An entertaining and thoughtful perspective on advertising, politics and other useless things...
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
The Black and White of Race in America
have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set
themselves up as the custodians of the black experience.”
For me, the question of
inequality between Blacks and Whites in America boils down to one simple
question: how many black parents tell their kids that they can achieve the
American dream, one where anybody can start from humble beginnings and with
honest hard work and perseverance rise to the greatest heights?
If the American Dream is
achievable for blacks, then tell me where are the black scientists, artists,
nuclear physicists, painters and playwrights? Where are the black Nobel
Laureates? Where are the black Walter Cronkites, Charlie Roses and Tom Brokaws?
Where are the black Michael Phelps and Arnold Palmers? How many famous black
historians, economists and army generals can you quote? Where are the black
Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalkers? Can you name one black super hero? Where is
the black David Ogilvy? For that matter in the liberal bastion of Hollywood can
you find me a black studio head?
In Silicon Valley there
are numerous Indian and Asian entrepreneurs, tech moguls and billionaire
venture capitalists. Currently, Microsoft, Google and Adobe all have Indian
born CEO’s at their helm. Yet, I struggle to name one black startup founder,
tech mogul, hedge fund billionaire or even Wall Street tycoon.
It is hard to argue a
case for blanket racism in America because many non-white immigrants tend to do
extremely well, across many different industries and fields, from medicine to
science and technology. In fact, Asian-Americans continue to have the highest
household incomes in America (Source: Pew Research Article). I want to know why the American
dream continues to seem largely unattainable for black people outside of music
and a few sports.
Across every major
statistic used to measure social mobility and economic progress, there is huge
disparity between whites and blacks in education, unemployment and income. In
fact, after the financial crisis things got worse for blacks; the income
inequality between black and whites is now the worst it has been in America’s
history. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of
black households….” “These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the
government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice
the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these groups for the two
decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.” (Source: Pew Research Center). Hispanics fare badly too
but are still considerably better off than blacks.
All this data has been
debated and discussed to death but nobody has really provided sufficient
answers as to why this should be the case. Why does the plight of black people
in 2017 still seem dire, one hundred and fifty years after slavery was
The first place to start
is to think about the images that have consistently been portrayed through
Hollywood movies, mainstream television and media; black people have long been
stereotyped as thuggish hoodlums in hoodies and portrayed as drug dealers and
petty criminals. Even Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop had a
disdain for rules and broke the law while the white cops were disciplined
and anal about upholding and following the law.
To this day we are
bombarded with mugshots of black criminals and rapists on national and local
news every night. Until very recently politicians routinely talked about the
black community’s desire to live off the welfare state as a truism.
They made it seem like all blacks were lazy and that black youth were a lost
cause, choosing to live off handouts, sell drugs or join gangs versus
getting an education and lifting themselves out of poverty. For too long
we have been told that the reason for the black community’s lack of social
mobility is that they are inherently lazy, lacking determination and
Before we default to
this lazy argument, we should look at a few things in America’s history that
can explain the inter-generational disenfranchisement and lack of
mobility among the black community.
For years, corporate and
mainstream America buried its head with tokenism. I remember when ad agencies
were told by clients to put one black person in the ad to check the box for
diversity. In the same way that clients added a token black person in an ad, to
prevent being sued for lack of diversity, the same false reality gave
rise to the Cosby Show, Eddie Murphy and the Arsenio Hall Show. It was tokenism
that allowed white Americans to feel better about the opportunities being
provided to black people; it was never real social or racial
Consider that “approximately
12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of
prison inmates” (Source: US Department of Justice, 2014).
“African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white
males…. “If current trends continue, one of every three black
American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime—compared
to one of every seventeen white males” (Source: Report of The Sentencing
Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013).
statistics alone are alarming and led to my investigating why it was that
the US prison system is overwhelmingly filled with black males, in
spite of the fact that black people are no more criminally prone than Indian,
Chinese, white or any other ethnic group in the world.
To fully understand this
anomaly, we need to go back to the abolition of slavery because there is a
common misconception that it ended with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of
1863; this assumption masks a reality that slavery silently got
institutionalized into other forms of legally sanctioned barriers against
blacks that exist even today.
I recommend watching Ava
Duvernay documentary, '13th'. It chronicles the
institutionalisation of slavery from 1863 to after the civil war, through the
war on drugs started by Nixon, broadened by Reagan and codified by Bill Clinton
into the industrial prison complex we see today. It explains the insane rates
of incarceration we see among black youth today.
As a non-white
immigrant, I felt there was something dramatically wrong in America because I
realised very early on that I had a much greater chance of achieving the
American Dream, in virtually any profession, than a black person born here.
It is worth noting that
the majority of successful non-white immigrants from India, Middle East and
Asia who came here in the 1950’s were typically middle class, well-educated and
came of their own free will and volition; for this reason I believe they have
never been viewed through the same lens as blacks, who were all brought here in
servitude and never considered equals by their white masters. Every black
person in American can trace their ancestral roots back to a slave. I
believe this stigma still prevails among white Americans, albeit unconsciously
for the vast majority.
You might ask how it is
possible after so many generations that these imprints might remain in people.
Interestingly, there is science that suggests that our DNA also contains within
it the traumas and experiences of our ancestors. “According to the new
insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in
our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews
whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose
grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young
immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every
ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them
more than just memories.” (Source: Discover Magazine). Coupled with the images we have been
repeatedly fed of the stereotyped black person through Hollywood and the
media’s lens, both exclusively controlled by white people, this can help to
explain our perceptions and biases today.
For our purposes here I
want to share a few historical facts to illustrate why I am convinced that the
black experience in America is not only unique but explains the lack of social
and upward mobility among blacks.
When Southern Democrats
took power after Reconstruction they passed a series of local and state laws and
social rules to oppress blacks and disenfranchise them. These became known as the
Jim Crow laws and etiquette and were in effect from around 1877 until the
1960’s. They legalised segregation in transport, education, restaurants and
bathrooms. Below are just a few examples of the types of things that Jim Crow
1.“A black male could not
offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being
2.Obviously, a black male
could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman,
because he risked being accused of rape.
3.Under no circumstance
was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female -- that
gesture implied intimacy.
4.Blacks were not
allowed to show public affection toward one another in
public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.” (Source: Ferris State
The effect was to
relegate blacks to inferior status and make them second class citizens
own country. The laws also ensured voting restrictions such as poll taxes,
literacy tests, and residency requirements that prevented the majority
of blacks (and the
poorestwhites) from voting, leaving southern blacks politically
crippled and economically disadvantaged.
While the laws in the
southern states were overtly segregationist, discriminatory practices were
prevalent even nationally and began to get institutionalised. One of the most heinous
was a policy known as redlining, which was designed to prevent black
neighbourhoods from receiving housing loans.
introduced by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, and
lasted until 1968.” “Otherwise
celebrated for making home ownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing
their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to black people or even
other people who lived near black people.” Redlining destroyed the possibility
of investment wherever black people lived."(Source: The Atlantic
We know that to thrive and grow every community requires investment in
jobs, housing, infrastructure, etc.; such investments were
discouraged in majority black communities across America.
With the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act
of 1965, people believed, like with the Emancipation Proclamation, that
they would magically bring equality for all Black Americans. In 1963, “a Gallup
poll found that 78% of white people would leave their neighborhood if many
black families moved in. “When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60% had
an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause
violence and would not accomplish anything.” (Source: Roper Center, Cornell).
These laws were necessary to end segregation, ban employment discrimination and give blacks the
right to vote, but once again what American society failed to realise
was that to change deeply-ingrained beliefs and multi-generational
prejudice would require much more than the passage of a law;
especially when there were still white people in power determined to
maintain the status quo and the inequality between Blacks and Whites.
If you find this hard
to believe, consider that “as recently as 2006, a city government
report found that affluent, non-white Milwaukeeans were 2.7 times likelier to
be denied home loans than white people with similar incomes.” A study by the National
Institute of Health from 2009 concluded that “that white people prefer
to live in communities where there are fewer black people, regardless of their
income.” (Source: NIH Study “Does
Race Matter in Neighbourhood Preferences).
A field study conducted by CNN in 2008 found that “Among those with no
criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a
call back relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites
with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black
applicant with a clean background.” (Source: CNN article). The US Department of
Justice settled a lawsuit with J.P. Morgan Chase in January 2017, for charging
“African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher rates than white borrowers
from 2006 to 2009, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.” (WSJ article).
Based on this historical
evidence it becomes clear that numerous policies purposefully put in
place to institutionalise racism; these policies were designed to
silently prevent black people from gaining mobility and integrating with
white America. The impact can be felt to this day.
Upward social mobility requires each generation to move one step up the social
ladder, which then allows the following generation to gain access to better
housing and higher quality education which leads to better jobs, better pay and
a higher standard of living – more than any other non-white group, black people
have been denied the ability to gain social mobility.
Think back to the fact
that currently 1 in 3 Black American men face jail in their lifetime
and then consider that a criminal record pretty much disqualifies you from
participating in US society; even for low-level, non-violent offenses, for
which the majority of black people are jailed. “Even your lower-paying
fast-food jobs are now doing background checks,” he said. “How can I pay child
support if I can’t get a job?” (Source: NYTimes article).
Without question we have come a very long way, but the fact is that many
of these biases are still prevalent today and we must be aware of them in
order to move forward. I believe that to heal these long simmering racial
divisions (that have come to light more starkly under the first black
President) and mend this broken narrative, Americans need to start by acknowledging
and owning the sins of slavery (much like Germany does about the Holocaust) and
gain a deeper understanding of how the subsequent years of institutionalised
racism have ravaged the black community.
This is not about retribution or pity; it is about understanding the
starkly different reality black and white people in America
Until Americans fully appreciate this reality, we cannot begin to do the
necessary work to ensure that the American Dream becomes real for future
generations of black children.