Time to pay our debt
Photo credit: By Mobilus In Mobili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”—Barack Obama
I was going to title this post The Betrayal of Black Women by White Women, but I surmised that it would be so off-putting that most of you wouldn’t get past the title. I floated the title by several of my white friends, and they, in fact, became very defensive. But the truth is white women have betrayed black women from the days of slavery, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the suffragette movement and today’s feminist movement. White women handed slaves over to their husbands to be raped and abused. White women took their children to lynchings and stayed to watch the body carved up and pieces handed out to the crowd. They enthusiastically supported Jim Crow laws. In both the suffragette and feminist movements there are countless examples of the needs of black women overlooked for the priorities of white women. Today from some on the left we still see, metaphorically, black women being sent to the back of the bus for so-called economic equality, which will never come as long as this country has institutionalized racism. It is the racism, stupid.
We white women are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors, but we most certainly have benefitted from their actions, and now is the time acknowledge that.
For example, economic injustices abound, injustices that began during slavery, when slaves were property. While white families were accruing great wealth, black families were not because they were a part of the wealth accumulated by white families. Still, today the relationship between African Americans and property remains unequal. “Not only do African Americans own fewer assets, but the value of many of those assets, from college degrees to housing, is less for African Americans than for white Americans.” For example, it was illegal for black folks to receive an education, a stepping stone to improving one’s economic situation. Share cropping was so rigged that the farmers couldn’t save any money, much less invest. In 1944, the inception of the GI bill afforded servicemen a way to build wealth, but black servicemen were denied the housing portion of the GI. So while white servicemen were buying homes with the GI bill, the same was denied black folks. Again, black folks were denied the very path to building wealth and moving into the middle class. Yes, many black servicemen used to GI bill to go to college, but they were trying to gain entrance into overcrowded historically black colleges because white colleges would not allow them to enroll. White folks had so many opportunities to build their wealth over generations, opportunities denied black folks.
While a dollar may look the same in a black or white hand, it simply does not have the same value. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has found “that African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be denied bank mortgages, even when their applications are basically identical to white applicants.” Additionally, the practice of red lining keeps blacks from owning homes with greater resale value.
To illustrate the economic divide, I’m sharing a story of two neighborhoods in a large metropolitan area where I visited two of my friends—one is an affluent white community, the other a black community. They illustrate the economic injustice and environmental racism in the US. One has tax-payer funded trees, decorated with twinkle lights, lining the streets that take residents to a variety of boutiques, salons, and elegant restaurants. The other, a black community, has a barren business district, not a green leaf anywhere. Many stores are boarded and crumbling; the homeless crowd the sidewalks. The streets pass by local small businesses, auto repair and paint shops, small barbecue joints and maybe a dry cleaners. At the time there was not a mass transit stop to be seen on any of the streets. A freeway runs nearby with all its noise and pollution, yet there are not the large cement walls as in other areas that help protect the residents. This is an example of economic racism as well as environmental racism, part of the systemic racism that spans our country.
Because of environmental racism, children in areas of poverty have a much higher rate of asthma and other lung-related issues. One reason is the lack of trees, as in tree-lined streets. Often daycare schools are squeezed between a paint shop and a dry cleaners. The children play in the polluted air on asphalt. This is one of the dilemmas too many black mothers face—if they survive child birth—they have no transportation to higher paying jobs and adequate, clean daycare.
The tragic irony is that as long as crime is high and drugs are prevalent, the rent is low and home ownership is a possibility. But once the neighborhood is cleaned up and safe, the capitalists take over, and rent and home prices skyrocket until they are out of reach of the long-time residents. My friend recently told me that she and her neighbors dread the day they see a white woman walking a dog in the neighborhood because that’s a good indication that gentrification is coming.
The city finally connected the community to mass transit, and the tiny old stucco homes, many in disrepair, located by the mass transit stop are now listed for $800,000, well out of reach for many of the residents and those wanting to move to the community.
A few days ago my friend looked out her window and saw a white woman walking a dog.
Social and justice issues also accompany economic issues. Every black woman who walks through a door to a doctor or lawyer’s office, or a classroom, or a room full of white folks is socially demoted. Mary, a black woman, broke her back and was taken to the ER. The doctor told her there was nothing wrong with her back and gave her a shot. Two days after the shot wore off, she again returned to the ER. Again the doctor gave her a shot and sent her home. On her third visit the doctor refused to see her because, as the nurse explained, “he’s not here to serve drug addicts.” A stereotype prevented Mary from getting the care she so desperately needed.
Days later, with the help of a health worker, Mary saw a different doctor, who ordered an MRI, which the first doctor did not do, and he saw the fracture in her back.
In the white society black women have to live by a list of unwritten rules to navigate the white world. Don’t be too loud, too opinionated, too colorful. Don’t make white folks uncomfortable. My friend says, “‘We can’t celebrate our sexuality because then we all become whores.’” She calls it policing black behavior, sometimes it’s
self-imposed, sometimes imposed by white folks. The goal of the “policing” is to avoid feeding the stereotypes. For example, this same friend told me that she has to present the white image of respectability when she sees her doctor or lawyer although she is paying them for a service. If you don’t yet understand white privilege, the idea that a segment of society feels compelled to behave is such a way as not to make us uncomfortable should make it obvious to you.
Another friend, who makes a 6 figure salary working for a
multi-grant consortium, in a meeting with other supervisors was told she had “her Michelle Obama going on” when she was advocating her position. Her Michelle Obama? According to her, she was too intense, too pushy, too angry. Another friend was agitated about a newly implemented and unfair policy at work, which she expressed to a white co-worker. The co-worker told her to go outside, have a smoke, and calm down. Obviously, the co-workers have bought into The Angry Black Woman stereotype. I mean who has ever seen an Angry White Woman, right?
Every social, business, economic interaction is fraught with the dynamic of black policing. We aren’t required to peel off many layers just to function in a white world because we get to be the default, the norm. We aren’t required to peel off many layers just to function in a white world.
My friend went on to tell me that “‘terror keeps us oppressed. Terror of living in no man’s land. We are people but not people. No safe place exists for us. No matter how well we navigate your world, every thing we do will have ramifications.’” She then references the Obamas, who have led and continue to lead exemplary lives before, during, and after the White House. No matter what they do or say, there are ramifications.
This is the world our ancestors have created for black women and other women of color, and we have benefitted from their actions. We must ask ourselves what is our culpability in maintaining this world? Yes, I’m well aware that throughout history white women have worked side by side with black women to secure their rights, but too often we look to those white women as a balm to sooth our collective conscience.
One of our most egregious acts of betrayal occurs at the ballot box when white women elect a Donald Trump or support a Roy Moore. Black women vote their values, while too often we white women talk about our values and then vote against them. Time and again black women have saved us from ourselves at the polls, and, yet, the media still refuses to call black women the base of the Democratic Party, and I would venture to say the driving force of democracy in our country.
We may have campaigned for Pres. Obama or Hillary Clinton. We may march with Black Lives Matter and in the Women’s Marches. We may even be activists for justice. But do we speak up or confront our women friends who voted for Trump? Did we patiently explain why voting for Trump would cost us dearly and be even costlier for black women and other women of color? Did we do enough? No, because no matter what we did, it wasn’t enough.
It is not up to the targets of racism to stamp it out; it is up to those of us who perpetuate it to do so. We must fight any attempt to deny citizens the right to vote. We must join activist groups. We must confront and call out racism when we see it—not just on social media but in our lives among our neighbors and friends and family, with acquaintances and strangers. We must acknowledge the privilege that accompanies whiteness.
We must act as trusted allies. We can no longer ignore the mortality rate among black women. As women and for many of us as mothers, it would be unacceptable if almost half us expected to die in childbirth. If we wouldn’t tolerate that for us, why would we tolerate those numbers among black women. Another imperative is to demand and fight for expansion of social safety nets. No child should go without dental or health care. Fight for safe places for children to live. Fight to improve education. Fight for better salaries and working conditions for the people who take care of our children—teachers, social workers, daycare workers to name a few. Demand the same pay for all women, not just us. My friend Leslie sent me this note after proofreading Part I of this post:
We owe them RESTITUTION. We owe them our deepest regrets for our blindness and careless cruelty, for trading our comfort and our children’s futures for their suffering and suffering and suffering. White women can, in truth, make the difference politically, by voting in those nice white suburbs to include all Americans under the rule of law and justice. It’s the least, the very least, we can do.
This call to action is our charge, our duty, our restitution.
Once again I call on you to use your imagination: dream of a country where all women, no matter race, ethnicity, culture, or religion, are treated fairly and equally. We have the political power if we unite to accomplish this, but do we have the political will?
Author’s note: Every story is true. Every quote is accurate. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the black women who helped and supported me as I wrote these posts. I treasure their friendships, their wisdom, their strength, and yes, I even appreciate when they remind me of my privilege.
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