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COMMENTARY

Rod Watson: We need White History Month to really understand racial advantage

Rod Watson

Let’s face it: It’s time to rename the month that starts on Friday.

With all due respect to Carter G. Woodson, the racial and political climate today is proof positive we’ve gotten all we can out of taking 28 days to point out the contributions of blacks who – as a group – still trail in every meaningful socioeconomic measure.

What’s needed at this point is something much more pertinent: White History Month.

As a solid one-third of the nation still wants to "take our country back," we need a period to educate the uninformed about just how we got where we are today.

The reading list could start with classics like "Black Labor – White Wealth" by former Commerce Department official Claude Anderson, who noted that "slaves were walking credit cards" because any white who owned them "could always earn money by selling the slave’s labor or selling the slave."

That’s certainly one way for a race to get a head start up the economic ladder.

Similarly, in "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson talked about the "yawning economic gap" between blacks and whites that "was opened by the 246-year practice of slavery. It has been resolutely nurtured since in law and public behavior. It has now ossified. It is structural."

That structural gap manifests itself today in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that puts the black unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2018 at 6.1 percent, nearly double the 3.2 percent rate for whites – a ratio that holds true in good and bad times.

As for poverty, while the Census Bureau put the white rate at 10.7 percent in 2017, the black poverty rate was nearly double that at 21.2 percent. On the flip side, while the median income for whites was $68,145 in 2017, for blacks it was just $40,258.

And of course, the big number – the wealth gap – has held at a remarkably stubborn ratio of about 10 to 1. Whites had a median net worth $171,000, the Federal Reserve reported in 2017, while for blacks the figure was just $17,600.

That gap reflects the accumulated advantage whites have compounded since using enslaved blacks to get their head start.

But I can already hear the argument from contemporary whites righteously intoning that they were not around during slavery.

OK. But White History Month doesn’t even need to look back that far.

These conscientious objectors or their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were around during the New Deal and post-World War II eras when deliberate government policies that were less brutal but no less exclusionary built upon the long-established advantages already in place.

In "When Affirmative Action was White," Columbia University professor Ira Katznelson meticulously laid out the ways laws and their implementation during this period widened, rather than narrowed, the divide. Social Security, for instance, did not include domestic or farm laborers – the two biggest categories of black workers – nor were they subject to wage and hour protections.

It was, in his words, "policy apartheid" that created winners and losers among today’s elders.

Even the much-lauded GI Bill, while neutral on its face, left implementation to states and localities which, especially in the South, led to predictable results. With the government’s assistance, whites were able to buy homes and accumulate equity in good neighborhoods blacks were kept out of, while gaining educations in colleges far superior in terms of funding and facilities than those most blacks were relegated to.

The result, in Katznelson’s words: "On balance, despite the assistance that black soldiers received, there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill."

The current-day implications of that government-sanctioned advantage can be seen in Thomas Shapiro’s "The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality." Shapiro conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 200 families to detail how the wealth accumulated by white families enabled them to help their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews pay for college, buy homes and open businesses using assets black families were prevented from accumulating in the New Deal and post-war eras.

After drilling down when white families described themselves as "self-made," he discovered Junior’s tuition was paid for by an aunt, the down payment for the house came from grandpa and an uncle put up the stake to open a small business.

Noting that inheritance doesn’t just occur at death, Shapiro used the term "transformative assets" to describe these forms of "inherited wealth lifting a family beyond their own achievements."

So much for self-made success stories. And closing the income gap or eliminating discrimination won’t do anything about any of that. Shaprio concludes: "Understanding the racial wealth gap is the key to understanding how racial inequality is passed along from generation to generation."

Buffalo will be filled in the coming month with all sorts of celebrations, school programs and proclamations from black leaders – and there is nothing wrong with any of that. Black History Month evolved from Negro History Week, started by Woodson in 1926 to encourage the study of African-American history. The great historian thought the knowledge of what blacks had accomplished and contributed would both buttress their own sense of self and pave the way for equal treatment by whites.

But nearly a century later and with the socieconomic chasms nearly as yawning as ever – a legacy of institutionalized advantage – it’s clear that we need a new focus. We need White History Month to educate much of this nation about exactly how caucasians as a whole got in the privileged position they currently are in.

There’s just one problem: 28 days may not be nearly enough.

 

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