A Privileged Perspective On Race
It’s hard to come away feeling much else besides despair when looking at race relations in the United States. At least that’s how I feel when reading about Baltimore, the most recent racial tensions coming into focus on American televisions. For those unaware here are some basic truths. America is not a just society, and it never has been. For more than half of our nation’s history we treated Black Americans as property, and to this day we suppress their rights to exist equally. Baltimore is just the most recent expression of revolt against these facts.
Inequalities of race are a daily experience for millions of Black Americans. This is not the only inequality they face. They also experience inequalities relating to economic, educational and housing opportunity. Are they alone in experiencing inequality? Not at all. But all too often those leading and shaping our society marginalize the experience of Black Americans. Men and women of tremendous privilege too often forget that Black Americans have a unique unequal experience. American society reinforces this forgetfulness via our leaders, institutions and media; but it is not acceptable.
Several months ago I was sitting at a lunch table in Geneva, Switzerland. I was dining with a group of three American oilmen transferred out to run divisions of the Swiss based company where I was working. As the young, curious kid of the bunch, I thought it proper to discuss something meaningful, so I began talking to my colleagues about the protests going on in Missouri. This was just a few weeks after Michael Brown had been shot and killed. The three Americans, all white and all in very successful positions at our company gave similar opinions on the matter. They believed that any man, regardless of his race, could become successful in the United States. They cited that through hard work and determination Barack Obama, a black man, became president of the United States. If he was able to do so, racism in America had surely been eliminated. They viewed their stories of success in much the same way, believing that through working hard, grueling hours and their innate intelligence they had become successful. The theme was clear: the secret of success is self-made through hard work and determination, and race is not meaningful factor.
A few weeks later, I had a similar conversation with a group of my successful friends in New York City. Like the oilmen they were 15–20 years my senior and had also achieved success in the typical American fashion — securing a certain level of financial comforts, social status and power. They also had degrees from similarly prestigious private institutions, and unsurprisingly my friends viewed US racial inequality with little concern. At best, they possessed a feigned indifference to the racial issues going on in and around the United States. They tended to think it would blow over shortly, after which they would still be enjoying their comfortable existence in corporate life. At worst, they saw eye to eye with the oilmen, agreeing that race in America is not a defining feature of opportunity today.
These two stories bring about some interesting questions. Why were these individuals unable or unwilling to recognize the benefits they received from an unjust system? Why did some of them acknowledge these benefits and then promptly disregard their impact when conversing about issues of inequality? The simple answer is because American culture has taught them to think that way.
As Americans, we define “success” on the accumulation of wealth, fame, and power. The more you have of these the more successful you are. It’s a definition that we are exposed to at a very young age, and it’s one that the groups above believe. We are also exposed to potential paths to success when we are told such childhood lessons as “with hard work anything is possible,” “any one of you in class today can grow up to become president of the United States” or “any man can pull himself up by his bootstraps and thrive.” These are explicit lessons asserting that if you only work hard and diligently in this country you will be successful. Its only natural that when a privileged child goes on to become a hotshot oil trader or top financier he often will use these lessons as confirmation that his achievement came solely from his own hard work and determination.
With that in mind it becomes a bit easier to understand the thoughts of the privileged groups profiled above. Mistakenly, our society does not widely teach that some people are born in a better position to achieve. We should. For those born in unequal circumstances experiences pursuing opportunity are harsh with injustice abound. But for those born in privilege, hard work and determination goes a long way; they can go their entire lives without learning the extent of the opportunity they were born into.
Baltimore, Ferguson and other acts of clear racial injustice have forced many privileged individuals to reconsider issues of racial inequality. Unfortunately, many people of privilege still think like my friends and colleagues profiled above. If we want to fight against an unjust system we must change the way these people think. We can do so by directly challenging their thoughts on racism and the definition of success that fuels their ignorance. It’s the job of those who can see and understand both sides to educate these successful Americans. That education requires hard work from honest people who are willing to understand a flawed logic and correct it with love and compassion. By doing so, it redefines our culture to stand in support of those who experience the unique and cruel forms of racial injustice today.