We were sitting at my dining room table, celebrating my wife’s and my mother’s birthday, and the subject of Baltimore came up. Well, not Baltimore, per se, but the age-old question of whose fault it is that people live in poverty and crime, the emotional toll of which sometimes boils over into the riots we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson.
Somebody mentioned a wealthy co-worker who insists that everyone has the same opportunities if they just put in the work – the old ‘bootstraps’ theory. In other words, people are where they are in life, living in the ghetto or living in the gated-community, because of character, nothing more, nothing less.
“That’s absurd,” I said. “Nobody’s going to sit here at MY TABLE and suggest that everyone’s on an even playing field.”
I actually said that. “MY TABLE.” Who am I, Moses? Or Don Corleone?
Emotions are running high. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that 400 years of American history have led us to a point where – and I know this is a generalization, but – young black men see police as enemies, out to get them, and police seem to feel the same. I suspect that officers are afraid, they react in excessive force, and they kill. Black communities are angry. They protest peacefully. A few people break from protocol, starting looting, and it just validates the resentment we feel in our white guilt.
We white people feel guilty about our privilege, and we’ve invested much of our self-identity into the work we’ve done to try and build the lives we want. We put tens of thousands of hours into studying, earning degrees, honing skills, getting jobs, working hard, building wealth. We see African-Americans and other minorities who have done the same, and it’s easy to assume that anybody can do it.
The very existence of slums in Baltimore, St. Louis or Durham strike at the core of how we see ourselves. Psychologically, we can manage our guilt if we blame the poor for their poverty. But as soon as someone suggests that we, collectively, might have a responsibility to make some sacrifices, to lift others up so that we might share in a more equal society, it’s easy to get defensive. You mean I might not deserve what I’ve got? You mean I’m dependent on the work of others and on a whole society that was built by and for people like me?
I know of black teens who shuffle from the homes of aunts to older brothers to family friends because they lack a stable place to live. There’s something beautiful about an extended clan that takes care of its own. But I’ve never had to ask for that kind of help. My grandparents were able to lend cash to help me buy a rental property that not only supplements my monthly income but where I’m also building equity. There’s no difference in character between my family and theirs.
The difference is, my poor, Sicilian-immigrant grandfather went to M.I.T., became a Raytheon engineer, and sent kids off to college. My life feels more or less secure, and at least some of that is because of family money earned designing weapons of warfare. My Poppy died in May. He was a gentle man who happened to be a brilliant engineer during the Cold War. I have some of what I have because of the military-industrial complex, not because I’m so smart or industrious. Because of my grandparents’ loan and my wife’s salary, I am able to pursue my passions as a writer and musician. My sense of purpose is entwined with what other people do and have done for me.
I suppose if I managed to burn some bridges, I can imagine becoming homeless. But that seems a long way off. I can count on any number of people who would shelter me and my family if it ever came to that. But my family connections, humble as they are compared to a lot of my friends, provide me much more than the assurance of a roof over my head.
Forget about how Mom read to me, or helped with homework, forget about how Dad talked with me about history and art, challenged me to get good grades, which led to academic scholarships, which enabled me to pay for college with minimal loans even though my parents couldn’t cover much of my tuition. There are kids growing up in Baltimore and here who don’t get any of those things, much less have access to thousands of dollars in someone else’s bank account to help them invest in their futures.
Look, I don’t have the grand solution for how to even the playing field. But let us not deceive ourselves that what is happening in Baltimore or Ferguson is far from us. We know all too well of the tensions between police and minority communities. What will keep us from reaching the boiling point? I don’t know. But we can at least start by recognizing that we have a problem.
That problem, as I see it, is not that some kid hung a noose on Duke University’s campus, nor that some other kids in Chapel Hill photographed themselves with Civil War flags and joked of owning slaves. Some kids are idiots. These are just symptoms of a deeper problem: We can’t seem to hold in tension that we are both different, and the same.
Yes, emphasizing difference means we can think of ourselves as angels and of them as demons, and then we have nooses hanging from trees and neighborhoods with 10 p.m. curfews targeting black teens, like where I just visited outside Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, emphasizing sameness means we expect everybody to do what we’ve been able to do. I don’t see color! How many times have you heard that? There’s a childlike simplicity to that statement. I understand the temptation. Can’t we all just get along? But a long, complicated history has led us to this moment, and, sadly, we’re going to need some complicated, grown-up, hard work to untangle it.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org