Race Isn't An Excuse

One of my fellow bloggers, Hammer, left the following comment for me yesterday in response to my post on racism and voting:

Race isn't an excuse. I went to a poor school with broken toilets, teachers who read the paper, 20 year old text books and no lab equipment. But we had no gangs or drugs and pretty much everyone graduated got a job or went to public college.

Declaring racism as an excuse for violent and criminal behavior when is counter productive.

My whole family was poor and or mexican and we got out of the projects despite most white people hating our guts.

I think just as many blacks are voting racism as whites.
So much came to mind in response to this so I figured I'd just post my thoughts right here. (I was going to write about how Madonna's holding dance auditions four blocks from my house but maybe I'll fill you in on that tomorrow. I know, you're sooo disappointed.)

Anyway, I think Hammer's definitely overcome a whole lot and I wish more people had the ability to do so, but it doesn't always work that way. More often, people end up being stuck in a cycle of generational poverty. And instead of focusing on whether the poor have realistic opportunities to get out of the situations they're in, our society is trained to instead blame those who need our help. I am all for individual accountability but when it involves children, I just want there to be a real solution that allows them to be able to have real choices about their lives.

People excuse racism in this country and behave like it's just people saying mean things to other people. I can deal with name calling. I've been called a zebra, an Oreo, and a crispy, critter, burnt up ni**er.

So, I suppose I could pat myself on the back and say, "Whatever, and now I've got a degree!" I suppose I could also pat myself on the back for not being an addict saying, "I'm addicted to crack because people called me bad names." But it's not about me.

There are plenty of other people I've known over the course of my life who didn't make it. It's not just about one person pulling themselves up. How can I celebrate when others still suffer?

No, race should not be an excuse. But, just because it shouldn't be an excuse doesn't mean that racism isn't alive and well. We like to think it's just name calling, but unfortunately racism involves power. Mortgage lenders can decide whether or not to grant a loan. Landlords can decide whether or not they want black folks renting apartments in their building. My landlord never met me before he rented this apartment to me. All he saw was my nice Irish last name on the application I faxed to him. I know it worked in my favor.

Power means journalists can spin stories a certain way and influence the masses. And before we know it, you and I don't know the truth.

City officials have the power to decide whether or not they're going to let gangs take over a neighborhood. We can "conquer" Iraq but we can't root gangs out of Los Angeles?

Um, yeah. Okay.

Hammer mentions that he didn't have gangs back when he was in school. Well, if only we could be so lucky these days. As you all know very well, here in LA, gangs are no joke. They start recruiting when the kids are in 2nd/3rd grade. The kids with no fathers think the gang members are cool guys that are just trying to protect the neighborhood, even if everyone is terrified of them. Those guys have the cars, the cash, and all the cool tattoos that everyone from ball players to rockers have these days. It's all very appealing to a young mind.

Even for me, in high school I talked to gang members all the time. I thought they were just cool, misunderstood guys. The reality is that they were the guys who didn't know how to read past a 3rd/4th grade level. They were the guys who only knew basic math. And they were the guys who'd never been given leadership opportunities because teachers were so busy labeling them as bad and sending them to the office for random crap.

A few years ago, before rents in my neighborhood went pscyho, two Latino guys with all the requisite tattoos and wife beater shirts started sitting on my front porch. And then this kid that lived next door would be out there with them. Now, where's his mom? She's at work because she's gotta pay her rent and she has no one to watch her son after school. She figures her boy's in 4th grade, he can come home and stay in the house after school. Where's dad? Who knows, but you know, that's only a bad thing if you're poor. Rich people are single parents too and no one's shaking their head at them, even if they should.

One day I came home and these guys are on the porch with this kid, Anthony. I went to get the mail and they told me to get them a glass of water. You'd best believe my ass went to the kitchen and got them a glass of water. I was just as nice and sweet to them as could be. If I called the cops, guess what? They're going to know I called and did I really want to deal with that? Um, nope. Especially since I'd seen some of the other stuff they did to people in our neighborhood.

Anthony ended up getting kicked out of two elementary schools. Two schools, that are about .1% white and almost 100% low income. No one can tell me that the level of ineptitude and lack of academic focus that went on in his schools would be tolerated in a middle-class white neighborhood. And of course, teachers have the power to decide whether they want to believe that the kids they're teaching can really achieve or not.

In my own life, I had guidance counselors tell me I didn't need to take the SAT and I should just consider going to community college. Counselors told me I should take auto shop because I might be a great mechanic. They weren't telling any of the white kids in my Advanced Placement physics class that they should be mechanics too. Nope. Just me. And that's racism.

Now, whether I believe I should be a mechanic or not is another thing, but when you have people who've been systemically told for generations, you're inferior, well, not everyone has the ability to hear what the guidance counselor is saying and know that something in the milk ain't clean.

I've seen teachers sit around and say, "Let's face it, these kids just aren't that smart and at the most, they're going to be flipping burgers or cutting lawns." Why do these teachers say these things? Quite frankly deep down inside, they believe the kids aren't smart because they're not white.

Disagree with me if you will but I have my sister calling me last week telling me how my nephew's math teacher split up the class into a low group and a high group and all the kids in the high group are white and Asian. Guess what color all the kids in the low group are? They're the black kids. There's not one white child in the low group. And my nephew is frickin' gifted, okay? He's one of the smartest kids I've ever seen and I'm not just saying that because he's related to my brilliance!

My sister asked the teacher about this situation and the teacher got mad and did the, "How dare you call me a racist?" thing. Well, what the heck else is it when my nephew is getting an A but gets put in the low group? Just a friendly mistake? I don't think so.

My sister has the social and cultural skills to address the situation. But what happens if people are poor and uneducated and that the child comes home and says they got put in the low group for math? Well, that parent might do what my sister did and talk to the teacher and principal. But if that parent has limited English ability, they may feel incompetent. If that parent hated school and didn't do so well he/she may feel uncomfortable talking to a teacher and may think that the lack of math ability is inherited. That parent may have addiction issues or be abusive and so may not even care. Regardless of the reason, if the child is allowed to remain in the low math group, guess what? He falls behind. I don't care what teachers tell you, as someone who's been a teacher, the low group never catches up to the high group. Never.

So that kid Anthony that used to be in my building? His family ended up moving to a different building a few blocks away and I haven't seen him although I see his tag, "FACTS" all over the neighborhood. I ran into his mom the other day. Anthony's been kicked out of middle school, has been arrested several times, and is in a juvenile detention home -- where he, of course, is probably learning how to be a better criminal. His mom's just trying to hold it together for her younger daughter. She's given up hope on Anthony because, as she said, the gang owns him now.

Should she have moved heaven and earth to make sure her child didn't end up in that gang? Yes. Should Anthony have had some sort of intrinsic motivation that made him, "Just Say No," to those gang members? Some sense of right and wrong that made him say no to that pressure. Absolutely. But sadly enough, fourth graders don't always have the resources to make that decision on their own.

The only other thing I have to say is as far black folks voting racism...well, I know a lot of black people who used to love Hillary Clinton and are now are choosing to not vote for her precisely because of the racial games her campaign has played. She brought that on herself. But people voting for Barack only because he's black? Sure, some people probably are, and even though whites have done it for forever, two wrongs don't make a right. I actually think most black people voting for him are voting for him on issues and because they're inspired by him, just like all the other Obamaniacs of all colors out there.

So Hammer, thank you for sparking all these thoughts. I think about these kinds of things all the time. These issues hit me in a certain place because I look in the eyes of my sons every single day and know what this world has in store for them. I always say that people think my boys are so cute and adorable now, but in about ten years, they're going to be scared of them. I'm going to have to worry about cops pulling them over because they look suspect. I'm going to have to worry about a new generation of teachers telling them they're nothing. And I plan to fight it all tooth and nail.

I wish I didn't have to.


Anonymous said…
Very thought provoking post. I agree race isn't an excuse. It's so sad that because of race you do have to fight tooth and nails for your children, as I have had to fight all my life to prove I am just as honest and smart as white people. This post made me cry because the more things change the more they stay the same. How sad that people really believe black people are only voting for Obama because he's black and not because they are intelligent enough to understand and support his issues.
thailandchani said…
This is so well-written and so clear.! This is exactly the way it happens. It always amazes me when people don't see the connection between race and class.

Capitalism requires an underclass to survive. At this point, skin color is the way it is being enforced.
Anonymous said…
Very good post. I being Italian and Creole, can feel both side, but growing up in a bad area and around mostly black people, I related more to them. I still got called a "Wigger", "Albino", "Jungle-Fever", N*gger F*cker, and a million other names. I always had my friends back and got beat up several times over it. I will never say I understand what it is to feel 100% hated by another race by I have my husbands ex girlfriends and some family call me "white she-devil", ect. I hate racism and I don't know if it will ever end, but I can wish can't I?
Well said Liz. My heart just goes out to Anthony's mom. Where the hell is the dad? Since Anthony has no idea what a dad does how will he be able to be a dad to his children. The cycle continues.

I used to volunteer with the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club. There were two siblings in my mentor group.... super smart, funny and polite. I met their dad one day. Turns out the guy was a former gangbanger who was driving from his job in Inglewood once a week to bring his girls to our program in Hollywood. It is not easy for kids to navigate this world (gangs/poor schools etc.) even when they come from a stable home. Are people really shocked that a kid who has no role models and nobody believing in them might not make it?

I see what happens to the rich kids whose parents have no expectations of them. They still have trust funds to fall back. The poor kids don't.
Anonymous said…
Even parents with the best intention can end up with kids on the street. For some families its because the parents haven't gotten rid of their own demons whether its past neglect or abuse, or poor education. Its so easy to say don't use race, but race does matter. There is a wonderful show on A&E called Intervention. I asked everyone to watch it. It often shows good middle class to upper class people who are caught up in the cycle of drugs and alcohol. The interesting things is, there is more family support in white families then other minorities families. Many times (not all the time) when mom or dad is a druggie, the whole family ends up a druggies in minority families. In white families, its only that one person afflicted, though in some cases the disease does become generational.
Race does matter. It matters in the resources, the second chances, the breaks that are given to people who are trying to do something for themselves.
Though there are opportunities, it is not as plentiful for minorities as it is for whites..that is just the fact of life.
none said…
Thansk for expounding on this stuff.

I don't know how my parents got out of the ghetto. They both had drunk unemployed fathers and were surrounded by poverty and crime.

I think it was the army and GI bill that got my dad out of that mess.

I agree absentee parents and such will breed gangs of illiterate criminals and the low tax base will continue to fund schools that can't reach them.

Another problem is: How to you get people not to be racist when all they see is that garbage gangster rap on at least 17channels and the daily news reports of the horrors of the inner cities.

I wish someone had a good answer on how to fix these problems.

I guess people are going to have to make a personal decision not to become a sterotype and remove themselves from the situation.
Dena said…
i'm with cyndee....really good post, liz. it is much easier for people to look away or believe that racism doesn't exist anymore especially when they aren't subject to these day to day inequalities you mentioned.

as far as your boys, i know that you and your hubby are amazing parents. that won't exempt your boys from other peoples shortcomings, but their positive influences at home will outweigh the negative ten fold.

and....am i the only one who wants to hear about madonna and the audition? :)
Jameil said…
girl I'm so glad you addressed that because after i read that comment i got up and started walking and talking aloud about how black people voting on race means nothing. we finally have a VIABLE candidate who is running a mostly clean campaign on HOPE and CHANGE. who can't get behind that!?!? if you don't see this country needs to be turned around, you're blind to every issue you expounded on.

i was in AP classes, too and had the guidance counselor try to get me to go to some crap college. i went in there knowing exactly where i wanted to apply. she had never heard of hampton and tried to TALK ME OUT OF IT!!! you're supposed to be helping me and countless other black children and you've never heard of one of the nation's most prestigious HBCUs which is just one state away?! NO THANK YOU LADY!! you know my mom as an alumna was pissed, too! but she knew to be pissed. everyone doesn't have that luxury. that makes me want to go back to my old high school and make sure she's not still there. you got me riled up all over again girl!!
Anonymous said…
I was in AP classes and my guidance counselor saw me once and told me I'm on track to graduate. He didn't talk to me about college.

Finally, my friend's aunt (who was a guidance counselor) and the two other Black guidance counselors basically took over counseling for all the Black students.

Single parenting isn't the problem as much as it is the higher chances that it will be a home in poverty or near poverty. Poor, uneducated, lacking in skills single parents lead to the "kid not likely to make it" stats not single parenthood itself.
Anonymous said…
Well-done post. People who say racism is not a big issue anymore are blind. And it is so tied in with poverty and a lack of education. That's where our resources need to be going (not to wars we create). People have to be given the means to get out of bad situations, the skills to make it. We still have so very far to go.
Miriam said…
**off topic**
Liz have you ever blogged about the fast or about bahai in general?

Liz Dwyer said…
I felt quite emotional writing all that because I know how much we've all been psychologically, spiritually and emotionally impacted by racism, regardless of color. It keeps all of us from achieving out true greatness.

I wish you didn't have to fight the way you do for people to see how brilliant and honest you are, to see how genuinely kind you are and what a good heart you have. Racism truly makes folks blind to these things and it's their loss.

There's a real connection between the two. Capitalism is a corrupt and bankrupt system of doing things but we cling to it so desperately. It encourages viewing people as commodities and negates our intrinsic worth.

Just a girl from L.A.,
Racism will end but it's going to take all of us working together to overcome it. On the one hand it takes both love and forgiveness but on the other hand it takes an end to a sense of superiority and a willingness to exact justice and right the wrongs that have taken place.

And "white she-devil"? Goodness, that's some drama right there. Ex girlfriends will be ex girlfriends but family is tough. I hope your husband is checking that madness. As for me, I got called names by both black and white folks. I guess you could say there was equal opportunity name calling going on. :)

I have a feeling the dad may have been incarcerated. Anthony's mom never quite said and I never wanted to ask too much.

That dad driving his girls to the Boys and Girls club is true dedication. That's definitely not easy and those parents like that never get enough credit for their efforts. Yeah, no trust fund for most kids means the pitfalls of our world are even more serious for them.

That is very true that even parents that have done all they could will end up seeing their child getting caught up. Such a good point about dealing with your own demons. Because if not, they always come back and deal with you. I've seen Intervention and that mess is crazy. You're so right though about how the families are portrayed on that show. They do have resources that many other families don't have. Even with health insurance, paying for rehab is so expensive. Unless you have the $$, no rehab.

I'm so glad your dad got that G.I. bill and was able to go to college. I'm sure that made a huge difference for your dad and therefore for you.

As far as rap goes, most of it is not actually purchased by a black consumer, interestingly enough. It's good to question why it is that record companies promote/finance certain images over others. You can write protest letters to BET and MTV. Write complaints to advertisers that buy airtime on TV and radio stations. Write directly to the record companies that are making the bulk of the money off of it. Let them know you're not purchasing music with such negative images of black people. There's a whole movement within the black community to challenge these racist stereotypes and the more people who say that what they hear or see sucks, the better.

It's easy to look away when you're part of the group that benefits from the status quo remaining the same. Oh, and say I'm an amazing parent after you see the boys this weekend! LOL! :) The madonna auditions -- I didn't even walk down there to check it out but she was holding auditions for dancers at a studio on Sunset right up the street from me. It might have been cool but I didn't feel like camping out with "T". He just complains too much.

See, when I tell people about my guidance counselor, folks try to act like that was some sort of exception to the rule type of situation. And it isn't, unfortunately. How does someone keep their job like that and not know about someplace like Hampton? And then to try to talk you out of going to Hampton??? Ridiculous. I'll bet she would've preferred you go to trade school. Ugh, I'm mad for you! Let's go back to your high school together, okay!!!

These guidance counselors... I know they probably have too much on their plates but I see how they don't actually have to do their jobs and they still get paid. I'm glad your friend's aunt stepped in to help you all.

Lower-income single parents get too blame and condemnation even when they're working as hard as they can to hold things together. More people should try to help instead of just offering scathing critiques.

Citizen of the World,
Can you imagine what would happen if that 3 trillion went to education and programs to help get people out of poverty? Gosh, this would be a whole different country. But as long as people think folks who go to low performing schools need to make the best of it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we won't have that change.

Yes, I have blogged about both. I haven't done a "history of the Baha'i Faith" sort of post because there's so many good books that I don't need rehash. But I do write about how it relates to things going on in my life. Last year I blogged about fasting at the end of it because I was sooo happy it was over. You just made me realize that the "search" function on my blog is gone now that I have a new template. I'll have to see if I can add a new search box! :)
Anonymous said…
Liz, brilliant account of how people are kept down by their circumstances, whatever the privileged minority may say about people being able to better themselves if they really want to. The fact is that people like Hammer are lucky they manage to transcend their surroundings and make decent lives for themselves. Many others just find the obstacles too overwhelming.
Jen said…
Superb, important post.

I feel so sad for Anthony, his mom, and the hundreds of thousands of others that have similar tales.

And yes, you can't separate classicism and racism. Sadly, though, it's not just capitalism that has this problem (although I think it's more endemic to capitalism). Having lived in the Soviet Union, I saw classicism and racism at work there, too, and from what I hear it's an issue in China as well. The classes are just less visible to the non-citizen eye.

And our country can't hope to fix its many problems until people just drop this kind of idiocy and work together. It's sad when you think of all the achievements that have been produced that we can't see past skin color.
Unknown said…
Thanks for sharing this.

My belief (because I really can't wrap any other explanation around my mind) is that this is all part of a painful journey. Hopefully, very soon, this painful boil on society, which is now very infected and puss filled ( excuse the analogy, but it is how I feel) will soon burst. This is an excruciating history. We as black American people are not immigrants. We did not migrate here. We were assaulted, kidnapped, our ancestors raped, lynched and mutilated. Most Americans forget that. As a result America will ultimately have to endure the consequences. We fail to group hug and realize we are ALL in this together. Some of us did not come here for a better life. Somehow I feel we are owed something for that sacrifice.

Inner cities suffered surburban families migrating to the suburbs...leaving them to implode with lack of equal education, violence, guns and drugs during the 60-70's. Now they sit with egg on their face(as I am sure most suburbia is beginning to face), their pristine lives dragged into the fray of inner city life as their kids drive into the city, in the family Mercedes, to buy crack cocaine. Fix the problem, not run from the "scary" ethnic people whose ancestors were FREE labor! All created equal, right?

What you shared about your sons resonated so deeply with me. Many people just can not fathom when we say we have young men that are so adorable now ~ but will grow up to be feared. It is SO painful looking into their innocence and knowing that you have to slowly burst that bubble and gently bring them to a reality that marks them walking targets. It is not a question. It is a fact. They will be hunted, they will be ostracized, rediculed, and exploited.

I just had the converstaion with my 12 year old, who had a "missing assignment slip" advising him of the harsh reality that he has to be at 150%, unlike his classmates who will be promoted, accepted, squeezed in and supported based on alot of characterisitcs which he does not have. All we can do is raise them to react in a way that ensures their survival.

Thinking about young women of color is an another rant entirely!

At this juncture, all we can do as human beings is put our best forward, and you always do, and embrace, educate and pray that one day, when this evolves and we make it to the other side, history will thank us for our sacrifice! Wow, I try to not think about this too much, but thank you for reminding us that we have to stay in this, and remain vocal. Keep these conversations going, we will all experience the birth of righteousness one day, together.
Liz Dwyer said…
There are so many overwhelming obstacles. I don't think it's entirely impossible to overcome poverty but I think the systemic inequalities inherent in our culture make it even more challenging to do so. And people who are wealthy are subjected to racism as well. I think we all assume that great personal wealth means a person can't be affected by racism, (like Oprah) but I think they can.

I feel awful for Anthony's mom as well. She looks aged beyond her years, like she's been through the wringer for real. And you're right about China having a pseudo class system. I imagine as capitalism becomes more of a norm there that the class system will become more stratified.

I agree that this is part of a journey. I think we see our world crumbling around us and don't recognize that the sprouts of something new and better are beginning to take root.

I think most Americans don't really know the history of what happened here in this country. I think folks think slavery wasn't that bad. Jim Crow wasn't that bad...and even if it was, so what, get over it. There's no acknowledgement of psychological and emotional scars that are left behind. And it's not amends have truly been made.

I sometimes feel bad when I see myself flipping out over my 7 year old not getting 100% on every single thing, but I know my worry is that if he doesn't do well on everything, I won't be able to check whatever teacher comes up in my face and says he's incapable. Right now the complaint about him is that he's a day dreamer. My thing is make your class interesting and maybe he won't be thinking about other stuff.

Anyway, I hope we can all experience the transformation of this world together. It's going to be a tough road but I have no doubt we will one day have a new kind of conversation in America.
Mango Mama said…
... and that's why they call in institutional racism. Incredible post! Thanks for taking the time to set the record straight, because so many folks just don't get it.
DJ Black Adam said…
The real question isn’t if people are voting for Barak because he is Black, but for those who are NOT voting for him because he is Black…
Excellent post, Liz, about a topic that too many people are still sweeping under the carpet of denial.

The responsibility rests with parents to monitor the way schools treat their children. But sadly, it takes a high level of confidence to do that and if the parents themselves have been brutalized by bigoted teachers, they often feel too inadequate to stand up for their children.

It is also unrealistic to expect most young kids not to be influenced by the "glamour" of gang members, especially if they don't have a strong support base at home because their parents have to work long hours or sadly, sometimes just don't care.

Our household supports Obama because we ardently believe he is the best candidate and the only one who genuinely wants to serve America while his Democratic opponent seems interested in winning the presidency for personal power.

The race issue we're concerned with is the human race.
Liz Dwyer said…
Mango Mama,
Folks think institutional racism disappeared with bus boycotts and lunch counter sit ins. And beyond the institutional aspects is the effect of our individual minds and hearts. But denial is the name of the game, we are encouraged to blithely accept that folks factor rce into how they decide to vote. Ugh.

Exactly. That was what upset me in the post I wrote on Wednesday. It's okay for 18% of people to basically tell an exit poller they wouldn't vote for a black person. Our entire nation should be in an uproar over such a thing, but the masses are not and indeed some would see that as just being the status quo.

There is such glamour to gang membership. I found myself watching a bit of one of those awful lockup programs on MSNBC and it featured a guy who got into a gang because all the girls liked gangbangers because they found bad boys attractive. He wanted a girlfriend and he wanted to be cool so he joined. But now that he's defected from the gang, the gang members want to kill him. Sick.
the last noel said…
This is why I read your blog: it's so rich with opinion. Ahem, here's mine. I think Race does matter...and gender, class, sexuality, religion, etc. This includes height, weight, and clothes. We come with baggage and judgments and we project it EVERYWHERE.

It takes a strong person to overcome all of that. It takes a stronger person to overcome their own baggage and judgments. Unfortunately, I don't most are willing to try to get over thier baggage and judgments.

I was at a planning meeting earlier this week where a white guy was talking about trying really hard to make diversity work in the office. I thanked him for the effort. It WILL take work for racism to end and we'll have to sweat to make it happen. This includes me who has to stay conscious of the ratio of men to women getting jobs or older people to younger people. Ending ism's take work. Hopefully, people will pull out the kerchief and wipe their brow.
Miriam said…
This is very true. Its not about who can slither their way, jump through hoops and make it.

The education system is SUPPOSE to be set up so people succeed -not despite.
Liz Dwyer said…
So true. You know how in AA, the first step is admitting the problem? Well, we have some folks who don't want to admit there's a problem, and then other people who've admitted it but don't want to learn any different behaviors. There is so much discrimination for so many reasons but in the workplace we've learned to cover it up by saying someone's not a good fit.

Yeah, we should be celebrating a whole bunch of successes instead of counting on our fingers the number of "lucky" ones that made it through.

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