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What Do You Not Understand?

Listen, White Conservatives

by CHARLES R. LARSON

You don’t believe in science or mathematics, you refuse to believe that climate patterns are changing, and you don’t seem to understand why black people (and some white people) are upset about a young black man, named Michael Brown (who was unarmed), who was killed by a white policeman, and the subsequent riots and anger expressed by many of Ferguson, Missouri’s citizens.

What’s unclear about all this? Do you not understand anger? Rage? Or is it that you believe that black people have no right to be angry? After all, young black men sit around all day not working. They do drugs. They rob stores. Many of them spend part of their lives in prison. They appear to have no ambition. Well, that’s at least your comfortable stereotype that makes you conclude that we live in a post-racial society in the United States, so you don’t need to concern yourselves with these and others in the country who are less fortunate than you.

The president of the United States is a black man, so things can’t be so bad for black people, right? If he thought things were bad for his people, wouldn’t he get angry and say more about it, use the race card like Clarence Thomas did all those years ago so he’d be confirmed for the Supreme Court? Well, think about it. As a black president, Barack Obama is totally muzzled when it comes to matters of race. He can’t step into the stereotype as others have, can’t demonstrate his anger. You’ve already nailed him to a cross for being black, emasculated him, and made certain that as a black president he will not be permitted to go down in history as a major president.

And while we’re talking about the first black president of the United States whom your elected representatives refuse to work with (or hardly even acknowledge), have you ever considered some of the other statistics pertaining to the poor in the United States, who are overwhelmingly black? Do you even realize that at any given time one-third of American adults live from paycheck to paycheck and are hounded by credit agencies to pay their debts because they cannot pay their bills?

So what do you think? This is because they don’t work hard enough? Do you understand that the largest employer in the United States, Wal-Mart, pays its workers so poorly that many of them need food stamps just to get by? You complain about food stamps as a drain on precious tax money. Yet have you ever considered that if Wal-Mart paid a living wage and decent benefits its workers would not need food stamps? Do you understand how many billions of dollars the Walton family is worth? Well, it’s roughly, $135 billion dollars. Can their worth—and that of many others in the United States—not be considered in any discussion of a “living wage,” which might also be called a decent wage, providing human dignity?

Let’s take another statistic about poor and middle-class Americans at the present time. Do you realize that sixty percent of them do not have enough savings to retire? And that means that they will have to work until they drop dead. How can that be? Well, you rigged the tax code in favor of corporations so that many of them pay little or no taxes at all. When you mention about welfare, can’t you understand that the corporations, the banks, and Wall Street are the major beneficiaries of the country’s welfare?

Do you even understand the legacy of slavery in America? How can black people who were given their freedom in 1863 complain after all these years that they have been given a raw deal? Consider visiting a public school in an inner city and tell me what you see. Isn’t the public school system in much of the United States in shambles because you refuse to adequately fund it? Quality education—quality anything—does not come cheaply. A hundred and fifty years of inferior education for black people (and other minorities) in the United States is bound to have its consequences.

But these black people, you say, have cell phones, TVs, computers, automobiles, so how can the issue be one of inequality? True, they have those consumer goods in part because you have convinced them that they need to have them. But all along the road—segregation, voting rights, economic parity and education—the system you have built in our unequal capitalistic society has been filled with bumps and road blocks and dead ends designed not only to guarantee any sense of equality but—worse—dignity.

Consider yourselves lucky, at least so far. The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the tensions in de facto segregated communities in the United States are likely to spread. If there’s another economic collapse (caused by those at the top—not by those deadbeats at the bottom), watch out. The country’s not always going to be so lucky. James Baldwin called it “the fire next time.” Try to understand why the United States is not the country you have always believed it has been. Why capitalism has failed so many people. Why white privilege has made you unable to see reality.

Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.