You cannot read the history of Black people in America without being saddened and appalled and infuriated. As a middle-aged White male, I have had the luxury of never having to deal with being a minority in my own country, much less a minority burdened with America’s history of oppression and stereotypes and discrimination. What I am about to say is offered in the spirit of healthy dialogue. If I don’t phrase things quite right, it is a flaw in my writing, not in my intentions.
I suggest that the best way to lessen inequality, and to improve conditions in the poor Black community, is to talk more about things that lead to success. I think the focus on racism may be more of an impediment to the Black community than racism itself.
It reminds me of a scene in the novel Catch-22. The main character, Yossarian, is an American World War II bomber pilot. When one of Yossarian’s fellow airmen is hit by flak while flying a mission, Yossarian rushes to bandage the man’s bleeding arm. But the wounded airman worsens. Yossarian wraps more bandages on the bleeding arm . . . but the airman dies on the floor of the plane. It is only when Yossarian removes the dead airman’s flak jacket, and blood pours out of a gaping stomach wound, that Yossarian realizes the bleeding arm had distracted him from seeing the much more serious wound.
Racism is like the Black community’s bleeding arm, the wound that gets most of the attention. According to the mainstream media, academia, and the Democratic party, racism is still deep and widespread, and remains the most significant obstacle in the lives of Black Americans.
Certainly there is inequality. Black people today are more likely than White people to be poor, more likely to be imprisoned, and more likely to have health issues. Black people on average have less accumulated wealth than White people. Some segments of the Black community seem trapped in a “cycle of poverty.” By almost any measure, Black Americans are worse off than White Americans. And the terrible oppression that Black people have faced in the US is obviously part of the explanation for the inequalities. Past racial discrimination in residential housing, for example, is one reason there are concentrated poor Black neighborhoods in many cities today.
But today’s racism – racism actively practiced by White people now – is a diminished force. Not even the most racist group today is arguing for racial segregation. Interracial marriage, once illegal in many states and frowned upon in most, is widely accepted. Barack Obama received a higher percentage of the White vote than John Kerry. There are Black political and cultural and business leaders throughout the country. Women of all races make major life decisions based on the advice and guidance of Oprah Winfrey.
And certain groups within the Black community are thriving. Nigerian Americans, for example, have a higher average income than White Americans. In 2015, Nigerians had a median household income of $62,351, compared to the US national average of $57,617.
Of course, the backgrounds of Nigerians immigrants and their children are different from the backgrounds of descendants of slaves in America. But that is the point. What are Nigerian Americans doing differently? How are they managing to succeed despite the racism that exists today?
Education has been the path to success for every group arriving in America in the past, and Nigerian culture places a high value on education. “Anyone from the Nigerian diaspora will tell you their parents gave them three career choices: doctor, lawyer or engineer.” Nigerian educational achievement in the US surpasses Whites and Asians. Seventeen percent of Nigerians in the US earn masters degrees, compared with 12% of Asians and 8% of Whites. “Education is indeed paramount to everything in Nigerian households,” reports a Medium.com article entitled Why Nigerian Immigrants are the Most Successful Ethnic Group in the US. “So much so that there is a ubiquitous aphorism within the Nigerian community which asserts that the best inheritance that a parent can give to their children is not jewelry nor any other material things, but it is a good education.” By emphasizing education, Nigerian American parents are essentially giving their kids the message that they control their own futures.
A different message emerges from the narrative that racism is the main problem facing the Black community. “The deep racial and ethnic inequities that exist today” explains the Urban Institute, “are a direct result of structural racism: the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain white supremacy.” The Center for American Progress identifies racism as the explanation for the “wealth gap” between Black and White people. “[T]he disparities can nearly always be traced back to policies that either implicitly or explicitly discriminate against black (sic) Americans.” The late author and professor Derrick Bell, a founder of Critical Race Theory, argued that racism was a permanent feature of America, and that Black people today are more subjugated than at any time since slavery.
I believe this narrative attributes to today’s racism a depth and power that may be beyond reality. But worse, it is a defeatist message. Among other problems, it implies that education is pointless. The narrative tells a Black child that America’s educational system exists in order to promote White supremacy, and that the White teacher in front of them is inherently racist. How can we then expect the student to listen eagerly to the teacher and work hard in school? Isn’t there a chance that he or she will decide instead that hard work won’t make a difference?
The point I am trying to make is not that racism is gone. My point is that the narrative that racism is still the biggest impediment in the lives of Black Americans may be doing harm. It may be getting in the way of asking good questions and trying to find real solutions. Can the success of the Nigerians be replicated elsewhere in the poor Black community? Can we teach Black children to thrive, especially when so many live in disintegrating, dangerous neighborhoods full of the allure of “street” culture? It is tempting to avoid such questions. We don’t want to appear to be “blaming the victim.” But by exaggerating the power of today’s racism, we may be wrapping too many bandages on that one wound, leaving more serious wounds bleeding.