To be clear, every year is a hard year in Black America. But I’m not speaking for Black America, I’m speaking for myself, and 2014 was the year I realized that I can't escape the hardship.
I spent my entire life trying to escape the hardship of being black—the poverty, the crime, the general distress of my youth. There was nothing but terribleness all around me when I was growing up and it caused a type of trauma in me. Some people handle this trauma through self medication or other destructive behaviors, I handled it through escapism.
Escapism, in my case, meant leaving Milwaukee for college and a better life, it meant becoming an engineer and, later, an MBA; it meant a fierce and committed drive for success. I always felt I was running towards something—running towards achievement, running towards success, running towards prosperity.
It’s time to wake up
Deep in my psyche I always knew I was, in fact, running away. But running away doesn’t inspire action—it won’t get you through a challenging thermodynamics problem in school, and it won’t embolden your spirit when making a difficult judgement call at work. I consciously chose the narrative that served progress over peril.
My narrative collapsed in 2014. Several realities broke my narrative—the first being the fact that, by almost any measure, I have reached a fairly high level of prosperity. With all that I have, I’m not entirely sure what I’m running towards anymore. But, more somberly, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and, especially, the death of Eric Garner in New York really shattered anything that was left of my narrative.
To some extent, I believed I could escape. That if I did all the right things, I would reach escape velocity and break free from generations of struggle. On December 3rd, 2014, that hope came crashing down to earth like Space Shuttle Challenger when a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Garner. In that moment, I realized that it was not possible for me to be prosperous on my own—that as long as the police, or anyone else, is genuinely afraid of my face it’s not possible to reach true prosperity.
It’s time for Change
Ta-Nehisi Coates drew an amazingly vivid picture of modern day racism and its historical context in The Case for Reparations. Vestiges of our racist past still play a surprisingly influential role in modern day America. Racism in America does not look like it did in past generations. Today, racism means structural barriers to wealth generation and subtle dog-whistle politics, not public lynchings and burning people on crosses.
Modern day racism is about the neighborhoods you choose to live in, the school districts you seek out, the diversity of your social life, or the diversity of your workplace. There is no explicit negative intent, no one calling you a nigger; you just look around your office and realize there aren’t any faces similar to yours, because it’s rare that someone with your face graduated from college, and for those who did, it’s hard to get a job.
Cotes addresses this dichotomy in The Case for Reparations:
Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.
I’ve seen this wealth disparity play out in my own life. Though both my parents were poor, my mother, who is white, graduated from college and had parents who could at least help a little; we owned the house where I grew up and were never evicted due to income uncertainty, like many of my neighbors. My maternal grandparents sold their farm and were able to retire by cashing in the resulting equity. Contrast that with my father, who is black, who was the first person in his family to graduate high school, and was raised by a single mother share cropper (basically a modern day slave). The source of this wealth gap is clear; one half of my family could accrue wealth over generations through land ownership, the other half of my family is only just now generating wealth… that’s me, and it’s not much thanks to fairly large amounts of student loan debt.
What can you do?
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
― Buckminster Fuller
- Open your eyes
- Become aware of the systems and structures in place today and try to understand the historical context of these structures
- Challenge the status quo, specifically around hiring practices
- Take a risk on an unproven candidate instead of prioritizing employee referrals (if you’re white and a decision maker—which you likely are)
- Apply for jobs that you think you’re not capable of (if you’re black)
- Look for opportunities outside of traditional employment (if you’re black)
Structural racism is about a lack of opportunity. A pattern of exclusion persists in our society, much of it driven by fear. We have the tools available to us to invent a new economy, an economy build on information, knowledge, and wisdom. Lets use these tools to take this issue head on.