I’m writing today to hopefully get you to see and understand something that I’ve had the opportunity to learn about. Please don’t get it twisted: I’m not here to attack you or what you may believe, this isn’t what this is about. I just want to share some things that may help you understand why I think the way that I do. This information may be uncomfortable for some people to learn and read about. It definitely was for me. However, I sincerely hope that this information can elevate our conversations and discussions about how we can continue to better America.
For those who may not know me, my name is Shawn An and I am a first-year student at Davidson College. Growing up as a Korean American in North Carolina, I was very fortunate that I did not experience any racist encounters early in life, but I remember the first incident vividly. I was in seventh grade and one day, we had a school basketball game. As our team walked over to the stands awaiting tip-off, an opposing player looked at me, took his fingers to his eyes, and squinted them, saying “ching chong” repeatedly. I was shocked. I knew of racism from books and several personal anecdotes but experiencing it firsthand was unsettling.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I found myself playing basketball on my high school team, facing the same gestures and racial slurs being thrown at me from opposing sidelines and fans, only now, their derogatory vocabulary had expanded to include terms like “chink,” “jap,” and “China man.” These experiences planted the seeds in my mind to learn as much about racial discrimination and inequality as I could to come to an understanding of why this was and still is happening to ethnic minorities and why those who espouse such language and commit such heinous and petty acts believe it is permissible.
When the time came to select classes at Davidson for the Fall 2020 semester, I stumbled across a course titled, “Race, Religion, and Donald Trump,” and I was immediately interested by the premise of the course. So, I registered, not knowing that we as a class would uncover the truly racist origins of American history and the horrors of American economics that are oftentimes swept under the rug.
At its core, racism is a natural human reaction: we as a species generally hate and fear what we do not know. So when the United States was originally formed following the Revolutionary War, it was only natural that those in power, white Christian men, envisioned a nation in which people who looked and acted like them would thrive. While he was not a Founding Father, Jean de Crèvecoeur (a naturalized French American citizen), wrote that Americans were, “certainly Christians,” and that they were, “a mixture,” (Martí, 2020) of several northern and western Europeans such as the English, French, and Germans, accurately summarizing early America’s complete exclusion of women and other ethnic groups that would dictate American legislation and economic practice for the following centuries and what ensued was blatant systematic racism that permeated American society and the remnants of which are still visible to this day.
From its very inception, the American economic model was designed to exclude people of color. Most know that slavery and segregation prevented minorities, particularly blacks, from participating in the very economy that their work was running and many were taught about segregated restaurants, businesses, and washrooms, leading them to believe that this was the full extent of this separation of races. It was not. After the Civil War ended, blacks were believed to be so ravaged by the institution of slavery, that they were seen as “degraded,” and therefore uncivilized (Guyatt, 2016), meaning that they could not possibly, in the minds of the politicians of the time, participate in white American society. As a result, while white families were amassing wealth through agriculture and new upcoming technology, blacks were left with no choice but to return to plantation work where they received minimal pay as southern states passed vagrancy laws, Black Codes, and more legislation limiting the opportunities blacks had access to, while the northern states passed zoning laws, pieces of legislation that would go on to dramatically diminish the value of black-owned properties (Baradaran, 2019). Combine that with the interferences in the black banking systems, and there was seemingly no feasible way for blacks to amass wealth for themselves and their future generations as now not only did they not have access to education and employment but were not even able to amass credit or make investments.
However, this was just in the 1800s. In the 1900s, the economic policies of the time continued to hinder the black community’s ability to acquire wealth of their own. Southern politicians held valuable positions in Congress and were able to leverage these positions to achieve their goals of maintaining racial superiority over blacks. For example, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took his New Deal to Congress, he had to reform the literature to prevent blacks from forming unions, from having regulated work hours or a minimum wage, and from receiving social security benefits in order to garner enough support for the New Deal to go through (Baradaran, 2019). When Ronald Reagan implemented his “trickle-down” economic theory, it worsened the overall wealth discrepancy in the United States as he focused on investing in corporations and the wealthy; however, this was borderline disastrous for the black population who already had very little wealth at their disposal.
The effects of this economic equality may seem far in the past, but that could not be farther from the truth. While wage equality has been implemented, this does not translate to equal opportunity to acquire wealth, primarily asset-based wealth. Wealth inequality in the United States has been increasing since 1978 with 42 percent of all wealth belonging to 1 percent of the American population in 2012 (Shapiro, 2017). With wealth already being disproportionately distributed to this extreme, it may be hard to believe that it gets worse, but it does indeed. In 2013, it was found that while the median net wealth of white families was around $142,000, black families had a net wealth of $11,000. Furthermore, whites are far more likely to receive financial aid from their families as they were the families with wealth to spare while black families had an insufficient amount of wealth to deal with the costs and unpredictability of life such as medical emergencies, unemployment, and tuition costs, leading them to take out loans and drive themselves into deeper debt. The effects of the past are having massive influence over the occurrences of the present.
It is clear that something needs to change in order to give others, especially blacks equal opportunity to acquire wealth, but the questions are what do we do and how? How can we provide these opportunities when we are living in a system that has given whites a 200-year head start to sink their talons into the metaphorical wealth pie? How do we achieve this balance without converting our economic system to a form of socialism or communism? While we may not know these answers now, it is more important to have these discussions now than ever because otherwise, the ever-expanding wealth gap will inevitably make it impossible if left unchecked.
These issues in conjunction with my personal experiences with racism cause me to hesitate when I am asked if America is the greatest country in the world. How can we not discuss and educate our students about the atrocities that were committed and are continued towards our own citizens? This imbalance of wealth has created an imbalance of power which has created a wrongful sense of superiority and inferiority in American society. This past year of 2020 has revealed the gross lack of attention that has been paid to our black citizens in terms of social injustice but why stop there? Let us correct these economic wrongdoings of the past that have in many circumstances led to increased incidences of social injustice. While I may not be black myself, I want to see this change for my friends, neighbors, and black people all over the country. Let us educate ourselves and call for action. Let us fight for the equality that we believe America stands for.
My best regards,
- Baradaran, M. (2019). The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Guyatt, N. (2016). Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
- Martí, G. (2020). American blindspot race, class, religion, and the Trump presidency. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Shapiro, T. M. (2017). Toxic inequality: How America’s wealth gap destroys mobility, deepens the racial divide, & threatens our future. New York, NY: Basic Books.