing those jobs. I recognized then that there simply weren’t enough college-educated black teachers to bring our district into parity with the population, but the intention to achieve that parity needed to be set. Janey’s family had the sophistication to understand what it took to get things done, and they built in their children the aspiration for an education and for personal financial independence. They knew to do this because of their employment and life experiences—they were modeling what they had learned. The essential thing that we know today is what it takes to make people successful. We might be less clear about how to go about providing that success, but we do know it can be done.

Where we are

So, the answer to “Where We Are” is this: we are on a journey, on our way to an equitable society, and we have made considerable progress. In the world of economic equality, we have been stuck for a while, and we need to take steps to move things forward if we are serious about fulfilling the American potential.

There are a lot of white people who believe that the progress of Blacks has been at a cost to them. Their feelings have to be acknowledged and respected, and in some cases, they need to be invited to entertain another set of facts—facts other than the myths they have been treating as facts for decades. There are gross discrepancies in the treatment of Blacks versus the treatment of Whites in the justice system, as the number of deaths at the hands of police for Blacks is multiple that of Whites, and as a percentage of the population, many more Blacks are imprisoned than Whites. Some people may have an idea about why this is, but if you think it is other than a systemic issue with deep roots in our history, you are whistling in the wind. Finally, in spite of a lot of good intentions, access to a good education is still limited for Blacks in comparison to Whites.

There are other identifiable issues, but this gives us a place from which to start. The good news is, we know how to fix this, and our nation has the intellectual and economic resources to complete the journey. The question is, do we have the will and the comity to do so? And that unanswered question is part of “Where We Are.”