Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and The City Wire to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Daniel Maher is the assistant professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics or the administration of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Fort Smith, Arkansas is the kind of town where an African American family can be walking to their car after a shopping-outing in Central Mall and be called the N-word by a passer-by. Of course, Fort Smith is not exceptional in this regard, this routinely happens everywhere in the United States.
Imagine that. Imagine how that makes an African American feel, knowing that you cannot go about your everyday business without the possibility of being assaulted as such- or worse, knowing that your children will be subjected to this kind of treatment. Nobody likes to be insulted, especially when they’ve done nothing to deserve it, and especially when the insult carries with it the punch of centuries of oppression. Asian and Latin Americans experience their own variants of similarly slanderous remarks and scornful gazes.
Now imagine the combination of hatred and ignorance that must be twisted up inside an individual to hurl such an epithet at a complete stranger. Imagine how pathetic this individual must be: downtrodden, feeling oppressed, struggling to find a form of empowerment, desperately grasping for some control in life by demeaning another human being with racialized insults.
The United States has a long history of such behavior. My Irish descendants who arrived in the 1850s were considered closer to orangutans than whites, and my Italian descendants who came at the turn into the twentieth century were lynched in Louisiana at higher rates than were African Americans. Whoever the new people are, regardless of race or ethnicity, they are perceived to be an economic threat by those already leading a precarious existence. It is no wonder that the poor and the uneducated are so receptive to embracing racialized ideologies as a form of empowerment. What a sorry and misguided state of humanity this is.
And yet, this is the daily discourse in Fort Smith and across our Nation, from police chiefs to political candidates, from ordinary people to their peers. This individual level of racism gets much attention, as it should, but it does so to the exclusion of considering the legacy of institutionalized racism. I have commented on white privilege before in the context of how Fort Smith’s heritage industry reinforces it.
Many people today deny that white privilege exists, but the facts say otherwise. Between 1934 and 1962, the United States government subsidized whiteness with a white welfare program to the tune of $120 billion and in the process created white suburbs and colored inner cities. African American and Latin Americans were systematically denied mortgages as “urban renewal” destroyed and did not replace 90% of inner-city housing. These very same mechanisms created the racialized housing market in Fort Smith.
The result of this institutional racism is that white families had a significantly easier time accumulating wealth and giving their children a leg-up. Colored families were not so lucky. My own family, considered “immigrant contaminates” just a few generations ago, merged into whiteness and directly benefited from such public policies. My life is better today as a result. People of color were not as likely to benefit and their lives and the lives of their children are more difficult today as a result. This is a contemporary issue, this is not a phenomenon relegated to the past that we have somehow transcended.
If you’re struggling with the concept of white privilege consider this parable of the game of Monopoly. Recall playing it? Imagine this situation: a group of your friends begin playing Monopoly at 8 a.m. and are kind enough to deal you in, but you cannot join them until you get off work at 6 p.m. You walk in the door and are invited to play. What do you do? Will you sit down and play with them? Probably not. And, why not? Because you are lazy? Because you don’t want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay? No, because you know the odds are stacked firmly against you. It would be exceptionally difficult for you to gain much ground on your competitors.
In the United States, and the colonies before it, white men played Monopoly for centuries before any other players began to even be allowed to approach the table. African American men were first allowed with the 15th Amendment in 1870, followed by black and white women being allowed to the game with the 19th Amendment in 1919. It was 1924 when Native American Indians were given citizenship – many feeling it to be an imposition more than an honor.
The legacy of unequal access to power, wealth, and prestige is rooted in our institutions, codified in law. This is not some ignorant person hurling racial insults, this is legislation making it easier for whites to gain access while disenfranchising people of color. In the last decade the gap between white wealth and social minority groups has grown.
Because of the racialized access to the housing market, African Americans and Latin Americans were disproportionately impacted by the 2008 recession, caused in part by Wall Street bundling together bogus mortgages. In 2011 white families had 20 times the wealth of African American families, and 18 times the wealth of Latin Americans. No, we do not live in a post-racial society, and no the Civil Rights movement did not fix all of our institutionalized racism, nor hardly fix the insidious ignorance contained in individual racism.
Most of us come to the Monopoly-board-of-life well after the property has been purchased. Most of us are social minorities by at least one variable – economics. In spite of this we live our lives and do the best we can – many do so quite courageously – while some elect to take out the frustration with their lives by cultivating animosity toward entire categories of people they mistakenly believe to be the cause of their suffering.
I maintain that Fort Smith’s greatest, but yet underappreciated and underutilized asset, is its diversity. We live in an exceptionally diverse town that offers a wide range of experiences – culinary, language, entertainment, and worship. Why doesn’t the city embrace this? People can change, it is the hallmark of humanity that we are capable of adapting.
Even when it comes to something we think is biologically based, our taste in food for example. Does cilantro taste like soap to you? That is the first taste detected from cilantro for some people, but it does not have to stay that way. Research has shown that by trying unfamiliar food more than a few times, we can change how we perceive its taste. If we refuse to try new things, turn away forever after one attempt, we are making our world all the smaller.
When Fort Smith is ready to embrace new tastes, it will become a cultural smorgasbord, it will thrive in all areas – it will have proportional diversity in its police department, on its board of directors, and in its neighborhoods.
As long as we maintain the status quo, the status quo is what we will have.