Greed, economic exploitation, and dehumanizing stereotypes of inferiority are the root of racism in the Western world. Brutal, racist exploitation in the United States and throughout the Americas has been the means through which Western European economies have been built. A belief in the inferiority of people of color justified this concentration of wealth in European hands. As Howard Zinn writes in his classic A People’s History of the United States “These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.”
President Lula Silva brought to light the current racist global economic order during a visit from Prime Minister Gordon Brown of England. President Silva of Brazil, the country that was the primary destination of enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, highlighted that the global economic downturn is the result of the irresponsibility and greed of white elites. Additionally, he noted, this greed has caused disproportionate suffering to the poor of the world, primarily people of color. President Silva’s remarks have been mocked in much of the US press, ignoring his demand that global racial economic inequality be addressed as nations come together to rebuild the global economy.
The same week that President Silva highlighted the global racial wealth divide, scholars, activists, and experts from across the United States came to Washington DC to discuss the racial wealth divide in this country. During this Color of Wealth summit, it was highlighted that Blacks and Latinos have less than 15 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the median white family, exposing how economic inequality is the foundation of today’s racial divide. During the two day summit, there was excitement about the opportunities to bridge the racial wealth divide with an Obama presidency that has recognized a greater role for government to play in increasing opportunity for all Americans. Yet in the opening roundtable of the summit, John Powell of the Kirwan Institue for the Study of Race and Ethnicity highlighted the historical failure of universal economic programs advancing racial equality. Powell noted that when policies fail to take into account institutional racism and the unique characteristics of disenfranchised minorities, often times greater racial inequality is created. For example, many of the great liberal programs of the New Deal exacerbated racial inequality.
From the time of the civil rights movement till today, those who highlight racial inequality are often portrayed as troublemakers creating racial divisions rather than problem solvers exposing racial division. One of those who was regularly criticized for being a troublemaker was Dr. Martin Luther King, killed 41 years ago this April 4th. Dr. King in examining the need to master ones’ fears wrote: Courage and cowardice are antithetical. Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance.
Too many white Americans have surrendered to the circumstance of racial inequality, blaming racial inequality on the inferiority of disenfranchised groups rather than the systemic disenfranchisement faced by these groups. In the past the rationale for racial inequality was a belief in the inherent mental deficiencies of people of color – today the rationale for racial inequality is belief in deficiencies of morality or the work ethic of people of color. Yet, there are some who are willing to go beyond the standard racial justifications of contemporary racism. Thousands of white Americans are showing this kind of courage by participating in a week of White Privilege Awareness events occurring March 30th to April 5th. In Washington DC Resource Generation will have a viewing of “Traces of the Trade”, a documentary that follows white descendents of slave traders and their struggle with the privilege attained in their family through profiting off of the Transatlantic slave trade. The Global Awareness Project, also in Washington DC, will host a panel discussion as to how white privilege is an issue and challenge in the multi-racial Latino community. Finally there will be a national gathering in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated, to discuss and strategize how to courageously stand up to address white privilege and racial inequality.
It is an act of courage for people, particularly white people, to come together and look at racial inequality. Those with privilege need to be able to see it as part of the problem rather than blaming the disadvantaged as deserving of their fate. It is this type of courage that must be exemplified by world leaders and policy makers to build an economy that no longer has the racial wealth divide at its foundation.
DEDRICK MUHAMMAD works at the Institute for Policy Studies.