It’s been an intense year of racial protests and a national conversation over race, as angry as it has made a lot of white people. The reality is though that Americans love to talk about race, especially white liberals. But they aren’t going to do anything about it. Janell Ross had a piece in Time about this issue, placing it in the context of Gunnar Myrdal’s work that was a kind of forerunner to the American exposure to racial problems and then a big shrug of the shoulders from whites:
If the past year has been, as is so often claimed, the one in which the ugly scar of American inequality ripped open so wide that few could deny it, it should also be known as the year when a bold and opportunistic set learned to better talk the talk of needed change. Still, even in a country that prides itself on allowing citizens to speak freely and then act to change public policy accordingly, the renewed attention given to racial injustice has scarcely been matched with parallel action.
The problem is as clear as ever. What America is going to do about it is not.
The same basic information is the backdrop of Myrdal’s work and everything that came before and after. In a country founded on a commitment to equality, white Americans have been the only ones to consistently enjoy the full measure of citizenship. Settlers drove Native Americans from their own lands and then treated them as unwelcome, dangerous guests. Congress barred many others from even entering the country. But it was Black Americans whom the nation enslaved, then so completely marooned that in every major measure of social, economic or physical well-being, millions would—and still do—remain far behind their white compatriots.
When Myrdal’s work was published, Black Americans earned less, were more likely to be unemployed, and led shorter and unhealthier lives. In the North, their housing was crowded and substandard. In the South, many did not have access to anything beyond basic elementary education. Most Black Americans could not vote or borrow the funds to buy property. “Virtually the whole range” of public amenities, from hospitals to libraries, were “much poorer for Negroes than they are for whites,” Myrdal wrote. The majority of Black Americans had little to no assets and were the targets of disproportionate incarceration and exploitative profit-making schemes.
Nearly 80 years later, we find ourselves more than a year into a pandemic, a recession and a reconsidering of the meaning of Black death caused by agents of the state. Last summer’s mass protests have for the most part receded. But increased crime, increased poverty, increased death and increased distress have not. Yet in our litany of collective aches, there is almost no arena in which Black Americans have not suffered more than white Americans.
Black Americans on average earn less with the same (or, in some categories, more) education than white workers, are more likely to be unemployed and are clustered in industries hit hard by the pandemic. Black Americans are more likely to be born premature and to die younger. In fact, life expectancy for a Black boy born in 2020 is a full seven years shorter than a white boy’s. Black women remain more likely to die in or just after childbirth than white women. All Black Americans are more likely to die of cancer than white Americans. The impact of the coronavirus was anything but novel: the death risk for Black Americans is almost two times that of white Americans.
It doesn’t stop there. Black children remain more likely than white ones to attend high-need, low-performing schools, low-quality preschools, and high schools that offer few if any college-prep courses. The Black homeownership rate in the first quarter of 2021 was 29 percentage points lower than that of white Americans. When Black Americans do own homes, those properties are often undervalued by appraisers. That disparity—not saving, spending or even earnings—drives the bulk of the nation’s massive Black-white wealth gap. Black Americans are also more likely to live in “nature”-deprived areas than white Americans and experience more exposure to pollutants. Black incarceration rates continue to outpace those for all other groups, and the effort to restrict Black voter participation, which has been a part of American politics since Reconstruction, has resurged today.
And yet, just as was the case when Myrdal was working, many of those in power have the temerity to express total shock about those vast racial disparities, to confuse the causes of inequality with its effects, and to question what, exactly, is wrong with Black Americans. Or Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans—take your pick. As distinct as the Black experience is, so many communities throughout the U.S. have their own parallel set of facts.
These problems are not products of the long pandemic. But many were made worse, and perhaps the copious concern about being “woke” to inequality (or deeply opposed to anything like it) has hitched a fast ride on the virus to the cultural forefront. Corporations that only years ago reached massive settlements with the U.S. government for engaging in what federal officials alleged was widespread discrimination have released carefully worded statements declaring that Black lives matter. Promises have been made. They will have to be tracked. In the interim, the Dear Black, Latino, Asian employees, we see you and feel your pain email after a horrible event in the news has become a new genre of corporate communication. The very same impulse is also a feature of a certain set’s social media feeds and the launching point for thousands of online lists of goods created by people of color, to be bought by those who wish to understand themselves as good.
But even among those white Americans who do not live in a state of denial, the call to action has once again grown faint, if it was ever there at all. Few companies have been so public in discussing how employees involved in unfair practices might actually be penalized, or how the obligation to operate with equity in mind will be prioritized above profits. Few organizations or individuals have acknowledged outright that they have engaged in racist practices, or explained how they plan to stop. There aren’t many parents willing to stop arranging their housing around the pursuit of “good schools”—thinly veiled code for white schools—or wealthy people ready to admit the racial consequences of opposing higher taxes on investment earnings. After the nation’s so-called reckoning, to which those who claimed to have awakened brought PowerPoint presentations and brochures, few have stayed behind to fold and stack the chairs.
On the other hand, little Maddie and Connor deserve the best schools. And what about my property values? Also, isn’t violent crime rising? What’s wrong with those people? Etc.