Whether it is in our passionate recitation from the one line of the one Martin Luther King speech we’ve actually read or the long clap that followed our now President’s suggestion that “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America, ” there is something about us that seems to cling to notions of colorblind equality. We assert our equality even in the face of the latest social science research, which suggests our social situations are currently anything but equal in everything from income and wealth to health and infant mortality rates.
Research has quantified this love by finding that white, evangelical, Christians, are some of the best at denying the existence of racial inequality and some of most likely to attribute any recognized inequality to lack of motivation on the part of minorities.
In this context, it is no surprise that many of us hide behind verses like “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” as justification for not talking about race and the still existing division in our country. (It, is however, more curious how we use this verse and this logic to deny the use of racial categories, but fail to carry that logic through to the other words in Paul’s verse that there is “neither male nor female” – with few of us ever suggesting we rid the world of gender classification.)
But who can blame us when we have been taught the Civil Rights movement as if a bunch of brown and black folks descended on the capital, marched on a few streets and suddenly the once racially divided world was healed forevermore?
Even more than 50 years since the Civil Rights movement first began many of us fail to recognize that the average net worth (assets minus debts) of white Americans ($113, 000) is 20 times the average net worth of blacks (about $5, 600) and 18 times the average net worth of Hispanics ($$6, 325).
Somehow we missed the lessons about what contributed to these disparities. We fail to acknowledge that the FHA gave home loans to whites only for the first 30 years of its existence, thereby helping to create the white middle class today. We missed the lesson about the government selling 270 million acres of land for next to nothing to whites-only under the Homestead Act and how 40 million of us whites are descendants of those who acquired the land. Some of us are still living on that land, many of us are inheriting the inter-generational advantages of it. We missed the lessons about how, even as my own mother was being born, people of color were being denied access to equal education and were barred from university education altogether. And we have particularly missed the reality that, though those inequalities may have pre-existed us and may not be our personal fault, they have left many of us with an overwhelming advantage.
People like me have been given extra points on college applications for being “legacy students” – an impossible classification for most students of color whose parent’s could not have attended college in most of the generations that preceded me. Whites like me have benefited from the inter-generational accumulation of wealth that is largely impossible for people of color whose ancestors were denied adequate wages, education and jobs. Many of us have also benefited from living in counties and towns with higher property taxes, better schools, less pollution, more hospitals and a police force who rarely profiles people of our complexion (even though, when stopped, we are more likely to have drugs on us than a person of color).
But we are often afraid to admit these and the other thousands of small but cumulative advantages we have received. Instead, some of us deride the “extra advantages” given to students of color “on the basis of race” all the while misunderstanding the reality of the statistics on affirmative action and while personally profiting from the whites-only policies of the past.
But even the uncomfortable feeling of admitting our advantage in the social system we inherited is not enough. A 2004 study found that when applicants applied to the same job with identical credentials, applicants with the white sounding names received 50% more callbacks than applicants with black sounding names. Stopping merely at recognizing our inherited advantage denies the reality that the people in the most impoverished African American neighborhoods have to travel longer distances to reach the nearest supermarket than people in the most impoverished white neighborhoods – thereby limiting their access to nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. It denies the reality that many of the worst environmental hazards are located in impoverished black and brown neighborhoods – resulting in higher rates of illnesses like asthma and lead poisoning among African American children. And it ignores the fact that college educated black mothers have higher rates of infant mortality for their children than do white mothers who dropped out of high school. Even when black women have received consistent prenatal care, they still have infant mortality rates almost double white mothers who received absolutely no prenatal care. These studies, and similar studies on the effects of discrimination on other health outcomes like heart disease, have consistently controlled for other factors such an urbanicity and family history and have concluded over and over again that weathering (continued exposure to instances of racism or discrimination over time) is a threat to the health of black and brown bodies.
Failing to recognize these inequalities and discuss them openly, denies the reality that this discrimination is literally killing us. It denies the pervasiveness of institutional racism and the continuation of discrimination. It accepts the advantages given to us as whites with a morbid silence that stands with the status quo and a system of oppression that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to stand against. It is a responsibility we have, not because we are all personally responsible for the creation of that system, but because Christ has called us to work toward redemptive justice in a world that is far too often opposed to it.
Erin Echols is an Atlanta native and graduate student in Sociology with special interest in racial inequality. You can find her online or on Twitter.