To the editor,
During the Civil War, the majority of the Confederate soldiers were not wealthy, white slave-holding southern gentlemen commonly associated with the Antebellum period. The majority of rebel infantry were non-slave-owning small farmers and poor white men. How did slave owners convince these lower class men to fight, die and kill to preserve a system that benefited them very little, if at all? The answer, of course, is racism, but there is no biological evidence of racial identities: we are a single human race. So, why did those with so little to gain from slavery put their lives on the line to preserve this constructed hierarchy of skin color?
Growing up in Oswego, I was taught racism essentially ended after the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Martin Luther King Jr. led peaceful protests, and then racism and all its consequences vanished. At Oswego High School, we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin — both stories of white saviors helping Black victims rather than first-hand Black experience. Books by Black authors were rare. I don’t recall reading a single one in the classes I took.
Due to this, I was once wary of policies like Affirmative Action that are designed to level the playing field for Black Americans. There were several Black students in my highschool and I couldn’t understand why they should get preferential treatment when applying for jobs or colleges. We all went to the same high school so we must have been afforded the same opportunities. If racism was over, why was this vestige from the racist past still around?
It is often very difficult to tell people from rural white America, who go to underfunded schools and live in areas ravaged by drugs, poverty and obesity that they are privileged. It is even harder to talk about white privilege when the few Black people they know fit a particular socioeconomic class, or are extremely wealthy artists and athletes. Barack Obama, for example, is an Ivy League-educated, millionaire former two-term president whose children will benefit from his wealth and status.
The pendulum also swings the other way and you get the by-your-bootstraps myth that all Black people could attain success, despite racism, if they just worked harder. If Obama can do it, why not the Black man who lives next door? Besides, white people on government assistance are the real victims: thanks to immigration and other people of color, there is nothing left for the white man.
Neither of these mindsets look at the bigger picture.The legacy of not only slavery but also the racist policies that followed our Civil War and last to the present day caus a massive gap in average household wealth between Black and white families. And with wealth comes wealth multipliers. Wealthy white families can afford things like SAT prep classes and tutors, or benefit from legacy college admissions programs at a magnitude greater than Black families. Even my white-sounding name makes my resume much more likely to earn a call back from an employer than if I had a Black-sounding name and identical resume. Like the non-slave-owning whites in the Confederate Army, I fell into the trap of undertaking a fight that not only couldn’t benefit me, but distracted me from fighting for policies that would. Policies that can reduce the consequences of racism and increase social mobility for Black Americans can also benefit less affluent whites. My favorite example of this is school funding. Growing up, I was frustrated with the fact that Oswego High School had limited advanced course offerings and didn’t always attract the best teachers. When I got to college, I was envious of my peers who had taken other languages, earned IB degrees, had college counselors help with their applications or had opportunities to go on interesting school trips and participate in unique extra-curriculars. Some of these peers had gone to public schools like me. Why the disparity?
The answer is property taxes. In New York and much of the United States public schools derive much of their budgets from property taxes. Areas with higher property values produce more tax dollars to fund schools. Since these areas are also more expensive to live in, poorer families must live in the cheaper areas, where the schools are worse because the houses are worth less. You can see the consequences of this policy in white suburban Onondaga County which has accumulated large amounts of wealth and left predominantly Black Syracuse city schools bereft of funding.
If someone is wealthy enough to live in Fayetteville, Manlius or Baldwinsville, it’s unfair to blame them. Their kids will have more opportunities and a better education. But this policy doesn’t just keep wealth out of the inner city, some families even go to great lengths to avoid living in more depressed rural areas like Oswego, Fulton or Pulaski, and choose instead to commute nearly an hour to work. It’s a common problem that perpetuates over generations. Yet we are all too busy listening to politicians who attempt to divide us. They tell us that America is no longer for white people, immigrants and Black Americans are taking our jobs and our rightful spots in higher education. This hate and racism benefits only the ruling class for if we remain focused on keeping the Black man down, we have no time and energy to lift ourselves up. But for the most part, people buy into this thinking and policies remain unchanged.
No matter how hard I or any white person reading this may have it, we do not have additional problems due to the color of our skin. But that doesn’t mean these are Black issues that white America can ignore. They are American issues, and we all can all benefit from a more equitable and just society.