August 8, 2020

It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over. And It’s Not Over.

Guest Opinion
By Tom Gutowski | July 11, 2020

There’s a huge disparity between the well-being of white and Black families in America. Median Black household wealth is about one-tenth of median white household wealth. Median Black household income is 61 percent of that of whites. Black life expectancy is three and a half years shorter. Black children are almost twice as likely to live in poverty. About 41 percent of Black families own their own homes, compared to 73 percent of white families. Rates of Black unemployment and infant mortality hover around twice the rate of whites. Black mothers are three times as likely to die in childbirth or from related complications.

The roots of this gap lay in the institution of slavery. Besides not being compensated for their labor, slaves often had their families torn apart, were subject to physical punishment at the whim of their owners, and were forbidden to own property or learn to read. There were exceptions; of the 25 percent of Southerners who owned slaves, a few were Blacks. Some slaves, with their master’s consent, could hire themselves out a few hours a week and own property. And a few learned to read. But overall the popular image is correct: white masters, Black slaves, and a brutal existence.

Much of the wealth of slave owners was destroyed during the Civil War and by emancipation, but by 1880 the major slave-owning families had recovered financially through their social connections and access to capital, while most ex-slaves and some whites had become sharecroppers or farm laborers.

After the war, during Reconstruction, former slaves hoped to enjoy the rights and opportunities available to whites. There were promising beginnings — Blacks registered to vote, held office, started schools — despite fierce resistance from the white population, including 2,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1877. But in the Compromise of 1877, federal troops were removed from the former confederate states, and the period of federally backed egalitarianism came to an end.

What followed was harsh discrimination in housing, transportation, employment, and education;  various forms of blatantly illegal exploitation; thousands more lynchings, Klan intimidation, several massacres; and disfranchisement. The situation in the North was only marginally better. After World War II, when discriminatory administration of the GI Bill denied most Blacks the benefits — like college tuition and government-backed mortgages — that were available to millions of white GIs, it was a continuation of what Blacks had been experiencing for decades.

The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s — the Montgomery bus boycott, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, marches, sit-ins, etc. — brought substantial and undeniable progress. But racism and the effects of past racism persist.

Some of it’s obvious: a policeman shooting an unarmed Black man in the back or killing a handcuffed Black man by kneeling on his neck. Or someone hanging a noose from a tree to intimidate a Black family or calling the police because a person’s skin color makes them “suspicious.” 

Systemic racism may be harder to grasp, but examples abound. Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at about the same rate, but Blacks are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses. On average Blacks get longer prison sentences than whites for similar crimes. Blacks are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes than are whites and constitute the great majority of innocent defendants who were framed for fictitious drug crimes and later exonerated. 

Blacks are more likely to be represented by a public defender, and evidence suggests that many plead guilty to something they didn’t do to avoid a potentially worse outcome. Blacks more often remain locked up while awaiting trial, causing job loss. White job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get a call back than are applicants with identical credentials and no prison record, but Black-sounding names. 

Voter suppression provides more examples. One method in states with voter ID laws is to close DMVs in majority-Black areas, making it harder for Blacks to get an ID. Another is to drastically reduce the number of polling places in Black neighborhoods so Black voters have to wait in line for hours while most whites can vote in a couple of minutes.

Some say whatever the historical causes of the economic and social gap between whites and Blacks, it’s totally up to Blacks to help themselves; slavery and Jim Crow ended long ago, and there’s only so much that whites can do. The first part of that proposition is a truism at best; we all should take responsibility for our own lives, whatever the obstacles in our path. But the second half is a cop-out.

The honor code at West Point reads: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” We need a similar code regarding race: “An American does not discriminate on the basis of race, or tolerate those who do, or a system that does.” It’s not enough to say, “I’m not racist so it’s not my problem” and move on. It’s time for white people to acknowledge that racism still exists and still causes harm, and to stop tolerating it. It’s also time to stop supporting politicians and pundits who seek to divide us. This isn’t a zero-sum game, where one group’s gain is the other’s loss. We all benefit by building a more just society.

Tom Gutowski earned a bachelors degree in economics and a bachelors, masters, and PhD in history before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired several years ago.

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