Race Relations and the False Immunity of Black Achievement

Ask the “average American” about race relations and they go straight to economically depressed black people, black crime and out-of-wedlock childbirth. This exercise in free association reveals that negative stereotypes about blacks are the most dominant and readily available (versus, say, the myth of the model minority for Asian-Americans) and that either the concept of “relations”—implying the connection between people and not the status of a group—is lost on the average American or that said relations are strained because blacks are poor, dangerous, and come from broken families. This list also effectively absolves white people by its single focus on an ostensibly monolithic “black condition” that keeps us behind. These go-to tropes deflect attention away from relations and place it squarely on race. This maneuver veils the faulty premise that when blacks start doing better they’ll be treated better.

When asked about race during debates and interviews, Trump’s tendency to jump straight to inner cities met with backlash at the conflation. While whites sat either nodding in agreement or unaware of the offense because associating blacks with inner cities came as second nature to them too, the black community squirmed, frustrated with answers betraying a shallow understanding of middle class blacks and how they factor into these “relations.” Blame is placed on Obama for fomenting division and for race baiting after episodes of police brutality meanwhile implicit bias, emboldened explicit bias, and everyday discriminatory behavior of some whites towards blacks goes unaccounted for—even denied.

Roger Clegg cited in his critique of Obama’s farewell address that “Nothing can purport to be a serious discussion of race relations in this country unless it discusses out-of-wedlock birthrates, because it is the disparity in out-of-wedlock birthrates that now most drives other racial disparities.” That race relations are bad because black women are having unprotected sex outside of marriage implies, at least to me, that all of the unfair ways that blacks are treated can be traced back to black female sexuality. To improve race relations—again, the way in which two or more people or groups are connected—police the black bedroom, fix black morality, make black families whole, and then we’ll all get along. I grew up in a single parent home; I’m all for making black families whole. But this all but erases white prejudice from the equation. I’d argue instead that nothing can be a serious discussion of race relations in this country unless it discusses how each race contributes to the problem of a divided nation—divided by individual mistreatment, by the condoning silence of nice people, by media representation, by discriminatory laws, and by systems and institutions that preference one group over another. Omitting white people from the discussion relegates white prejudice to a lesser and even expected evil—discrimination becomes understandable, contingent on black choices, and is, in a way, deserved because of black failure. 

For a long time, I bought into the lie that achievement would shield me, that my pearls could somehow convey the value of my life to strangers, that assimilation was bulletproof, but the reality unfolding under the sweltering lights of both social and traditional media in recent years makes me wonder if these survival strategies will ever really be enough. The seemingly indivisible coupling of black misbehavior with white bias needs to be disjoined, yet this bias, like a drug resistant superbug, persists even in the face of the so-called panacea of black excellence. There is no immunity.

I will grant that for many white people the image of the violent, unmotivated black person is perhaps all they see. In the absence of contact with real black people, media portrayal is taken as fact. With moves to teach about black contributions in school resisted, efforts at increasing representation of blacks in entertainment decried as reverse racism, and areas with blacks carefully avoided, I can’t help but conclude that most isolated white people are actually happy to sit with their biases after all. I’m also left with the sinking feeling that we just can’t win.

Below is a list of incidents that have happened to blacks since 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, that are, as far as I can tell, unrelated to their economic status. Take your time making your way through it. This list is neither a refutation that black poverty and its concomitant issues (more generalizable to the poor than to blacks) exist nor an indictment against all whites for being racist. Black poverty is real. Not all whites are racist. But, for discussions of race relations to be effective and honest they must be nuanced, must correctly implicate all responsible parties, and must reject superficial diagnoses. Pull out the x-ray. One-sided discussions of race relations singling out the black community as perpetrators or labeling blacks who call out discrimination as whiners and profiteering black nationalists gives a pass to white discrimination—from the most subtle to the most egregious—and its role in the current state of race relations.

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