The other day, I had an experience that shook me. Out of my own stupidity, I broke a panel of my partner’s garage door. I called the company that had installed the door: The whole door had to be replaced, they declared, to the tune of $1,000.
But South Africa, where I live, has an extensive network of informal handymen. These handymen differ from America’s; they’re often not even legal businessmen but get jobs by word of mouth; lone operators who know things and travel around with a backpack of tools, building bedframes, installing plumbing, repairing drywall.
My landlord suggested a garage-door handyman named Barry. I called: He could come the next day. The garage-door company is run by Israelis, so when I heard Barry I somehow registered his accent as Israeli, concluding Israelis have a lock on the garage-door business in South Africa.
I was late to meet Barry the morning he arrived, and he was waiting outside the door when I pulled the car up. I’d been anxious that this repair go well, and before I could think, my heart registered a dip, a feeling of slight worry and disappointment: Barry was not white but black.
I wouldn’t consider myself especially racist. But obviously I’ve inherited, and absorbed, the notion that a white handyman would be more professional than a black one. Which wasn’t true: Barry did a terrific job. When I recounted this experience to white, liberal friends, though, many shamefacedly confessed similar instinctive experiences. A black-sounding person at a call center is replaced by a white-sounding one, and the caller breathes a tiny sigh of relief. A walker spots a group of teenage white boys loping down the street at night and barely registers them, but when a group of young black men approaches, she prickles with concern.
We all, clearly, have work to do. But it also made me wonder about the truism, so accepted right now, that the fundamental work against racism starts with the individual. If I interrogate my heart, I might purposely start hiring more black handymen, be even friendlier on the road. I might donate more to charity. But I don’t hire that many handymen or have very much money to donate.
The bigger problems for most Barrys in South Africa are far more institutional: land use regulations that confine them to cramped shacks on floodplains; banking and loan systems that limit their access to capital; and most of all, a neglectful education system that turns its back on poor areas, fails to train teachers well and relentlessly favors kids who come from money, who continue to be disproportionately white. Most black South Africans, in fact, don’t make it as far as Barry has, and rarely even see a white person who could be friendlier to them or help them. With these institutional failures clapping a lid on ordinary young people’s dreams, some enter gangs, inadvertently perpetuating the idea that black people are fearsome.
I suspect that the turn toward individual responsibility for combating prejudice — “it starts with you” — may reflect not progress but a retreat: a retreat from the expectation and the hope that institutions, from large businesses to government, either can, or can be persuaded to, take serious action to reverse some of these inequities. We’ve become hesitant and cynical when it comes to our expectations of banks, corporations and governments.
But in this retreat, we’re shying away from holding accountable the institutions that have the power to change the lives of entire societies, not a handful of people. There’s a feedback loop here: The beliefs of individuals shape the values of institutions, which in turn shape the beliefs of the individuals who relate to them. But we’re missing the middle part of the equation, which entails faith in — and that means hope in — institutional capacity.