Watching protests erupt after yet more unjustified police killings — the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — I couldn’t shake how structural racism is still profoundly affecting Black people in America.

There’s a large wage and wealth gap. Black homeownership is as uncommon now as when housing discrimination was legal. Even higher education for Black people isn’t the equalizer it’s supposed to be.

All these issues weighed so heavily on my heart that I longed to have some candid conversations about race. So I started writing personal letters to readers, hoping I could dispel misconceptions about inequality in America. I called these letters “Sincerely, Michelle.

As part of the project, I wanted to have a respectful dialogue with readers, encouraging honesty and accountability while discouraging racist rhetoric. This is why we — the team working with me on this 10-part series — decided to turn off the comment feature. You want to share your opinion? Then do it in the open and not behind an anonymous username.

I expected a fair amount of bigoted emails. And yet the contempt and lack of empathy for Black people in many of the messages made me weep, heartbroken from the realization that racism remains deeply rooted in this country. Some people are just content to stay ignorant.

But many readers were thoughtful and civil even as they disagreed with my commentary. What follows is a selection of reader responses to Sincerely, Michelle.

***

Dear Michelle,

Your article on reparations stretched my thinking about how to compensate for the unjust and amoral historical institution of slavery. I could feel your emotion and passion for a topic that addresses America’s Original Sin. I think many people do not see or want to make the connection between past injustices and their contemporary lives. What helped me as a White, 66-years-young male was realizing there is both the moral and economic argument for reparations.

Here is how it happened for me to make the connection. I heard David Blight interviewed about a book he wrote about Frederick Douglass. I was so intrigued that I viewed a number of his lectures at Yale that are open-sourced for the public. In one of his lectures he made the point that the Southern economy before the Civil War was exclusively powered by slavery. Incredible wealth was derived in the form of money and land holdings by Southern Whites that would not exist without slavery The very economic foundation of the Southern states today can be tied directly to slavery.

Slavery was both morally repugnant and economically exploitative. The argument for reparations: Slavery is still emotionally and economically devastating. Understanding both consequences of slavery convinced me that we have serious unfinished business that needs to be addressed. I now understand why and I am not sure how it might become a reality.

Gary Whiteley, Kenai, Alaska

***

There are thousands of Black attorneys, many with master’s degrees who have graduated from prestigious colleges, who can only find work as a “Contract Attorney” on electronic litigation and investigational document discovery projects. I should know. I am a Contract Attorney.

A Contract Attorney does gig work on various projects, most of which are short-term gigs. Contract Attorneys work in sewing factory conditions, crowded in small spaces. We receive no benefits while our hourly wages continue to decrease. The cost of a law degree, and attendant student loan debt, relegate Contract Attorneys to financial insecurity and bars us from the middle class.

Law firms usually do not hire Blacks no matter how educated, accomplished and competitive we may be. One can pretty quickly ascertain that higher education is not the same ticket to success for Blacks as it may be for Whites. In fact, some see higher education as an expensive scam. Many of these Black lawyers would be right to encourage their children to become plumbers or mechanics.

Stephanie Kristina Rones, Washington, D.C.

***

Your column took me back 50 years when I was a young White woman who had landed my dream job as a secretary to the manager in a small airline sales office. Affirmative action profoundly changed the course of my life. In the airline industry of 1971, stewardess, secretary, or low-paying clerical job was about the only option. I worked hard and was promoted when an opening came up for the formerly all-male position of sales representative. I later learned that the company, which enjoyed numerous, lucrative government contracts, had been sued by some of the flight attendants and was under a judge’s consent decree to treat women employees equally with men. Top management was under pressure to demonstrate they promoted qualified women.

Favoritism for Whites (and men) was so familiar that we just took it for granted. The male three-martini-lunch buddies and golf course pals shared news of job openings that were never announced publicly while we women were in the office cranking out the work, making sales and resolving problems. And yes, there was a price to pay when you became the so-called “woman” hire or were promoted. People did question our abilities from Day 1, and they wondered if we were truly competent. But four years later I held the manager’s job in the office where I started.

​​Black women faced vastly more challenges than I encountered. Black women were rarely found in even entry-level positions at most airlines, and I knew only one Black woman in sales management. By the 1980s, White women had made strides toward equal footing with men for well-paying sales positions, thanks to affirmative action and a lot of persistent, hard work. But Black men and women continued to struggle with unequal treatment in the travel industry.

Christine Goodier, Osprey, Fla.

***

You asked about how my identity shapes investing. You are so, so right about my privilege as a White woman. In the late ’80s when my Great Depression-shaped grandparents discovered I had student loans, they paid them off for me and made me promise to never borrow for school again, but ask them for money.

I never asked or borrowed, but they enabled me to complete a PhD program with no student debt. That was an incredible head start.

I bought my first home with a $6,000 gift from my grandparents as a down payment. The $6,000 came from the proceeds of the sale of their house (and their later investment of those proceeds). That opportunity to own and see the value of their home appreciate has not been equitably distributed among Blacks and Whites.

While I worried about locking my money up in retirement accounts where it would be hard to get to if I needed it, I did it anyway because I knew that if worse came to worse my parents could help financially or I could live with them.

I had a personal safety net that was woven by White privilege. And now I have my own safety net — equity in a home, retirement savings that grew through compound interest — built on the foundation of the privileges I was born with. Even though I technically started my life with an empty bank account and some student loan, I really had much more, including the security to be confident enough to take risks. You are so, so right about what you are saying. Keep saying it.

Sue Monahan, Salem, Ore.

***

I don’t understand how credit scores are unfair to Blacks. Banks should be able to refuse loans to those who they think can’t pay it back. And charge more with increased risk. I can’t believe the Wall Street big banks are leaving profit on the table by refusing to lend to Blacks with low credit scores. Sounds like a great opportunity for Blacks to open banks specializing in lending to other Blacks.

You seem to suggest a government program is the solution. I disagree. Less government is the solution, not more government. Plenty of other people besides Blacks can’t get a loan. Education is the key in my opinion. Students must value education and work hard. After-school studying. Parents that educate their kids. Having both parents be a mentor. Learning personal finances. Learning about investing.

My parents (middle class) made sure I had good grades, did my homework, gave me additional study projects, taught me about household finances and started my investing education. I’ve had failures and successes, but the slope continues upward. You seem to blame everything but the obvious, the mirror.

Scott Fossum, Houston

***

I came from a very educated family, my father had a PhD in biochemistry and my mother had a master’s in education. When I went to first grade, I was very immature both mentally and physically, as well as being dyslexic (which was not a diagnosis at the time, I was born in 1948). My first-grade teacher was good with the better students but ignored the worst ones.

For the first six weeks, I was not even issued a pencil. There were eight of us in the slow-reading group; of that number six failed one or more grades. I should have failed second grade, but my mother fought for me and took me to a private reading tutor once a week for over three years. This was only possible because my father made enough money, so my mother could stay at home.

I now have a PhD in analytical chemistry and an MS in computer science from Penn State. My parents’ background is what saved me. While I agree with the author of the article, I feel children who have only one parent or go to schools with lousy teachers are at a terrible disadvantage. This is what I think are two of the biggest problems that hinder success.

Robert W. Liddell III, Cranberry Township, Pa.

***

I grew up in a rural White community, a child of a chronically unemployed father and a stay-at-home mother. We lived frugally in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where I felt I never fit in with my well-off schoolmates. I empathize with Blacks who struggle financially. When circumstances keep pushing you down and money isn’t available for basic necessities, it’s difficult to endure, much less advance financially.

As an adult now in my late 50s, I realize the financial lessons of my childhood have made me stronger, and much better able to relate to people from all walks of life. I’m proud to live in a highly diversified Zip code, with many wonderful neighbors who share this perspective. So much about your column resonates with me, even though I happen to be White.

Lynn Newbill, Alexandria, Va.

***

My parents are Indian immigrants and saved meticulously to provide an education for my brother and me. They knew that no matter what happens because of our skin color or my gender that no one could take away our education. My hope for the future is that we empower more people of color and Black people to advocate strongly for education and vote for people who share this vision. We can't let others (White people) advocate for us. My goal is to provide my kids with the same gift that my parents gave me: debt-free education.

Priya Chatterjee, Washington, D.C.

Introduction by Michelle Singletary. Letters curated by Nia Decaille. Letters were edited for length and clarity.

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