A Dumb Comparison
Updated: Apr 18
A couple of years ago, someone emailed and asked, “Why aren’t black people doing better?” I asked him what he meant by “better” and he talked about other people groups which have also suffered great oppression and yet which currently have a higher percentage of millionaires and professional achievers. “Slavery ended 150 years ago,” he said. “Why are black people still struggling so much?” I counted to ten, made some coffee and responded.
I admitted that certainly other people have suffered tremendous oppression. Murder, rape, pillage: this is a recurrent theme of human history. But then I asked two questions which he never answered, To whom are you comparing African Americans? Which other people group in America has a similar experience? Silence.
Slavery in America lasted 246 years; that’s almost 13 generations. Thirteen generations of rape, of children being taken from their mothers, of men whipped and rented out to breed like cattle. After that, we had another 100 years of state sanctioned segregation: five more generations of our own apartheid system, with black people separate, far away from whites, subservient and living in fear of making a wrong move.
That is nearly 350 years of oppression.
German and Japanese immigrants weathered bleak discrimination in the WWII era. Millions of Irish escaping famine arrived in the 1840’s and boatloads of Italians came in the 1880’s. All of these people groups endured gross prejudice and hatred.
But they came of their own volition. They willingly sailed across the ocean, praying for a better life, and within a few generations, they were enfolded into the white race and began to make and accumulate wealth.
At a time when black people were not permitted to eat with whites, or sit next to them on a bus, or swim with them in a pool, a wealthy Irish Catholic senator became President of the United States.
The story of immigration is a completely different story from the story of forced migration and servitude. There is no comparison.
Despite all of this, black achievement is and has been extraordinary. Even during slavery, when educating them was illegal, many African Americans taught themselves to read and some became writers and orators and scientists. Before and certainly since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we have catapulted into leadership in politics, science, medicine, academia, math, sports, literature and all of the performing arts. As soon as the doors of opportunity opened, we ran through them. Gymnastics, tennis and golf were all “white” sports, but when we got the chance, we became the world’s best.
The fact that the gentleman who emailed me didn’t know this reveals his own ignorance and limited view not only of black people but also of American history and culture. I doubt he ever read DuBois or watched Amistad or considered the miracle of a nonviolent Civil Rights movement after so much pain. I wonder if he were sold as an eight-year-old, as was Frederick Douglass, and then sold again at fifteen to a master who whipped him everyday: I wonder if he would have become a great orator who helped to change history.
The stalwart resolve of black people through the centuries is nothing short of extraordinary.
People like the man who wrote to me look at America through the dark glasses of white supremacy. To them, black people will always be poor and struggling. Some of us are. Most of us are doing alright, and many are doing great.