Since the riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, comments on social media and in my inbox have revealed a powerful subtext in this country. We rarely speak it, but if met head-on, we could establish a lingua franca for creative conversations, or just better informed ones, about race.
At least that’s what I hope.
It begins, for me, with an open secret. Something black folks often whisper, and I speak now with as much gentleness as I can muster:
It can be exhausting trying to bring white people up to a basic racial literacy.
Many don’t even know what they don’t know about privilege and history, and often either don’t take responsibility for their own education or expect you to educate them.
And I wish there were a racial primer out there somewhere — mandatory reading — with five or 10 basic facts about housing, education, criminal justice and employment. Or maybe a simple overview so that before we enter into meaningful conversations around issues that are front and center before our nation, I don’t have to go person to person trying to convince a large population of citizenry that the world isn’t flat.
It’s part of what feels like an ahistoric privilege some whites sometimes exercise. They treat foundational stories of how they’ve amassed wealth and power as pre-political, ignoring the violent, deeply discriminatory sides of the balance sheet. They see their experiences as normative, and anything else a deviation.
During the riots, someone I deeply respect posted that she understood the peaceful protests but decried the looting as simple “I GOT MINE.” (As in televisions, diapers, bottles of water.)
I was this close to responding: Do you know what’s also an example of “I GOT MINE”? Gentrification. (As in houses, neighborhoods, cities.) It’s “I got my apartment because I can afford the rent and you no longer can, no matter how long you’ve lived here.” Or “I got my house because my parents (grandparents, et al.) helped with the down payment because they bought their first house in, say, Chevy Chase, for a song and sold it for quadruple, while blacks either couldn’t get financing or were kept out through restrictive covenants or customs.” Gentrification doesn’t know, or question, that Georgetown used to be half black, or ponder the fate of its former residents, because it is absolutely “I GOT MINE.” And by the way, do you like my granite countertops?
I’m an extrovert. I genuinely love people and since we share this country, my instinct is always to try to understand. So let me say this: For everybody who recalls the hard work and sacrifice of their parents or grandparents, and all the ways they’ve had to struggle to make their way in this world, I hear you. I do not doubt the heart and authenticity of those success narratives. I just ask that you also understand those narratives simply do not hold true for huge swaths of your fellow Americans.
From World War II through the 2007 housing crash, real estate was a primary way families built wealth. My colleague Emily Badger points out that for decades, the Federal Housing Administration held separate and unequal mortgage standards for black and white neighborhoods, giving government sanction to the practice of redlining, which undercut black property values and helped create ghettos.
Then Badger, who is white, offers a personal reflection. “I bought a home in January,” she says, in Washington’s expensive housing market. “And I did it in part with help from family inheritance. I’m incredibly conscious that inheritance comes to me through previous generations who were able to build wealth because they could buy homes, and they were able to obtain good jobs at a time in history where those things weren’t available to blacks.”
I am moved by the ways she is grappling with her privilege. So I share that when I checked last year, the South Side Chicago house where I spent the first 10 years of my life had appreciated about $500 since 1977. And the difference in our stories feels like a sad thing between us.
Last week, someone e-mailed: “The underlying issue facing poor black communities is a cultural one not an economic one — the rejection of the norms of the broader society. . . . Stop blaming outsiders for what’s happening inside the community.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, is familiar with that sentiment. When talking about race, people centralize their own experiences, he says, and they extrapolate from there. Disadvantage is easy to spot, Grossman says. Privilege feels invisible.
Grossman points out that educationally, “for much of the 20th century, expenditures per child for white students could be as much as eight to 10 times expenditures for black children.” That even today, you could have black and white kids begin at the same starting line, and “black kids would still be running into a headwind.”
And as he talks, I return to my fantasy about a racial primer and how many problems we could start solving if basic facts were common knowledge. If we look around us, none of what we see is an accident of history. And I swear to God the world isn’t flat.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report. For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.