MASON: America in Black and White, Pt. II — Is it Just Race?

What if America were all white? Would life be better for its citizens? Yes, it would be, in Aspirational America, where all are supposed to be endowed with “inalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the Real America, however, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Even in an all-white country, the lives of most whites would probably be much the same. Those who struggle would continue to struggle and those who thrive would continue to thrive. In the real America:

  1. the leaders of the British colonies revolted from England over wealth and income;
  2. the economic system they embraced and in which we live concentrates wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of many;
  3. then, as now, if you were born without wealth, you were likely to die without wealth.

The leaders of the colonies, especially in the South, had been nervous about being outnumbered by poor people since the earliest days. Their primary challenge was how to generate and accumulate wealth without enraging those who were not as well positioned. At the same time, they needed to create a reliable work force they could control in order to exploit the vast resources of the “New World.”

Race-based chattel slavery was put in place to solve both problems. It imported and then bred black people from Africa as human capital, as property, to perform the labor. As a result, black people were on the bottom. Poor whites may have struggled, but the racial lines drawn by slavery allowed them to believe that unlike black people, they had the potential to become wealthy. This economic hierarchy and illusion of opportunity that slavery and its tentacles created and enabled persists today.

The ability to move up the economic ladder is a bulwark of our society. It is the American dream encouraged by the powerful in both politics and commerce. It works brilliantly for those who invented it — but not so well for the dreamers.

In the Real America, the chances of leapfrogging ahead are minuscule compared to the mythical size and strength and belief in the power of the dream. Now, as the illusion melts away for more and more of middle America, the racial antagonisms of many whites have intensified. They blame their failure to succeed and lack of opportunity on reverse discrimination, or on immigration. It is a familiar, manufactured fear.

As in the past, when violence erupted in conflicts between the enslaved and poor whites, or in relationships between new immigrants and newly freed slaves, today there are rifts between downwardly mobile members of the shrinking middle class and the chronically unemployed and underemployed. Cycles of competition for scarce jobs and fear of the future escalate. As long as a certain degree of order is maintained, however, business proceeds and prospers. Whatever casualties occur are seen by those on top as acceptable costs. Poor white and black people can fight as much as they like as long as they wear clothes made in China.

In the Real America, the vast majority of people are little more than figures on a balance sheet. Downsizings, mass incarceration, perpetual war, planned obsolescence and the like mean little aside from their effect on stock prices and corporate bonuses. What happens to children and families in the process is not personal. It’s just business.

But let’s take race out of the equation. What would America look like if it were all white? According to the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, 70 percent of the country’s wealth is controlled by 10 percent of the population. And a whopping 30 percent of the white population has no wealth at all. It’s not because of black people or immigrants — it’s just business.

The Aug. 7, 2016, Washington Post reviewed a book written by a white conservative titled “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” The book attempts to explain the roots of white working class anger. It concludes: “I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

I agree, of course, with one caveat. It seems to me that the biggest hurdle for white working and poor people is to see that their fates are much more determined by balance sheets than by race.

Part III will explore Aspirational America.

Ronald Mason Jr. is president of the University of the District of Columbia.

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