Every time I see a homeless white bum on the street I think of him as just a bum. Every time I see a homeless black man on the street I think of him as a black man first. In my cognitive mechanism his blackness comes before his homelessness. Why is it so? Is it because I ascribe different qualities to black and white bums? Indeed, a white bum tends to receive a more elaborate justification, in my mind, of his unfortunate station: He’s probably a veteran with mental problems, a victim of circumstances or a terrible scam. A black bum doesn’t receive such leniency from me. He must’ve done something wrong along the way to end up like this, the thinking goes. I give a white man more room for error and more benefit of the doubt than I do to a black man. And yet if someone dared to suggest that the reason I think this way is because I’m a latent racist, I would punch him in the face. But then I thought, maybe I am a latent racist. Some racists might not even realize that they are racists. That was my case until I had time to sit and honestly examine the origin of this racial schizophrenia. Why, I wanted to know, is that in some instances I can be overly polite to a black person, but then I can be rude on the phone to some customer service representative who happens to sound black and who, I thought, did not fully understand my request? Why do I display an overtly civil behavior in one instance and act like a vile entitled bitch in another? Last summer’s events in Ferguson Missouri and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City were my catalysts for self-reflection. Surely, these were not unique and stand-alone incidents. Shit like this happened before. But it never spiked my interest and, in an unexpected way, outrage, followed by self-examination until now. Unlike with earlier similar incidents, this time I just couldn’t come up with enough appropriate reasoning for these deaths, I did not have enough evidence to convince myself that these are just terrible accidents and move on. There were just too many, all over the country, clearly a pattern. While my FB page lit up with denunciation of victims as “thugs”, I contorted my mind in vain attempts to see that angle but came up with nothing except a “Wait, what?!” astonishment and disbelief. It was time I turned the gaze inward.
We, whites shy away from talking about race because we are afraid to sound like Al Sharpton. We don’t want to sound too righteous among our Facebook friends or work colleagues. Everything has to be ironic, otherwise it’s no fun. We just don’t want to be accused of pathos and drama and sentimentality. In this age of irony, it’s bad taste to show any genuine concern, especially for a matter that does not directly concern you. When you talk about politics in general that’s fine – you can always make your grievances sound legitimate, citing policies that affect you directly. But that’s not the case with race. If a white person starts talking about race he/she looks and sounds like some kind of self-righteous zealot pimping for attention. It’s too suspicious, too unnatural. Why is it his concern, one might think, if he’s not black. Some ulterior motive will always be suspected. Concern for affairs that don’t concern you is a sign of obsession, but we don’t want to come across as obsessed. We can offer some passing commentary, framed in smiley faces (just in case, God forbid, someone will think we’re being too serious), or throw epithets and end the discussion.
For many this mindset – “it’s not our problem” – works as a sufficient buffer to not having to revisit this issue again. Still for others, there’s another convenient line of thought – the notion that if a black person remains in ghetto it is because he chose to do so. The whites, or those of us who made it to affluence from scarcity – did so because we wanted to get out and worked hard for it. The very fact that we made it and they didn’t, makes it easy for us to deny the desire of the same to a black man. We deny that they, too, want to get out of their circumstances. Because if they merely wanted to, the avenues are there for them like they were there for us: college, hard work, moral rectitude. The reason they don’t get out, we then placate ourselves, is because they don’t really want to. To deny them the desire for a normal life is to end the discussion, because what else is there to discuss? Thus we begin and end with the premise that even our desires are different. It’s a simple, but powerful way of thinking. What is a better way to deny someone’s humanity than to assume that us and them want different things? They are delinquent and thugs because they want to be those. It’s the most common, run-of-the-mill racist thinking, the kind that afflicts people who don’t even consider themselves racist at all.
But not all whites are as cruel so as to deny the blacks basic human desires. Some want to extend a helping hand. But even here we manage to fuck things up. How tired some ghetto school kids must be of the constant stream of white successful visitors who come to their school to give a standard “stay in school” speech as if it’s some kind of panacea. As if “going to college” will miraculously pull them up the social ranks. Kids hear the word “school” and think that any school will do. Those well-wishers, if they were sincere, could mention that to achieve the kind of position which they had achieved, they had to go to the right school, not some for-profit scam, they had to know the right people, they had to have the right name, they had to land the right internship with the right investment bank – avenues that are all but closed to an average black kid. During the interview for the job they knew better than to utter words like “community” and “helping others,” and instead talked about “extracting value,” “upside potential,” “leverage”, “angle” – again a vocabulary that is out of bounds to wide-eyed, idealistic school kids. The well-wishers speak to the kids in an anodyne language of a Lifetime movie, offer insipid, new-agey, “inspirational” bromides, while saving the real language of power, the terse no-nonsense talk of wiseguys and hedge-fund managers, the kind of language one must speak if he’s to move up in this world, for when they are in a company of peers. And the ghetto kids, instead, are being told of the world of pink unicorns. Well, there would be no problem if we lived in such a world, but we don’t, and those speakers know that we don’t, thus making even the well-meaning advice into a big disservice. Seriously, I’m beginning to think that a visit from a gang member, or from a rapper like 50 Cent or a curmudgeon like Nassim Taleb would do more good, would equip the kids with the real world sensibilities, would help rid them of the illusion that playing by the rules pays. 50 Cent knows how to survive and succeed without playing by white man’s rules. At the very least such a speaker could prevent those children from being lulled into a false thinking that someone out there cares about them or that they can have a normal life by simply going to college.
Aside from selling those kids a lie, with this thinking we have also dragged ourselves into incoherence. After we have designated a black man as “other”, as “incapable” or as lacking sufficient “desire to succeed” we, nonetheless, expect him to have the very same life trajectory as we do, if he somehow decides to embark on a life of respect and dignity. Notice how the two approaches live comfortably in our heads without making it explode: first we deny that they want basic human things with the same rigor and enthusiasm the whites do, but then we expect them to work towards it with, well, the same rigor and enthusiasm. We imply that they are lazy and then begin to measure the level of their dedication with our own whitey tools. With the game set up this way, no wonder they are bound to fail.
Some blacks can see through this bullshit. Good for them. They can see the futility of effort. They can see that a black man can dress like a professor, learn to contort himself to fit in in manner and speech, to walk in a military goose-step with his arms up at the first sight of a cop but it’s still not gonna be good enough. We’ll still make a sport out of finding faults with him. With our perverted love for an underdog story, we’ll put him in the arena like a gladiator, arm him with a dull blade (a sharp, adequate blade would make for a boring story), sit back and watch him fight his way up as if it’s some kind of Hollywood movie. Oh, let’s see if he can avoid traps that we set up for him on the way, like for-profit colleges and payday lenders and mandatory minimum sentences for first time offenders. He graduated? Avoided jail? Still no job? Aaaww! He should’ve changed his name from Tyrone to Michael. He must’ve come across as too angry or too docile during the interview. And why would one want to participate in this charade? So some blacks refuse to play this rigged game, the game that the whites set up, the game which by design they are bound to lose. And their refusal only plays into our narrative. We can then point fingers as say “See? They just don’t want to be part of a civilized society.” It’s like we want them to become one of us, but even as they try, even as they go out of their way to do just that, we turn their efforts into a spectator sport. Ok, let’s see what else he is willing to do to join our ranks. Let’s see if he’s colorblind, like us. How about writing an op-ed declaring black history month obsolete or something. Can he do that? No? Well, he doesn’t really want to join our ranks bad enough then.
Perhaps it’s an imperfect comparison, but being black is a lot like being unemployed. The unemployed face this mix, way too familiar to a black, of pity/scorn/reprimand as if not having a job is a moral failure, a result of your own subpar personal qualities, an idea that you’re just not trying hard enough. And what do we consider “hard enough” anyway? Who sets the standard? How hard is it, do you think, to run a hedge fund charging your customers 2% on their assets, regardless of how the fund performs? Does it really require more smarts, fortitude, situational awareness, attention to details than, say, selling loosies on a street corner? Does a hedge fund manager have to deal with cops, violent competition, an abysmal risk-reward scenario? I’m willing to bet an average drug dealer has more wits and balls and works harder than a pampered hedgie. You may have a problem with drug dealer’s line of work but you can’t really argue that he “doesn’t work hard.” And yet one is a thug, and the other is a respectable member of society. It’s easy to be a respectable member of society when you’re near the trough that prints money.
To conclude, I simply want to ponder: Why did we create a system that requires one to endure an uneven fight in order to succeed? Why do we elevate, even worship, the element of struggle and hardship? Do we think that otherwise we would have nothing to celebrate, that it would be un-American? One has to spit blood on the way, otherwise the story would lack merit. When did we become a nation of such masochists, that we have to make everything into an “against all odds” quest, even if it’s a quest for a boring middle-class life? Isn’t it time we start putting people before the narrative? Maybe then we will finally be cured of racism, and of, well, other accompanying ailments.