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Race in America

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends
towards justice.” When he said those words, many of his fellow black Americans were fighting to end
Segregation and racial prejudice in this country. His beliefs eventually led to the US abolishing
segregationalist practices, which then led many to believe that blacks were the political equivalent of
whites. Most of the people who believed this at the time still believe it today; we call them white people.
50 years after King said these words, we need to reexamine where we are on this moral arc. Recent events
such as the killings of black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown show us that maybe we are not
so far along to achieving our goal as we thought, and according to King, our goal is Justice. But there are
some to whom the concept of reevaluating this arc is a matter of everyday life. These are the people who
are fighting towards the goal, fighting for justice. It is time for those of us to whom looking at the state of
minorities in America an extra-ordinary task to recognize the importance of such an action, and work
together with those minorities, with an open mind, to bring about change.
In order to have a constructive analysis on the state of racism in America, there needs to be an
accepted definition of race, racism, and justice. Charles Blow, a columnist at the New York Times claims
that “race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.” Considering past events such as
Japanese Internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act, it is no question that the people who use race as a
classification system use it to deny rights or divide cultures. This is especially true in terms of how
America treats its black citizens. Based on that definition of race, we can define racism in two ways. A
more universal and all-encompassing definition of racism is defined by sociologists Noel Cazenave and
Darlene Alvarez Maddern as “a highly organized system of 'race'-based group privilege that operates at
every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/'race' supremacy.” While
this definition is certainly a good basis for an argument, it does not specifically describe how natural
racism is to society. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice defines cultural racism as “those aspects of
society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and
devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible.”
This definition is more applicable and relatable for many of us because when we read it we realize that
everyone ignorant of this definition, including us who read it, unconsciously participates in it. Finally
Justice, Martin Luther King‟s ultimate goal in the fight against racism, is defined as “a code that a
majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.” This comes directly from
King himself in „A Letter From Birmingham Jail‟. King further explains that “a law is unjust if it is
inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or
devising the law.” Here, King is stating that any decision that is made must be made with equal
representation from all parties affected by the law. With these definitions constituting the basis for our
discussions of race, we can proceed along the moral arc towards King‟s Justice.
According to Charles Blow, “a true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-
directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional.” The largest barrier between such
conversations is White Privilege. Or, more importantly, whites not acknowledging or understanding the
effects of White Privilege. Peggy McIntosh, a feminist activist, famously described White Privilege as an
“invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was
„meant‟ to remain oblivious.” White Privilege exists in our nation because of racial prejudice and
inherently racist attitudes exhibited by whites either consciously or unconsciously. We may recognize that
there is an underprivileged race that is prejudiced against, but ignore the privileges of being white. It
would make sense that, if there is a people who are underprivileged, there would be a people who are
privileged. In a study published in the magazine Crime and Delinquency, by the age of 18, 30% of black
males are incarcerated, compared to only 22% of white males. Additionally, by 23, 50% of black males
are incarcerated, compared to 38% of whites. This disparity shows the converse effects of black
underprivilege and White Privilege. Even on an everyday basis, whites do not have to worry that their
race is a detriment to them getting a job or keeping a job. Whites do not have to worry that their opinion
will be ignored because of their race. Whites do not have to worry about getting stopped by police for
mildly suspicious behavior. Whites do not have to worry. That is truly White Privilege, and each and
every member of the Caucasian race benefits from it whether they wish to or not. It becomes necessary
then that those who benefit from White privilege recognize that they have it, and the effects of having it.
If we can recognize that whites are privileged, we can have interracial dialogue in which every party
knows how they are advantaged and disadvantaged. This allows us to appreciate each other‟s opinions
and add our own to the conversation without fear of being ignored or blatantly rejected. There is nothing
that stops a constructive discussion on race quicker than one party denying the existence of racism and
privilege. Once we understand the effects of White Privilege on whites, we can begin to understand the
effects of White Privilege on blacks.
With an inter-racial dialogue able to proceed, there are certain issues that need to be prioritized in
the discussion are the wealth gap, and its causes. According to a PEW research study, the median white
household wealth in 2011 was just over $90,000. This means that half of white households have more
than this in resources and possessions, and half have less. The black median wealth is just over $6,000.
This means that half of black households own less than $6,000 in worldly possessions. For comparison,
an American Research Group survey finds that an average household spends $800 on Christmas shopping
per year. Half of black households own less than two average families‟ Christmas presents. Once
accepted, these numbers should serve as the basis for the inter-racial discussion. Unsurprisingly, the cause
of this disparity is subliminal racism, which we defined as those aspects of society that overtly and
covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label
people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. During the housing boom that
occurred from the late 1930s until the 1960s. The process of „redlining‟ was heavily implemented to
concentrate the minority, or „at risk‟, populations into areas where white landowners could exploit them,
take their money, and then evict them based on contract clauses which they did not sign to. Cities such as
Chicago were heavily redlined during this time, and this overt racism caused blacks to suffer greatly when
homes in primarily white neighborhoods were selling for fractions of their value today. According to
Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, in their book Black Wealth/White Wealth, “Locked out of the
greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American History, African Americans who
desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city
communities…Cut off from the sources of new investment, their homes and communities deteriorated
and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”
The effects of redlining hurt African Americans beyond simply keeping them out of profitable housing
markets; it sent them on a spiral towards ultimate loss of wealth and the inevitable wealth gap we have
today. Although American neighborhoods today are much more desegregated than they were in the
1960s, there is still abundant evidence of the effects of redlining. “The average black person lives in a
neighborhood that is 45 percent black. Without segregation, his neighborhood would be only 13
percent black,” according to professors John Logan and Brian Stults at Brown and Florida State. The
key to solving the wealth gap is a true inter-racial dialogue about how to end present and give
reparations for past housing discriminatory practices.
America has been a country defined by race, and will continue to be if the majority of us do
not open our minds to the positions of the minority. Recognizing White Privilege will lead us
towards having the true inter-racial, multi-directional dialogues sought after by Charles Blow.
These dialogues will lead to us realizing the truth in statistics previously unknown, such as the
incredible disparity between white and black wealth. When we accept these statistics, we begin to
question why the wealth gap is so contrasted. This will lead us to the source of such problems,
specifically redlining practices. And once we know the cause of these issues, we can suggest
solutions with a sympathetic, open mindset. With this healthy, progressive dialogue, we can begin
to understand and ultimately resolve the problem of racism in America. The path of the moral arc
has been laid, and it is now up to us to take that first step towards justice.