I wrote this article on race for a Washington, D.C. newspaper in 1991. I’m reprinting it today with the hope that its message still resonates.
“Racial Inequities Still Perpetuated through Ignorance and Societal Norms”
by Andrew Kirschner
Are you tired of hearing about Joey Buttafuoco’s cradle rocking, Michael Jackson’s fading skin color, Shannen Doherty’s boxing career, Woody Allen’s marriage, Elvis frequenting the Burger King, the Queen’s catastrophic year, and drug overdoses by the Partridge Family, Eight is Enough, Different Strokes, and the Brady Bunch? You’re not alone.
The turmoil in our society flows from a far more important faucet of inequity than the stories that occupy tabloid news draining into mainstream media outlets. We should focus on more pressing matters such as the hatred and ignorance that drives racism rather than these trivial and fleeting stories.
The failed policies of a detached government and deeply ingrained misconceptions have furthered a narrative that black men are the root of society’s problems. Examples abound from a lack of investments in minority neighborhoods to overt racism. I was recently working out in the gym talking to someone about the current AIDS epidemic. He told me that “if n*ggers like Arthur Ashe stopped taking it in the ass, we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.” (Ashe contracted HIV from a tainted blood transfusion while in the hospital for heart bypass surgery.)
At baseball card shows, dealers have told me that black players’ cards are worth less for good reason except they didn’t refer to the players as black. They’re not kidding. The statistical difference between Tony Gwynn and Ryne Sandberg is marginal yet Sandberg’s card price eclipses Gwynn’s by 300 percent.
Living in the city, I see racism with my own eyes. I see white people walk faster late at night when they see a black person near them (the result of society programming them to believe that black people are more dangerous). I observe store owners following black people up and down aisles fearing they’ll steal as I walk the same route unimpeded. I’ve witnessed black men harassed by police for behavior undeserving of attention.
What are the origins of America’s distorted view of black people? Television reinforces stereotypes that promote discrimination. For example, law enforcement programs often promulgate racism by failing to disclose they film their shows in urban areas with significant minority populations. Thus, a higher percentage of people arrested are black. Black people may get arrested and convicted disproportionately in comparison to the percentage of the population they comprise; however, that statistic doesn’t mean they’re committing the majority of the crimes. It means they’re being sought, caught, arrested, and charged at that rate. Much of the crime in this country goes on behind gates and closed doors where police don’t frequent. Wealthy white communities with powerful lawyers often dissuade stings and searches. A critical analysis of the pursuit of criminals in America may draw a more sobering and constructive picture of its machinations.
Why are so many black people arrested in America? Blacks are disproportionately victims of job discrimination, unequal housing opportunities, and deficient education. They often lack the connections, access, and resources afforded to white Americans as a result of centuries of a systematic denial of equal rights. They’re easier to catch and convict. Blatant racism also causes many disenfranchised people to make ill-advised decisions. What if you applied for a job and didn’t get it because of the color of your skin? What if you were looking for a house or apartment and a real estate agent informed you it has already been sold or rented when you know otherwise? What if you attended school every day prepared to learn but received a far less complete education than your peers? In these situations, many people travel non-conventional roads to achieve their goals, often the result of society failing to provide opportunities.
Until the playing field is equal, not everyone will play the same game. Some people are playing the field without a glove. We can’t always expect those people to stay in the field. We need a fair game. The government must intervene further, enforcing equal opportunity laws in housing, education, and employment, and funding innovative programs such as Head Start and Job Corps. They also must invest in communities, create jobs, and hold racists and people who commit crimes based on race accountable.
We should also not cast aside the daily challenge of being black in America. Arthur Ashe described his experience by explaining that whites can get up in the morning and just start their day. He said, “I can’t do that. I always have to think, ‘Well, here goes a black guy walking outside.’ As difficult as it is having AIDS, it isn’t nearly as difficult as it is being black.” This sad commentary illustrates the pressure of just being black in America, something many white people may not understand.
There is so much we can do to improve the experience of black people in America, including within our criminal justice system. Jail without rehabilitation is a recipe for more jail. The revolving door policy in correctional facilities is as effective as Dan Quayle’s think tank. We need to equip jails with teachers, social workers, and psychiatrists, not blank license plates. We need more educational opportunities and job placement services during incarceration and upon release if we want to affect real change. Write your legislators and insist they make equaling the playing field a priority in correctional facilities and communities.
We need common sense gun laws to make our streets safer. The filibuster of the Brady Bill, which requires a seven-day waiting period and mandatory background check on someone purchasing a firearm, is a perfect example of righteousness denied in the face of politics. As president, Ronald Reagan opposed the Brady Bill. Now as a private citizen, free from the grip of the National Rifle Association, he endorses it. Reagan’s shift should remind us that politics often prevents progress. An engaged citizenry can change that outcome.
There is also much more we can do as individuals to curb the scourge of racism. We have the power to reduce it by confronting it. When someone espouses a racist view, challenge their ignorance. Education can dissipate the fear that breeds hatred and ignorance. When the person in the gym made those racist and homophobic comments about Ashe, I spoke out. I stood up. If we assume a passive role and simply assure ourselves that we’re not racist because we don’t fuel a fire, we’ve left ignorance unchallenged. Ignorance unchallenged is ignorance prevailed. It will find reverence elsewhere. Condemn it.
Progress awaits us. It’s staring us in the face. Waiting. Overdue. Progress lies in the admission that racism is alive and well in America. Progress blooms in changes in the way we allocate money and resources. To help heal the wounds of our history and the problems that continue to plague us, we should fight for racial equality. For too long, we have been strangers to the benefits of a more inclusive society. For too long, we have mistaken the difference between living in a bad neighborhood and a good neighborhood as an act of fate. For too long, we have knocked on the door of real and lasting progress on race and left before it opened. We’re long overdue to organize. Let’s do it for Arthur Ashe. Let’s do it for every black American. Let’s do it for a better society. Let’s do it because it is right and it is time.
Andrew Kirschner writes about social justice issues in Washington, D.C. with a specific focus on the environment, race, education, homelessness, and animal rights. He was a lead organizer for the 1990 Earth Day on the Mall. He currently works for a nonprofit environmental lobby group on Capitol Hill.
(2016 update: This is how I viewed race 25 years ago in America, Sadly, not enough has changed. Shortly after writing this article, I began volunteering to help inmates in jail and one year later began working in correctional facilities to equal the playing field. I spent five years providing social services to inmates, including educational, housing, and employment opportunities, treatment, and other support services in and outside of prison to help improve their lives and our communities. I also volunteered as a Big Brother and mentor at the Boys and Girls Club. If this issue matters to you too, please get involved. If we all do a little, it will add up to a lot and make a big difference.)