When we talk about racism in a America I really think it helps us all understand more when we think about the legacy of slavery and segregation and how that has affected generations of Black people.
As an example of this from my own life, let’s look at swimming. In US Military Special Operations across all branches there are very few Black Service Members. Swimming was a huge barrier that I had to navigate when I tried out for the Special Forces. I didn’t now how to swim and was heavily lacking in confidence in the water. After failing to pass a swim test at one point in the course I had a White Instructor come to me in complete sincerity and say, “Daigle, we see so many Black guys come through here who can’t swim. What’s the deal?” At that time I didn’t have an answer. I thought it was just me but I began to notice the trend as well. I knew why I couldn’t swim. I didn’t grow up around water and there was no push to get me around water. I could have pressed it but I also didn’t like taking off my shirt in front of others because of shame around my body. The broader trend was a mystery to me as much as it was to my instructor who had noticed it long before I had.
One day I met another Black Green Beret. It was a rarity. He was older and served during the 80’s and 90’s. He had grown up in Colorado during the 60’s and 70’s. He explained to me that in his day he and his family were only allowed to swim in the public pool on a certain day of the week for an hour. Why? They were Black. He explained that after that hour passed the pool would be closed for cleaning because black bodies had contaminated the water. He said there was a whole generation of Black people who didn’t learn how to swim because of discrimination like this. That’s generation after generation of knowledge of the water and comfort with the water that doesn’t get passed along. Though there are no current restrictions to Blacks becoming Green Beret’s, Navy SEALs, or Air Force PJ’s, the roles are heavily dependent upon competence in the water and many Black Families don’t have that knowledge from a generational perspective.
This is why financial reparations for African Americans as an amends for slavery has always been tough for me to fully agree with. I get the idea but I believe the problem lies heavily in the fact that, in comparison to Whites as a whole, Black people own very little wealth in this country. You could argue that simply transferring wealth is the answer but my problem with that is if a person doesn’t know how to handle, invest, and grow financial resources then how will they maintain and build wealth? This is my opinion, but I’m betting if you could quantify financial literacy and then compare numbers between Minorities and Whites, you’d probably find that the prevalence of financial literacy among Whites is higher than Minorities. Again, this is my opinion but it definitely reflects my experience.
My parents told me to ‘save money’, but that was the full extent of there financial wisdom to pass on. We never had specific conversations around Roth IRA’s, the Stock Market, saving a specific percentage of every dollar you make… Or home mortgages, student loans, credit cards, or auto loans…. or starting a business and being your own boss. I had to make some serious financial mistakes and then begin the process of learning about these things. What people don’t realize is the power of just one of these ideas executed over a long period of time. I have one White friend who told me his dad had him buy Microsoft Stock in 1999. He later used the money he made on that stock to start his own business which is thriving today. I had another White friend tell me that her dad told her to save up 15% of every dollar she made from the day she started working and never touch it. By the time she was in her early 30’s she had saved $150,000. If she simply put that money in a passive index fund of the SP 500 and let it sit for the next 30 years, with out saving another dollar, it would make here a millionaire several times over by the time she hit 65 years old. I’m betting many Black People didn’t have this kind of financial wisdom as a part of their everyday upbringing.
As I have fielded questions on my opinion of what’s happening in the country today, I try to encourage people to understand the frustrations of many African Americans from a broader context. According to this article by Planet Money, COVID-19 is killing Black People at a rate 3x higher than Whites. If you were struggling financially before this pandemic, it’s likely things are worse for you now. Having more wealth doesn’t solve the problem of immunity to the virus, but it does solve the issues of access to healthcare and lowered stress due to access to financial reserves. Add on to health/financial troubles the worry that you have to be concerned for your own safety with any potential interactions with Police and you’ve got a recipe for frustration. Even if you are wealthy and educated, you still have to deal with the fact that you are Black in America and racism is real. I try to help my White Friends who ask questions to understand this broader context that involves the intersection of poverty, lack of economic knowledge, and the historical ramifications of the legacy of slavery. I also try to remind myself that it’s unreasonable to expect that my White Friends will have a detailed perspective on the Black experience in America. I’m still learning every day. I’m grateful that they’re willing to ask because I’m sure there’s a measure of trepidation given how tense the conversation of race is when times are good… let alone a pandemic and rioting.
I would also like to encourage all people to do more self exploration to identify some of the generational patterns that exist in your own families. Whether good, bad, or other, I believe the process of recognizing patterns in our own lives gives us the ability to empathize with others without knowing all the details. Hopefully this helps us all understand each other better.
As we are hopefully pursuing conversations that help us bridge cultural divides across race and economic class, my follow on question would be what happens next? What do we do about knowledge gaps that have occurred over decades and centuries? (I will explore potential answers next week. Stay Safe!)