copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert
This year, perhaps more than any time in the past, Americans are reminded of race relations each and every day. On televisions, on the radio, airwaves are filled with talk of the current Presidential campaign. For the first time in this nation’s history, a viable Presidential hopeful is not a white. Barack Obama is a Black man; he is profound and has purpose. Early on, Anglo Americans, and even some people of color, wondered if Obama authentically represented African-Americans. Countless inquired of Obama’s experience, not in Congress, but in the ghettos of this country. The prominent periodical, Time Magazine, published a cover story titled, “Is Obama Black Enough? As Sociologists assess, there is reason to believe another question is apt, “Are Caucasians white enough, or are they too white to understand the Black experience?”
The Black experience is as all other occurrences. Each is unique to the individual. Nevertheless, in a society where clear delineations are evident, we can observe, life as an African-American is not as easy. Circumstances common among Blacks are unthinkable to Caucasians. Anglos rarely appreciate persons of color are not truly different, only the conditions they live under vary.
While white Americans are happy to acknowledge that the Black man or woman they work with, as a singular person, is wonderful, Caucasians are quick to avow, that the individual they know is not like the rest of “those” people. Pinkish people do not understand. Hence . . .
Whites Underestimate the Costs of Being Black
Columbus, Ohio – How much do white Americans think it “costs” to be black in our society, given the problems associated with racial bias and prejudice?
The answer, it appears, is not much.
When white Americans were asked to imagine how much they would have to be paid to live the rest of their lives as a black person, most requested relatively low amounts, generally less than $10,000.
In contrast, study participants said they would have to be paid about $1 million to give up television for the rest of their lives.
The results suggest most white Americans don’t truly comprehend the persisting racial disparities in our country, said Philip Mazzocco, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus.
“The costs of being black in our society are very well documented,” Mazzocco said. “Blacks have significantly lower income and wealth, higher levels of poverty, and even shorter life spans, among many other disparities, compared to whites.”
For example, white households average about $150,000 more wealth than the typical black family. Overall, total wealth for white families is about five times greater than that of black families, a gap that has persisted for years.
“When whites say they would need $1 million to give up TV, but less than $10,000 to become black, that suggests they don’t really understand the extent to which African Americans, as a group, are disadvantaged,” Mazzocco said.
What Anglos do understand are the generalizations they hold dear. Black persons are different than whites, and they are, in large part because a society that favors people of pinkish paler hues has created a cast system that bars African-Americans from achieving as they might.
Incomes are lower, access to adequate educational facilities are few. Health Care coverage is out of reach for those with limited opportunity and wealth. Discrimination against those whose color differs from the main is ample. In the abstract, Anglo Americans grasp that those placed lower on the socio-economic ladder suffer. White Americans know they would not wish to live as a Black American does.
[I]n one study, whites were told to imagine that they were about to be born as a random white person in America, but they were being offered a cash gift to be born as a random black person. Once again, white participants requested relatively small sums to make a life-long race-change. In addition, some were given a list of some of the costs of being black in America, such as the racial wealth disparity. The result was that whites in this latter scenario requested significantly higher amounts than those in the previous studies – about $500,000.
Finally, some participants were given a similar scenario except all references to blacks, whites, and America were taken out. They were asked to imagine they were born into the fictional country of Atria, and were born either into the “majority” or “minority” population. They were given a list of the disadvantages that the minority population faced in Atria (which were identical to the real disadvantages faced by blacks in America). In this case, white participants in the study said they should be paid an average of $1 million to be born as a minority member in Atria.
“When you take it out of the black-white context, white Americans seem to fully appreciate the costs associated with the kinds of disparities that African Americans actually face in the United States,” Mazzocco said. “In this case, they asked for a million dollars, similar to what they want for giving up television.”
Mazzocco said blatant prejudice was not the reason for the findings. Results showed that whites who scored higher on a measure of racial prejudice did not answer significantly differently than others in the study.
Often those who are out of touch with what is true for another are not knowingly bigoted. As children, we learn to believe as we do. Most Americans are oblivious, no matter how well informed they, we might be.
However, if we are honest with ourselves, people know what is philosophically true for them personally, may not be valid. We are each similar, yet, never the same. A human desire to categorize places us in jeopardy. When we define others, or ourselves as Black or white we cripple our communities, as evident through statistical data. The numbers speak volumes, so too do people if we bother to ask them of their values.
Social Scientists surveyed those of disparate groups, and discovered what we could know intellectually. Those who physically do and do not resemble us share our values. Although experiences may be divergent, we need only think of our siblings to realize the adage “All men are created equal,” does not mean every being is identical in appearance; nevertheless, essentially we are related. My blue eyed-sister is not as I am. She sees the world through her own lens. A brown-eyed brother cannot think, say, do, feel, or be as me. Still, we are akin. Biologically persons may be similar. They are never the same; nor are there stark contrasts.
Every human values principles that honor all men, women, and children unvaryingly. Innately, two-legged creatures crave caring connections. We all want to have the rights reverence affords, just as our brethren do. Every person is made of blood, sweat, and tears. Humans have inherent worth. Shared ignorance does not allow people to act on our deepest beliefs. the essence of our beauty is not just skin deep. It is part of our being whether we are Black or white.
Researchers remind us, in November 2007, it is time to “Redefine What It Means to Be Black in America.” The Social and Demographic division of Pew Research Center, in conjunction with National Public Radio surveyed a large group of Americans, a large portion of those who participated were Black. This fact alone sets this report apart from earlier examinations which most relied on data from white Americans. The review titled, Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class, Optimism about Black Progress Declines, we discover the times and trends are changing, or perhaps our awareness of what is has been altered. Many African-Americans do not identify themselves with the accepted definition of Black.
A Single Race?
Another revelatory finding in the Pew poll is that 37 percent of African Americans now agree that it is no longer appropriate to think of black people as a single race. A little more than half of the black people polled, 53 percent, agreed that it is right to view blacks as a single race. And the people most likely to say blacks are no longer a single race are young black people, ages 18-29.
Forty-four percent of those young black people say there is no one black race anymore, as compared to 35 percent of the 30- to 49-year-old black population, and 34 percent of the black people over age 65.
The split in the black race comes down to a matter of values, according to the poll. In response to the question, “Have the values of middle-class and poor blacks become more similar or more different?” 61 percent of black Americans said “more different.” White Americans agreed, with 54 percent saying there is a growing values gap between the black middle class and the black poor; 45 percent of Hispanics agreed, too.
At the same time, 72 percent of whites, 54 percent of blacks, and 60 percent of Hispanics agree that in the last 10 years, “values held by black people and the values held by white people (have) become more similar.”
While the ethos may appear equivalent, upon closer examination a variance among respondents emerges. In nationwide telephone interviews, with a representative sample of 3,086 adults, conducted from September 5-October 6, 2007, we learn what an “over-sampled” total of 1007 African Americans, 388 Hispanics, and 1671 Anglos believe.
Big gaps in perception between blacks and whites emerge on many topics. For example, blacks believe that anti-black discrimination is still pervasive in everyday life; whites disagree. And blacks have far less confidence than whites in the basic fairness of the criminal justice system.
Over the past two decades, blacks have lost some confidence in the effectiveness of leaders within their community, including national black political figures, the clergy, and the NAACP. A sizable majority of blacks still see all of these groups as either very or somewhat effective, but the number saying “very” effective has declined since 1986.
These statements may correlate to what is real for too many African-Americans. Income Gap Between Blacks, Whites Expands. The Brookings Institute in cooperation with National Public Radio revealed in a recent report, while Black Americans can no longer be thought of as a distinct group, if they ever were, as a whole, people of color have not benefited from a “free and open” society, as Caucasians have. Anglos remain oblivious. Intolerant attitudes inform whites. The same bigoted perspectives hinder an ability to relate, and recognize how different the Black experience is.
Again, in November 2007, Americans were given an opportunity to assess the clash bias has created. In a culture, founded on the principles of equality, Americans prefer to practice prejudiced policies. In the United States, people whose skin is dark are not afforded the opportunities bestowed upon their counterparts, Caucasian Americans.
Economic Mobility of Black and White Families
In brief, trends show that median family incomes have risen for both black and white families, but less so for black families. Moreover, the intergenerational analysis reveals a significant difference in the extent to which parents are able to pass their economic advantages onto their children. Whereas children of white middle-income parents tend to exceed their parents in income, a majority of black children of middle-income parents fall below their parents in income and economic status. These findings are provided in more detail below.
Median family income for both black and white families has increased over the last 30 years, but income gaps still persist.
Between 1974 and 2004, white and black men in their 30s experienced a decline in income, with the largest decline among black men. However, median family incomes for both racial groups increased, because of large increases in women’s incomes. Income growth was particularly high for white women.
The lack of income growth for black men combined with low marriage rates in the black population has had a negative impact on trends in family income for black families.
There was no progress in reducing the gap in family income between blacks and whites. In 2004, median family income of blacks ages 30 to 39 was only 58 percent that of white families in the same age group ($35,000 for blacks compared to $60,000 for whites).
Black children grow up in families with much lower income than white children.
White children are more likely to surpass parents’ income than black children at a similar point in the income distribution.
Overall, approximately two out of three blacks (63 percent) exceed their parents’ income after the data are adjusted for inflation, similar to the percentage for whites.
However, a majority of blacks born to middle-income parents grow up to have less income than their parents. Only 31 percent of black children born to parents in the middle of the income distribution have family income greater than their parents, compared to 68 percent of white children from the same income bracket. . . .
White children are more likely to move up the ladder while black children are more likely to fall down.
Startlingly, almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle class end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children. Achieving middle-income status does not appear to protect black children from future economic adversity the same way it protects white children.
Black children from poor families have poorer prospects than white children from such families. More than half (54 percent) of black children born to parents in the bottom quintile stay in the bottom, compared to 31 percent of white children.
Perhaps, the way in which the Black population experiences income inequity and discrimination, accounts for the lack of confidence in African-American leaders among the population, or did until very recently. In the Fall of 2007, before the first caucus in Iowa or the initial primary ballots in New Hampshire were cast, people of color in the United States expressed a glimmer of hope. While many people whose skin cast a brownish-purple hue were devoted to the Clinton campaign, they recognized that Barack Obama shed a powerful light on the issue of color. Again, the Pew Research Center, Social and Demographic Trends division concluded . . .
The most newsworthy African American figure in politics today – Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama – draws broadly (though not intensely felt) favorable ratings from both blacks and whites. But blacks are more inclined to say that his race will detract from his chances to be elected president; whites are more inclined to say his relative inexperience will hurt his chances.
Three-quarters of blacks (76%) say that Obama is a good influence on the black community. Even greater numbers say this about Oprah Winfrey (87%) and Bill Cosby (85%), who are the most highly regarded by blacks from among 14 black newsmakers tested in this survey. By contrast, just 17% of blacks say that rap artist 50 Cent is a good influence.
Months prior to these results a conversation ensued that may have helped to alter a long accepted perception. The son of a white woman from Kansas, whose father was native to Kenya, Barack Obama was asked, “How important is race in defining yourself?” Perhaps, esteemed Senator, and Presidential candidate, Obama spoke for many African-Americans, most of whom understand their bloodline may be mixed. He might have also addressed what Anglo Americans understand, if not consciously. No matter the color of our skin, few of us are purebred. While people may presume to know who we are based on a preconceived notion, we are all more than our appearance. [If only as a society, we acted on this veracity.]
Obama: I think all of us in America and particularly African-Americans have to think about race at some point in our lives. The way I like to think about it, I am rooted in the African-American community, but I’m not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity and recognize that I’m part of a very specific set of experiences in this country, but that’s not the core of who I am. Another way of saying is that’s not all I am . . .
One of the things that helped me to resolve a lot of these issues is the realization that the African-American community, which I’m now very much feel a part of, is itself a hybrid community. It’s African. It’s European. It’s Native American. So it’s much more difficult to define what the essential African-American experience is, at least more difficult than what popular culture would allow.
What I also realized is that the American experience is, by definition, a hybrid experience. I mean, you know one of the strengths of this country is that we have these people coming from, you know, all four corners of the globe converging, and sometimes in conflict, living side by side, and over time coming together to create this tapestry that is incredibly strong.
And so, in that sense, I feel that my background ironically, because it’s unusual, is quintessentially American.
Americans of any race know that their ancestry is likely mixed. Whites are not pedigrees; nor are Blacks. Yet, pinkish people feel they can or must delineate when they define a dark complexioned person. Too often, in the United States, an African-American is described by their visible lineage, set apart because of the color of their skin. Yet, what of whites? How do we classify a paler person who may be part Irish, Italian, German, or English?
Apparently, a year ago, in February 2007, 60 Minutes Host Steve Kroft thought he knew what it meant to be Anglo or to be raised among white people. Mister Kroft made repeated references to the candidate’s Caucasian mother, and Obama’s childhood history. He said, “You spent most of your life in a white household.” “I mean, you grew up white.” “You were raised in a white household?” These statements were presented as though they were significant. The presumption was, in a white home people think, say, do, feel, and are different than those in a Black family. The evidence says this is not so. Yet, the myth remains firm. Hence, the journalist offered an observation, odd as it may be to some.
Kroft: [A]t some point, you decided that you were black?
The answer might have informed Black and white alike. The response may have encouraged African-Americans to be more vocal by the time they were surveyed nine months later. Possibly, the response had no influence. After centuries of racial discrimination, Black person may just be sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Whatever the reason for the realizations that emerged in the Pew Research report, finally, there is an incentive to believe. Hope is alive. A Black American, or many African-Americans, together, can change the persistent culture.
Presidential aspirant, Senator Obama spoke a truth that rattled a rigid reality. Stereotypes are exactly that. They need not characterize any of us, nor do we, as a nation need to endorse what divides us. Barack Obama explained . . .
Well, I’m not sure I decided it. I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American. And when you’re a child, in particular that is how you begin to identify yourself. At least that’s what I felt comfortable identifying myself as . . .
[T]here is racial prejudice in our society that we do continue to carry the historical legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. We’ve never fully addressed that. It manifests itself in much higher rates of poverty and violence and lack of educational achievement in minority communities. But I know in my heart that there is a core decency to the American people, and that decency can be tapped.
I think America is at the point now where if a white person has the time to get to know who you are, that they are willing on average to look beyond race and judge you as an individual. That doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped making snap judgments. It doesn’t mean that before I was Barack Obama, and I was just Barack Obama, that if I got into an elevator, a woman might not clutch her purse a little tighter. Or if I’m walking down the street, that you might not hear some clicks of doors locking, right. I mean, there’s still a host of stereotypes that I think a lot of people are operating under. But I think if they have time to get to know you, they will judge you as they would judge anybody else, and I think that’s enormous progress.
We’ve made progress. Yes, things are better. But better is not good enough. And we’ve still got a long way to go.
Indeed, America has much to do as a nation if we are to heal what has harmed us as a people. If this country is to be truly healthy and authentically honorable, we must act as equals. To allow Black Americans to suffer at the hands of “compassionate” Caucasians, to deny the similarities, and amplify the differences does not bode well. A man, woman, or child must be judged by the quality of his character, not the color of his skin. Let us have the courage of our convictions. It is time to create a culture of community.
~ Soren Kierkegaard [Danish Philosopher]
Sources and Stereotypes . . .
- “Is Obama Black Enough? By Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates. Time Magazine. February 1, 2007
- Whites Underestimate the Costs of Being Black. Researchers, Phil Mazzocco, Timothy Brock, Gregory Brock, and Kristina Olson. Article By Jeff Grabmeier. Ohio State University. June 25, 2007
- Philip Mazzocco.
- “Redefine What It Means to Be Black in America.” National Public Radio. November 13, 2007
- Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class, Optimism about Black Progress Declines. The Social and Demographic Division. Pew Research Center. November 13, 2007
- Transcript Excerpt: Sen. Barack Obama. CBS News. February 11, 2007