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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Hundred Yard Dash

Has the black man caught up?  Consider the metaphor of the hundred yard dash...

White men like me from the south (of Europe, that is) stand accused of breeding a race of human beings decidedly inferior to those from Europe’s western and northern sections. Still, I suppose I’m not completely in tune with the plight of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, the so-called “people of color.” Or women, for that matter.

By way of example, one day an African American student asks me a simple question. “Why is it,” he begins, “that a black person has to be wildly successful, beat insurmountable odds, fly like superman, to become that nationally popular one-in-a-million hip hop artist, before he is able to afford what is to most white people the common luxury to reside in an affluent southern California neighborhood like Beverly Hills? While, for example, his white neighbor on one side just has to be a dentist - his white neighbor on the other side an insurance salesman?” Frankly, I have never looked at it that way before.  But, of course, once I do take the time to think it through from the student’s perspective, I surmise he has a point.

And if those are the odds for the plight of the ordinary black man, then just where does the “lower” class of white men, like me (the ones who are not white Anglo-Saxon protestant), slot in? Many white people today resent the fact that blacks receive at least a perceived, unfair advantage through the mechanism of affirmative action. This controversial program gives a hiring preference based on race, ethnicity or gender over the application of a similarly situated white male citizen. Many white men, especially on the lower rungs, believe that, perhaps, it is time to reverse or undo affirmative action, that enough has been done, that blacks, anyway, have effectively “caught up.”

I pose this question to a professional colleague whose ethnicity is a mix of African American and Asian. He answers without hesitation: “Hell no! The black man is not even close to catching up.” He proceeds to relate a metaphor I’ve not forgotten. A white man and a black man each line up to compete in a hundred yard dash. The white man is fit and all trained up, with state of the art running gear. By contrast, the black man has a pair of lead shackles locked around his bare ankles. The gun goes off. The race starts. The white man zips along smartly, sporting a huge smile. When he gets to about ten yards from the finish line, someone in the crowd has the decency to call for the black man’s shackles finally to be removed. The crowd waits impatiently, wondering why the black man hasn’t caught up, fully recovered in an instant from deep injuries sustained over 350 years of legally sanctioned subordination. He must just be lazy, they conclude.

It is argued that whites typically lack empathy for their black brethren, taking for granted things that do not come as naturally or predictably for blacks. For example, one of my white colleagues is known to speak rather casually about having inherited his father’s successful printing business. Although it is largely due to his efforts that the business has taken off to the next level, he tends to speak as if such businesses commonly grow on trees. After all, it’s just a printing business, right?

Working people are also rather nonchalant about the financial cost and economic drain of social programs for their dispossessed co-workers. Programs such as workers’ compensation to protect the injured and unemployment insurance benefits to protect those who have been the subject of layoffs are routinely criticized. Even successful, self-employed entrepreneurs tend to complain about the social costs of subsidizing the failed business ventures of others in a brutal, survival of the fittest, take no prisoners mentality.

Of course, the situation changes when the working man loses his own job. Then, as the saying goes, it’s not a recession, it’s a depression. Suppose, for example, the self-employed entrepreneur happens to be a GM dealer, whose father ran the business proudly before he did. For years, all the entrepreneur says he wants is the “government” simply to get off his back and stay out of his life. Until, that is, the music stops playing, GM declares bankruptcy on account of decades of incompetent management, and the entrepreneur is finally left without a chair. All of a sudden, the attitude changes, fundamentally. Then the government must step in, naturally, to help him in his time of dire need.

Lastly, I can only chuckle in considering the story of a woman who tells me she has no idea how she is going to pay for her child’s college education. She is therefore going to vote “Democrat” in the next election, as one of the ordinary people to whom the party has strong appeal. The next time I see her, however, her politics have undergone a complete transformation. Now she is preaching how the Republicans must win the next election. “I thought you were going to vote Democrat?” I interject matter-of-factly. She confides that she has been the grateful recipient of a generous bequest from her parents, which covers the child’s education in full. And all of a sudden, everything changes.

-Michael D’Angelo

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