Break the Chains 

How far removed are we from segregation in this country? On the day I was born in Atlanta, it was not possible for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant. That changed a few months later, so segregation was a reality within my lifetime. People of different races could not marry in most of the US. That changed a few years later between the years my brothers were born. While much of the stigma society imposed upon mixed marriages has lessened, there are still many people opposed to people of different races marrying. Given that it’s been more than forty years since the legal restrictions on mixed race marriage were removed without gaining full acceptance in society, one can assume those who supported legalization of same sex marriage still have a long road ahead of them, and will most likely never win total acceptance from every segment of the population.

One lingering problem within the United States is the institutionalized racism that exists at every level of society. The conservative right in this country has done an excellent job of conditioning citizens to equate the terms, “welfare”, “government assistance”, and “low income” with minorities. While it is true that a significant number of minority individuals are on public assistance, it is an unfair assumption to equate most people of a given race or ethnicity with low income or so-called “ghetto” conditions. The problem is that the attitude of many liberals is not much better, believing that minorities need public assistance because they can’t take care of themselves. Rather than arguing over the need for such safety nets, perhaps the politicians would be better advised to concentrate on the factors that lead to people requiring public assistance than debating whether or not assistance is needed. People will always have hard times, which require them to seek assistance from some outside source. Ironically, many people who oppose government programs, will gladly contribute to charities or church funds which benefit the same people they would deny food stamps or other government aid.

The term “welfare queen” has come to represent people milking public assistance while wearing expensive shoes and driving Cadillacs, but the term was originally used for a specific individual, a Chicago woman most commonly identified as Linda Taylor, whose crimes included, but were not limited to living high on the public dole. While the press in Chicago dubbed her the “Welfare Queen” and detailed her many frauds, it was candidate and future president Ronald Reagan who brought her to the attention of the larger public, thus politicizing her story. The term “welfare queens” is now racist code for minorities, particularly blacks, but the actual individual who inspired the term frequently lied about her race, and on her death certificate and census documents is listed as white.

White people, as a group, really don’t understand the problem of institutional racism, largely because we’re responsible for creating, maintaining, and benefiting from it. There are many aspects of life I take for granted, even though I grew up in a lower middle class setting. In most cases, when the police pull me over for a traffic offense, I don’t fear that the encounter could result in my death. In fact, my complaint with the police is often that they sometimes don’t seem responsive enough when something happens. I would not hesitate to contact them and while sometimes wary, I rarely fear encounters with them. I’m aware that many minorities do not have the same experiences or attitude, often with good reason. I’m more concerned that some deranged individual — with a high statistical probability that person is white — will open fire in some space I’m inhabiting than I fear an encounter with police.

I grew up in rather unique circumstances, namely, when I was around seven or eight years old, Atlanta experienced “white flight” when whites from the inner city moved to the suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett in response to blacks moving into their neighborhoods. In a relatively short amount of time, I went from being in the majority in my school to being in the minority. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was one of only five or six whites in either class, and below that, there were only four or five whites in the entire school, two of whom were my brothers. While this gave me some insight into how it felt to stand out in a group of people, and to experience hostility directed at me for no other reason than how I look, it did not cause me to experience what it’s like to be a minority twenty-four hours, seven days a week in the US. While blacks and whites can be equally racist on a personal level, it’s usually the whites who have the power and privilege of institutionalizing racism.

Large, well-funded organizations like the NAACP do a reasonable job of going after corporations or governmental institutions which foster institutionalized racism though it can be difficult to spot or prove. When the focus shifts from institutional to individual racism, the problem is a little more difficult to diagnose and correct. It is important to confront racism whenever encountered, but simply branding this individual or stand-alone organization racist doesn’t always accomplish anything constructive, and frequently leaves the target bitter and more entrenched in his or her racist attitudes. Individuals see little incentive to change when the organization to which one belongs or the company where one works fosters the same attitude.

The US has a long way to go in addressing racial disparities but we accomplish nothing by pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Too much hostility is directed at too many people and far too much blood has been spilled for us to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. Our leaders need to work on solutions rather than fanning the flames of racial hatred, as a certain candidate has been doing. We should applaud the efforts of those who are attempting to initiate a dialogue, but more importantly, we need to participate in the conversation.

Notes:

An article on the original Welfare Queen can be found at Slate.

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