On racism and wealth

“Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” – James, chapter 2

I overheard a racist conversation the other day. It’s not something that entirely surprised me, because having lived in the Midwest for a good deal of my life, I’m used to hearing racist comments, jokes, and conversations. Often these are from people who would be appalled at the idea that they are racist.

This particular case was similar to others that I’ve heard. A person was complaining that her son’s Chinese neighbors were able to procure some sort of government grant to purchase their house, but her son and his wife, good hard-working folks, received no such grant. “Why do the Chun Lung Ming’s, or whatever their names are, get a cheaper house?” “Well, don’t even get me started on that,” came the reply. Having heard these conversations before, I can only imagine that had things progressed, “blacks and their welfare checks” would have taken center stage.

As a good liberal, I could engage such conversations. I could say, “Look, let’s talk about how many Chinese workers were paid peanuts and died trying to build the railroads that connected the east and west.” Or, “once whites have experienced slavery for a few hundred years, and then experienced another hundred years trying to scrape by while lacking basic civil rights and decent education, then we can start complaining about welfare checks.” Frankly, though, I have been thinking for a while that however much truth I think there is to these responses, as a strategy, it is a bit misguided. It just doesn’t go deep enough.

My point is not to condone the racism of these comments as much as it is to draw attention to the economics at play. The racism I hear is embedded within conversations about conservative ideology: people should work for what they get. We (the good white people) work for what we get, so why can’t the Chinese/Blacks/Mexicans/Natives/etc. work for what they get? No one should get a free ride. After all, our forefathers came to this nation with nothing and worked their asses off.

Okay. I think that’s a fair reasoning process…but you have to ignore some very important facts. First, as I mentioned above, you have to ignore the historical record of racial economic exploitation in the U.S. But just as importantly, you have to ignore the existing economic inequality in the U.S. and the incredible wealth that is in the hands of the few rich and privileged.

What has happened in the U.S. is that we have accepted as a fact that we need there to be an aristocracy of wealthy elites. We need the millionaires and billionaires, after all, we assume that they “earned it.” What happens, though, when we concentrate wealth at the top is that those at the bottom have to scrap and fight for the leftovers, for the wealth that trickles down.

If we don’t question this system, then the white middle-class person who works two or three jobs can look down on the non-white person who gets some form of government assistance and talk about how unfair it is. When government subsidies target specific races or ethic groups, then it is natural that whites who work hard will embed their economic frustrations within racist resentment.

Our nation has definitely shifted hard to the right since Ronald Reagan. The current debates in Congress are not about expanding social safety nets but about whether they should exist at all. In other words, let’s let everyone stand on their own feet. That’s a fine ideology, if it is applied equally, across the board. But the rich already call the shots and control the profits, so the deck is already stacked. Somewhere around 80% of us have to compete against each other for 20% of our nation’s wealth. In other words, 80% of us have to work for that 20%, but the other 80% of our nations’ wealth goes to the wealthy, who presumably deserve it regardless of how hard they work.

The problem is that this double standard puts the squeeze on. Is it a surprise then to hear conversations about how non-whites get a free ride? Is it really such a surprise that we turn to racism? I’m not shocked any longer to hear racist conversations become more and more frequent among white people I know.

In most of our nation’s history, we’ve had groups pushing against this system, resisting the idea that we need to take for granted inequality and rely on a wealthy elite to distribute wealth to the rest of us. This was especially true in the early 20th century. My hope is that out of this current political mess we will have more and more young people questioning the system of inequality itself. We need people who are not content to merely fight in Congress to save food stamps or social security but to question why our system rewards people so disproportionately. I don’t know that we can survive, in the long term, with such massive amounts of wealth concentrated in the hands of such a few of our citizens. My question is this: until economic inequality is addressed (and addressed in a radical way), can we ever productively engage conversations on race?

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

One thought on “On racism and wealth”

  1. Thank you for this post.
    No, I don’t in anyway think humans can move past petty survival clashes like racism unless a radical change occurs in the economic systems that control their survival.
    We are barely scratching the surface of what it could mean to be civil, to be a civilized race.


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