It’s time to Break It Down!
All too often when the subject of slavery, or white privilege is broached in contemporary American society, the reactions range from stoic ambivalence, to angry denial, to a rank disbelief that “you people have not let that go yet,” by white people, and inexplicable uneasiness and misplaced guilt by black people. I cite those reasons as evidence of the readily apparent. In the event you did not know, it’s time you knew, the simple truth is, all of those responses are wrong. In fact, they are not merely inappropriate; they are inordinately misguided.
I’ve written posts in the past that discussed in detail how a number of states have approved textbooks that in effect seek to diminish, if not deny the Atlantic slave trade, characterizing the practice as “immigration,’ and referring to slaves as guest workers. Let me put it in the plainest, most direct way I can. There are alternative facts, and there is bovine defecation. The latter rules in this case.
When such heavily laundered euphemisms are substituted for the most brazenly horrific acts EVER committed by Americans against other human beings in the United States, people who were, arguably, just as American as the recent immigrants themselves, people who were forcibly transplanted to our shores. The blatant hypocrisy and sheer thuggery, cannot, and I must add, will not be swept under the proverbial rug of historical memory. Aitch to the no!
I do not often wax religious, though, as a PK, I do have that skill set in my toolkit. Raising this topic in such close proximity to the observance of Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, as its often familiarly called, however, makes it at least worth noting in a passing reference, the role of Christianity in perpetuating the American slave trade. And, to be clear, I refer to by its proper name, slave trade, because that’s what it was. Boom! Daniel Burke, CNN’s Religion Editor, delved forthrightly into the issue.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote “Life of an American Slave.” The formal title was ”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” In this immortal work, Douglass wrote:
“There is a wide gulf between Christianity proper and the slaveholding religion of this land. One is good, pure and holy, the other, corrupt and wicked, the climax of all misnomers, and the boldest of all frauds. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries and cradle-plunderers for church members.”
It is fair to say, for Mr. Douglass, as was and is the case for many other African Americans, the sin of slavery was intolerable, the complicity of Christians, unforgivable. Without apology, I am compelled to assert that postulate is as true today as it was in 1845, 172 years ago.
I am delighted to live in a world in which despite the ambivalent, the deniers, the disbelieving, the guilty, and all the other misguided souls, including the naysaying bovine defecators, there are others who concur with my sagacious conclusion. The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuit Order, as the group of powerful Catholic priests (including Pope Francis) is more familiarly known, indeed lists the horror of slavery among its immoral transgressions.
In 1838, Jesuits purchased 272 slaves on behalf of Georgetown University, a Jesuit University in Washington, DC. The acquisition of the slaves rescued the then young university, 49 years old at the time, but ruined hundreds of lives, destroyed families, condemning men, women, and children to the horror and cruelty of bondage, subjugation, and servitude.
Yesterday, the Jesuits and Georgetown repented. It took 179 years, but the university’s president and the school’s Jesuit leaders issued a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope.” The Liturgy included the following statement by Georgetown President, John DeGiola:
“We express our solemn contrition for our participation in slavery, and the benefit our institution received. We cannot hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore this truth. Slavery remains the original evil in our republic, an evil that our university was complicit in.”
Descendants of over a hundred of the slaves sold by the Maryland Jesuits attended the service. Many of them wore green ribbons, symbolizing hope and new life. Sandra Green Thomas, a participant in the Georgetown service said of her ancestors:
“Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States.”
Of course, Hoya Nation is not the only American university community complicit in the slave trade. The entire Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale), excluding Cornell, was involved in some way, historians say. Religious groups also founded several of those schools. However, some in the American Jesuit community, particularly, view their slaveholding past in an especially painful light. They (understandably I say) see racism as a lingering stain on our contemporary society.
If slavery is too frequently deemed a slippery slope, leading directly to the abyss of a confrontational conversation, the topic of white privilege is a natural complement. Michael Harriott drove that point home in an article in The Root last Friday. As I noted at the outset, it’s frequently difficult to engender a serious and civil, but frank conversation on the subject. White people, in many instances, feel accused, without specific charges. They tend to think of the concept as something nebulous that seems to reduce a complex potpourri of history, racism, and social phenomena to a nonspecific groupthink phrase.
Nonsense, white privilege is real, and Harriott is quite precise in explaining just how, and why. The historical institution of slavery and the contemporary concept of white privilege are related…but they are not the same, and should not be conflated. According to Mr. Harriott’s dispensation, white privilege is a proper noun, a real, definable thing that we can acknowledge, explain and work toward eliminating. While race may be a social construct, white privilege is an economic theory that we should define as such:
“White privilege: n. The quantitative advantage of whiteness”
He went on to list 4 exemplars to explain white privilege in economic terms.
- Education – If education is the key to success, then there is no debate that whites have the advantage in America. In 2012, the U. S. Department of Education reported that about 33 percent of all white students attend a low-poverty school, while only 6 percent attend high-poverty schools. In comparison, only 10 percent of black students attend a low-poverty school, while more than 40 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools. This means that black students are more than six times more likely than white students to attend a high-poverty school, while white students are more than three times more likely than black students to attend a low-poverty school. The logical response to this is for whites to explain the disparity away with statistics of black unemployment and the minority wage gap, but that might not be true. In 2015, a research scientist named David Mosenkis examined 500 school districts in Pennsylvania and found that—regardless of the level of income—the more black students, the less money a school received. While this may not be true for every single school, people who study education funding say that they can predict a school’s level of funding by the percentage of minority students it has. Even though this is a complex issue that reveals how redlining and segregation decreased the property tax base in areas where blacks live—therefore decreasing funding—it underscores a simple fact: White children get better educations, and that is a calculable advantage.
- Employment – Even when black students manage to overcome the hurdles of unequal education, they still don’t get equal treatment when it comes to jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of Friday, April 7, the unemployment rate for African Americans was nearly double that of whites (8.1 percent for blacks, 4.3 percent for whites). There are some who will say blacks should study harder, but this phenomenon can’t be explained by simple educational disparities. A 2015 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that whites with the exact same résumés as their black counterparts are hired at double the rate. In fact, a white man with a criminal history is more likely to be hired than an African American with no criminal past. A similarly named, but different, organization—the Economic Policy Institute—examined 2015 data and discovered that at every level of education, whites were twice as likely to have jobs as blacks. If it is statistically easier for whites to get a better education, and better jobs, then being born white must be an advantage in and of itself.
- Income – But let’s say a black man somehow gets a great education and finds a job; surely that means the playing field is level, right? Not so fast. Researchers at EPI found that black men with 11-20 years of work experience earned 23.5 percent less than their white counterparts, and black women with 11-20 years of experience were paid 12.6 percent less than white women with the same experience. This disparity is not getting smaller. The wage gap between black and white workers was 18.1 percent in 1979, and steadily increased to 26.7 percent in 2015. When Pew Research controlled for education and just looked at income data, white men still surpassed every other group. These income inequalities persist to create the disparities in wealth between races, manifesting in generational disadvantages. A black person with the same education and experience as a similar Caucasian, over the span of their lives, will earn significantly less.
- Spending – It is a little-known fact that the average black person pays more for almost every item he or she purchases. While there is no discount Groupon that comes whit white skin, there might as well be. A John Hopkins study (pdf) showed that supermarkets were less prevalent in poor black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods with the same average income, leading to increased food costs. News organization ProPublica recently found that car-insurance companies charge people who live in black neighborhoods higher rates than people in predominantly white areas with the same risk. When it comes to credit, it is even worse. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, The Atlantic reports, “even after controlling for general risk considerations, such as credit score, loan-to-value ratio, subordinate liens, and debt-to-income ratios, Hispanic Americans are 78 percent more likely to be given a high-cost mortgage, and black Americans are 105 percent more likely.” Even banks as large as Wells Fargo have lost cases for up-charging minorities. According to the Wall Street Journal, large auto lenders have paid more than $200 million since 2013 to settle lawsuits for charging minorities higher rates, but in November, both Democrats and Republicans voted to reduce regulations on the financial institutions that offer auto loans. The National Consumer Law Center filed a 2007 lawsuit that exposed how “finance companies and banks put in place policies that allowed car dealers to mark up the interest rates on auto loans to minorities based on subjective criteria unrelated to their credit risk.”
Instead of hurling the term “white privilege” around as an imprecise catch-all to describe everything from police brutality to Pepsi commercials, perhaps its use as a definable phrase will make people less resistant. Maybe if they saw the numbers, they could acknowledge its existence. It is neither an insult nor an accusation; it is simply a measurable gap with real-world implications. It is the fiscal and economic disparity of black vs. white. In America’s four-and-a-half-centuries-old relay race, the phrase “white privilege” does not mean that Caucasians can’t run fast; it is just a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that they got a head start.
In summary, whether the topic is slavery and it’s still prevalent consequences, or white privilege and its everyday examples, don’t be bashful, and by all means, don’t fall for the okey-doke. The struggle is not imaginary, and neither are the vestiges of slavery, nor the daily disadvantages (and advantages) of white privilege. “Don’t Be Deceived: The Struggle (of America’s Original Sin) Is Real!”
I’m done; holla back!
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