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The compounding liabilities of racism and inequality

Date Published: 09/05/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


Chris Rock, the always funny and now very rich African-American comedian, had something quite serious to say recently when he was asked if he still experiences racism.

“Every now and then I’m in a situation where someone doesn’t recognize me, and I experience racism,” he said. “Things like not being buzzed into a store, or sitting in first class on a plane and having someone ask to see my ticket four times. Or having the police pull me over for nothing, then seeing it’s me and letting me go, meanwhile they never seem to be able to name what I did to get pulled over in the first place. Having a real estate agent refuse to show me a house. I could go on.”

The moral of this story is compelling. Racial discrimination is still so very much alive and pervasive that even the most successful and popular and powerful people of color can detect it and experience it.

Chris Rock doesn’t need to worry so much about finding work, or being paid what his labor is really worth. But millions of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, disabled Americans, women of all colors, Asian Americans, and immigrants of all colors do have to worry about this every day.

On top of the economic struggle most of us face in some way,  and inextricably woven into it, these Americans and Minnesotans of color are often left to wonder where the next slight, the next insult, the next obstacle, the next indignity, is going to come from.

We have all probably heard white folks, including our friends and family, wonder aloud why “those people” can’t catch up. These statements tend to be a passive-aggressive Minnesota way of implying that “those people” probably are somehow inferior or just too different to be full partners in our community.

In a state of oblivion about our relative privilege, many affluent white Minnesotans never really grasp the innumerable ways that discrimination — ongoing, pervasive, unrelenting, often subtle but just as often blatant — takes place all around us. These zillions of little things — none so monstrous as Jim Crow laws or lynchings, like the atrocity perpetrated  in Duluth less than 100 years ago — can create an inferiority complex, resentment, anger, or depression on a level that most white people will never fully understand.

This summer of 2013 has been one long awkward, aggravating and uncomfortable conversation about racial inequality in our nation and world and our state. The main triggers may have been the verdict in the Trayvon Martin homicide and racist comments made by a southern white celebrity chef, followed (and contrasted) by the uplifting celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and extensive media coverage of the unrealized dream expressed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The box office success of the movie “The Butler” further attests to growing racial awareness.

And then there’s all that depressing data, study after study, including much research right here in Minnesota, documenting separate and unequal trends in everything from kindergarten discipline to health, nutrition and housing, from higher education disparities to prison populations. And it aligns with and is complicated by the national megatrend of increasing economic inequality between the top 1 percent (disproportionately white) and the rest of us.

We’ve all heard successful, mostly white male business types explaining to us, in their lectures and endless stream of self-help books, how you could get rich too, if you would buy their book and follow their simple rules. There’s much enthusiasm in this body of work about the glories of compound interest, how assets and savings and investments can multiply, and how we all could be rich if we only took full advantage of the compounding principles.

But a growing body of evidence is showing how liabilities of disadvantage and discrimination compound themselves. We are beginning to understand better how a lack of assets, perpetual debt from payday lending and predatory fees and interest charges, and persecution from governmental and penal policies – combined with the everyday psychological persecution of discrimination – compound to create a pathology of dysfunction and paranoia, feelings of exclusion and neglect, and sometimes anger and violence.

Researchers from Harvard and other universities recently published an article in the journal Science summarizing their findings that the condition of poverty reduces cognitive function and imposes a mental burden akin to temporarily losing 13 IQ points. University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, who co-authored the study as a Princeton University graduate student, had this to say about the larger meaning  in a Washington Post article: “Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough,” the professor said. “What we’re arguing is, it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation.”

More empathy and a clearer understanding of exactly how hard it is to live in poverty might lead to public policies that help rather than punish those who are on the wrong side of widening gaps in economic condition and  educational achievement.

A new Growth & Justice report, “Widening Economic Inequality in Minnesota,” recommends that Minnesota policymakers begin estimating the inequality impact of pending laws, regulations, taxes, and budgets, so that we don’t further widen inequality.

Many other nonpartisan groups are developing agendas and policies that reduce racial and economic inequality, and all those issues must be pushed to the forefront as priority issues for the 2014 legislative session and election year.

And if we need some comic relief along the way, comedians of color often tell the truth more powerfully than anyone else. Consider Chris Rock’s revelation not long ago that he was having a hard time relating to his own children, mainly because they are too rich and have never had their lunch money stolen from them.


A version of this coloumn originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, September 4, 2013.

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