A year ago, my husband and I were driving with a car packed full of my younger cousins. We were returning home from a fun afternoon of hanging out in downtown Seattle, blasting Young Thug, without a care in the world, dancing, and singing along to the music.
Inevitably, we got to a lyric with the n-word in it. As we sang, all of us got quiet except one of the younger ones who quietly muttered the word in the back.
I brought the music to a halt and stomped on the brakes.
When I was in the 11th grade, a Black woman in one of my elective classes, very vulnerably shared her experiences being called the n-word.
Wiping away tears, she shared how small and insignificant she felt when people carelessly used that word, especially without understanding the years of oppression it carried to abuse and make black people lesser than.
From that moment on, I made a silent vow to be an advocate for her and I am forever grateful for her vulnerability, courage, and willingness to speak up.
Color your American history
The American education system is one-sided and — for literally no other word that describes it better to me — bootleg. We are served a whitewashed version of history, I believe it’s one of the fundamental roots of racism and implicit bias in our country.
When you start bringing color to our history, you realize that word and deed are rarely aligned in the story we are spoonfed about Black America.
Without knowledge, there is no power, and definitely no room for empathy for the Black experience.
These are the brushstrokes, but it’s timeline is essential to fuel the fire of the fight.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, freeing enslaved Black people. Its ordinance into law was signified through the passing of the 13th Amendment on January 1, 1865.
In word and law, four million Black people were free— but bias and baggage did not, just simply, disappear.
In fact, many Blacks didn’t even receive the news until much later. The news reached enslaved Blacks in Galveston, TX, on June 19, 1865 — nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
As the United States began to “reconstruct” after the Civil War, local governments, particularly in the South, were hesitant to accept the law and leveraged loopholes to maintain whiteness over blackness. The 13th Amendment in itself had its own loophole.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
State laws were designed to put Black people back into slavery, but now as criminalization. Nearly every southern state established some version of the Black Codes in 1865 and 1866.
Enslaved Black Americans created an estimated three billion dollars in free labor and production in 1860.
American wealth was born on the backs of African labor. Plantation owners did not pay their slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation or the Black “criminals” they were leased through the enforcement of Black Codes.
Local government stopped at nothing to uphold discrimination
As Black Americans began to gain more freedoms through the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendment (giving U.S. citizenship to former slaves and the right to vote to Black men), the local governments maintained resistance against it.
This resistance led to the Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation in the late 1880s at the state and local level. This racial segregation was reinforced through the Supreme Court rulings in Plessy v. Ferguson, limiting social rights as “separate, but equal”.
Black Americans were prohibited into White spaces, in all areas of life—local politics, work, schools, public parks, restaurants, and transportation to name a few. Local citizens enforced this through violent acts like lynchings to keep Black Americans in fear.
We’ve only opened the door to equality
Despite the attempts to keep Black Americans down and out of the public sphere, civil rights activists through the 1950-60s, like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and countless others, spent their lives fighting for social equality.
Coming on the tails of the Cold War in America’s global defense of democracy, Black activists were being beaten, abused, and tortured by the American government for the color of their skin.
Neil Padukone said it well in, “Indians’ Debt to Black America”, “How could Washington be the standard bear for freedom if it was beating down its own citizens because of their race?”
The Civil Rights Movement brought the cornerstone of the freedom we have today—to the ability to vote freely, work, and even buy a house. It also opened up the door for the Hart-Cellar Act, ending favored immigration from European countries and limited admission of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
If you’re an immigrant in this country, like my family is, it’s because of the resistance and push of the Civil Rights movement. We owe much debt to the sacrifice of Black Americans.
We need to dismantle our systems
Despite the real change the civil rights activists brought, Black Americans are at a disadvantage.
Here are a few examples (Sources: Business Insider and Brookings Policy 2020):
- The average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family
- White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates
- The average Black worker earned just 62% of what the average white worker made
- Children of white households in the bottom quarter of the income distribution were much more likely than children from Black households at the bottom to move up into a higher income bracket over their lives
I want to make this abundantly clear.
Black people are not at a disadvantage because of the way the media wants to polarize them—criminalized, poor, and angry.
They are at a disadvantage because America has not dismantled their racist and white favoring systems.
They are tired. And, we should be too.
Again, some examples:
- In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration made multiple attempts to block black homeownership in and around Black neighborhoods to prevent access to lending. Through redlining, they segregated white and black communities and devalued the value of black neighborhoods, claiming them “unsafe”
- The G.I. Bill prevented one million Black veterans from receiving the same benefits of homeownership as their white peers
- Mass Incarnation
- In 1986, The War on Drugs put a disproportionately higher number of black men in prison
- Our healthcare system is inherently racist and many providers carry implicit bias. Black women are at the brunt at this mistreatment
- The path to achievement and advancement is much more complex for Black children, with many dropping out due to implicit bias that blocks their success and ability to get ahead
- Our education system paints a limited picture of the mistreatment and history of Black people in America, by limiting their story to “Black History Month”
My brushstrokes of history and systems only scratch the surface. I encourage you to continue the journey of education.
To facilitate change, we have to face the past, understand how it infiltrates our present, and teach that knowledge to the people around us.
Finding empathy in our racist history – an example in housing
The housing discrimination really hit me. Over the last year, my husband and I have been trying to buy a house. By going through the home purchasing process, I learned that homeownership is arguably the strongest way to accumulate wealth and have gain access to opportunity.
As you continue to make payments on your home, you increase your equity in the total value of the home.
For example, if your house is $100 and you own 10% of it, you have $10 of wealth to your name. Every month you make payments towards the equity of the house ($100) and continue to increase your percentage of ownership in that investment.
In the housing market, property values tend to increase at higher rates in neighborhoods with better schools and healthcare, allowing you to increase your wealth simply by living there.
When the bank appraises your $100 home for $150 because of the increase in property value, and your original $10 investment is now worth $15, and you didn’t have to do anything at all.
Remember, houses aren’t worth $100. We are talking about huge investments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — and beyond.
This is a much faster way to accrue wealth than working at a job and getting a steady paycheck. The average homeowner has a household wealth of $231,420 versus renters at $5,200.
You can leverage home ownership wealth for other things– a more expensive home, a loan for a small business, etc.
Put simply—having a home gives you options to use your wealth and diversify your income.
Back to systematic racism. The Federal Housing Admins restrictions blocked Black Americans from accessing opportunities to make housing investments because of the color of their skin.
Imagine if our parents didn’t have access to lending because of the color of our skin? We would never have been allotted the opportunities we have.
Many of our parents purchased homes for $100,000 in the late 80s. Now, their homes are worth $400-$500,000. They made $300,000 in profit in their investments, allowing them to continue to buy property in better neighborhoods and help us pay for education.
Helping the ones around you get it
This example is one of many ways Black Americans experience the brunt of the systematic nature of racism. It’s time for us to scream it from the rooftops— our systems are not fair and we have to break them down and rework them to be equitable for all Americans.
I’ve struggled to verbalize and share the breadth and reach of racism in all aspects of life. But when I really get into it, there’s one reason that keeps me from standing up to racial equity in my sphere of influence.
Fear. Of many things. Here are mine:
I’m scared to stand up to my parents, family, and friends. We’ve all tried to have these conversations and have been shut down, ignored, while the other party continued to carry their own biases with any real apparent change.
Our parents and other family members often make us feel small. These conversations carry a lot of baggage – feelings of misunderstanding, heaviness, and isolation.
As the stakes feel so much higher, you may be feeling the intensity of their rejection even more. Sometimes you may feel like you don’t even have the language or context to help them remotely understand what you’re talking about.
I just want to say I feel you. It is hard. It is complex. It is more than we feel is possible.
Not having the answers
Some of you may know my husband, Charles Samuel, an incredible intellectual, writer, and lovely person. He loves history, news, and is a lifelong learner. He will spend hours in front of his computer pouring into dense articles about history— outputting so much analysis and wisdom. He will quickly snap back with eloquent responses to racist uncles, debate you into no end, and come out the hero.
Not me. Not me at all.
I’m so visual. I’m not confrontational or vaguely confident about what I know. it takes me a long time to grasp concepts. Charles is the person I envision having the lengthy conversations and debates to help people understand systematic racism.
I’m a firm believer we are called to the spheres of influence we are called to.
That means that the people who need to hear about this fight, need to hear it the way you can say it.
Don’t let anyone (including you) tell you, you can’t facilitate change.
You are a changemaker.
Saying the Wrong Thing
I’ve stayed a bit quiet on social media because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting blasted for it. I know I have good intentions, but I don’t want to look stupid, foolish, and not getting it right.
I’m nervous what I’ll say will be misinterpreted and I’ll end up being the bad guy.
The keyword here — look, misinterpreted.
Translation — it’s about me.
My best friend and I were recently talking about this phenomenon. She reminded me social media makes it feel like you always have to say and do the right thing. We post filtered, one dimensional versions of ourselves because we don’t want to be seen as flawed or incomplete.
So many of us have incredible reach and opportunity to reach those who need to hear this message, but are afraid of the ramifications of saying the wrong thing.
We have to be comfortable with the idea that we may say and do the wrong thing. And if we do, I hope we can be comfortable with correction.
The only way we can be authentic changemakers is to be open and speak out, acknowledging there will always be someone who knows more. The point is not to be the hero.
The point is to continue ongoing learning, making this issue heard, and unavoidable. By doing this, we will actually connect with the folks who have and will continue to do the work to make the change.
Combating the burden
Starting and continuing the conversation is long, gruesome work. I’m reminded this burden is part of our small piece of fighting systematic racism and perceptions of Black lives in our communities.
I want to be a part of the generation that is listening and learning.
I hope with these few steps, you can facilitate moments of small change with your spheres of influence.
Consistency is better than winning people over
Our families, friends, and community want us enough to engage in conversation that confuses them. I’m reminded of all the times I’ve irritated my mom, but homegirl still calls me if she doesn’t hear from me in two days.
If there is anything I know about facilitating change and dialogue with your family, it is not giving up on them. I truly believe with consistent love and conversation, hearts are touched and slowly challenge the narratives they’ve been fed.
When we desert our loved ones, they put their walls up and continue to stay the same.
Change doesn’t operate on your timeline or even in the way you expect it to
If you’re expecting your mom or aunty to become a freedom fighter, you may be overestimating their potential.
If life has taught me anything, nothing I think will happen, ever happens. It doesn’t mean the conversations aren’t making a difference.
Recently, my husband was having a very difficult conversation with his parents about race relations in America. While I had overheard the conversation, I thought about how hard it would be to change their mindset.
A few days later my sister-in-law mentioned that their mom had shared the conversation with her and seemed to have a different perspective than the one she had shared with Charles originally. His words cut through.
That shook me. In no way did the initial conversation indicate that she had a change of heart.
I’ve seen this with my own parents too. It’s possible for your words to infiltrate their heart. Give it time. You never know what can happen.
Be okay with saying the wrong thing and experiencing correction
You won’t get it right all the time. There have been and will be people doing the work. Let’s be willing to learn and open our hearts to how this knowledge can strengthen us.
This work is so good. The history is so real. It will ache, pain, and cause you burden.
But it’s worth the fight. It’s the work God is calling us to.
We must do it.
- History.com – Slavery in America
- History.com – Black Codes
- Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry: Why we need reparations for Black Americans
- History.com – Jim Crow Laws
- Neil Padukone – Indians’ Debt to Black America
- History.com – Civil Rights Movement
- History.com – U.S. Immigrant Since 1965
- Business Insider – 25 simple charts to show friends and family who aren’t convinced racism is still a problem in America
- NPR: A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America
- History.com – How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans
- Race and Drug Policy: Race and the Drug War
- Harvard Health Blog: Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients
- The Oprah Magazine: This Is How the American Healthcare System Is Failing Black Women
- Ben and Jerry’s: How Systemic Racism Infiltrates Education
- HSH: Want to Build Wealth? Buy a Home
- Ladders: Fellow Millennials, let’s buy homes so we can build wealth