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Explaining racism to my child

As I often do on the weekend, I recruited my oldest sone, Owen, to help me with running an errand. I like hanging out with him and he likes riding in the front seat and feeling like a big kid. Plus, there's the magic of the car ride, which somehow causes kids to open up and talk more than they do when face-to-face in the house.

On the car's audio system we were listening to Blackalicious' "Supreme People." The chorus is pretty straight-forward---"Su-preme (Supreme, Supreme) [x8]", audio here---but something dawned on Owen:

O [looking at the media player display]: Ohhhhh! They're saying "supreme, supreme!" I thought they were saying "seriously? seriously?"

me [smiling]: Yup. That would be funny if he was saying "srsly?!" like you and Marcus do.

O: What does supreme mean?

me: It's similar to being super, or impressive, or very good at what you do. It can also mean that you're the best. 

O: Oh.

me: Do you know who he's referring to when he says that?

O [thinking]: Well, it says supreme people, so maybe he's talking about his friends.

me: Yup. But actually he's talking about an entire group of people. Can you think of who those people might be?

O [long pause]: Black people?

me: Yeah, that's right. Do you know why he might want to say that over and over?

O: No.

me: Well, it's because some people don't think that Black people are very good at things. They think they are inferior just because they are Black. Do you know which group of people often thinks that?

O: Yeah, white people.

me: Yes, sadly. They don't even know they're doing it a lot of the time. But we Black people can feel it. All the time. So we have to pump ourselves up, like Gift of Gab does in this song. We're actually supreme in all that we set our minds to do.

O: Well, I think it's like chess. There are black pieces and white pieces. And I think both sides are good, and I think both sides can win half of the time.

me: That's a great way to think. I wish it was like that. But imagine a chess board where the white side has all their pieces, but the Black side starts with no king, queen, bishop or knight. 

O: Oh, man, they'd get destroyed every game!

me: Well, that's what it's like in our world. The white side gets to start with things like money, jobs, friends with money and jobs, and they make sure the Black side doesn't get good pieces.

(Historical note: Only 2 out of 116 Supreme Court justices, 9/1950 senators, and 1/43 presidents have ever been Black. Of those 9 Black senators, only four were popularly elected; Edward Brooke of MA, was the first. Only 7/500 of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, and no Black-owned company has ever been in the Fortune 500. Only 20 Black people have been presidential cabinet officers. All this despite making up more than 10% of the US population. It goes on and on for Black people being shut out of American positions of economic, political and social power.)

(Present-day reality note: There exists a 22:1 wealth gap between Black and white Americans today; right now. The percentage of unemployment is a factor of 2 higher for Black people. While the poverty rate has dropped or leveled off for white people, it is rising for Black people. See also the figure below, and this article about how Black people of a given income are more likely to live near poverty than are white people of the same income bracket. Finally, Black people experience less economic mobility than white people, so the American Dream, already known to be a fairy tale for most people, is even more of a joke for people of color.)

O: That's not fair at all. Why is it like that?

me: It's like that because the white player sets the rules of the game and the black side doesn't get a say. And when the black player complains about the rules being unfair, the player on the white side denies that there's any unfairness. In fact, the white player doesn't even like it when anyone mentions "rules." They yell, "I'm not rulesist" and act like being accused of rulesism is the worst thing ever. Or they insist that they are "rule blind."

O: That sucks.

(Historical note: the Federal Housing Administration was established as part of the Federal Housing Act of 1934 under President Roosevelt. However, white supremacists known as Southern Democrats  (aka Dixicrats) ensured that the law could only be enforce at the state level, allowing southern states---where most Black people lived---to deny benefits to Black people. The Social Security Act of 1935 originally excluded agricultural workers and domestic laborers, who were predominantly (70%) Black and Latino/a. 

In the North, the FHA set the rules for home loans, and loans were denied for purchases where the white population dipped below a certain percentile [known as redlining], while Black people were barred by racial covenants from purchasing houses in better neighborhoods. All of this was perfectly legal. The same with other New Deal provisions as well as the GI Bill. White people built wealth , attended college on the government dime, and won high-income jobs during this time period while Black people struggled to find places to live and work during the so-called "baby boom." 

Think about this the next time you try to talk about the problem being class instead of race. Yes,  Black people tend to be in a lower economic class. But it's by design. It's hard to face, but every time you think about sending your kids to a predominantly white private school or consider moving to a "nice neighborhood," you contribute to this problem. 

As a personal note, my grandfather served in WWII but did not benefit from the GI bill, did not attend college, nor own his home. Thus he could not pass down wealth to his children. My father owned a home, but white people moved out of our neighborhood where I grew up near Fergesun, MO, a phenomenon known as "white flight." Tragically, my dad eventually had to sell the house I grew up in at a loss while houses in white neighborhoods in St. Louis were being sold at huge profits to white homeowners.)

At this point we were walking into the electronics store and Owen was off to check out the latest iPad while I looked for a wireless USB headset. We met up at the front of the store and waited in the checkout line. As is usually the case, there was a ton of "impulse bait" in bins along the sides of the line. Sigh...

I spotted a Nerf dart gun and said, "Oh man, Marcus would be begging for that right now. I'm glad we're good at only buying what we went to the store to get, not what the store tries to get us to buy."

Owen quickly dropped the bag of gummy worms he was investigating and said, "Uh huh." :)

But then I spotted a tiny dart gun, the smallest Nerf dart gun I had ever seen---and being the father of two boys, I know the Nerf lineup pretty well. We were close enough to the front of the line that the checkout clerk remarked, "That'd be a pretty good gun for a sneak attack." This got Owen's attention. He asked, "How much is it, Dad?" I gave it to the clerk, who scanned it and said it was $4.99. I said, "You could put that in your pocket and surprise Marcus!" The clerk chimed in, "Yeah, you could be all, 'I have some candy, wanna see?' and then BAM!"

We all laughed and I totally gave into the impulse buy (I'm good at teaching some lessons). We headed out to the car and started driving home.

O: I wanna make it fair between white people and Black people.

me: I would, too. Do you know who Martin Luther King was?

O: Ummm, he freed the slaves?

me [dying a little inside]: That was Abe Lincoln. Martin Luther King said that we should change the game to make it fair for everyone in America.

O: But it didn't work?

me: Well, kinda. It got white people to stop being mean to Black people to their faces, at least on a daily basis, which was an important step. He also helped make it so the game wasn't obviously rigged and he helped end segregation. But white people are pretty clever, and they still managed to keep the rules unfair. And they definitely complain a lot when the Black side wins despite the rigged rules (Referencereferencereference)

(Note: Here and elsewhere I refer to white people as a whole, since as a racial *group* they hold more power over Black people *as a group*. Individual results may vary, but the averages matter most and tell the tale of racism in America.)

O: Oh. That sucks.

me: Yeah

[long silence]

O: But what about Mom?!

me: Oh...uhhhh. Right. Mom is white. But she's aware of the situation. She's down with the Black people, so she's definitely cool!

O: No! I meant, what will Mom say when I sneak-attack Marcus?!

And...end scene.

Do you have questions, doubts, concerns? Would you like to help end racism in your institution? Knowledge is power, so here's the list of books and articles that informed my views.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race by Jean Halley, Amy Eshleman and Ramya Mahadevan Vijaya
Leaving: A Novel, Richard Dry


Killing Rage chapter of book by the same name by Bell Hooks
Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic (pronounced tah-nuh-hah-see)
Trends in U.S. Family Income Mobility, 1967–2004 Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz

On my to-read list:

Sweet Land of Liberty by Tom Segrue
Family Properties by Beryl Satter
Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson
American Apartheid by Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton

Supreme People
Supreme (Supreme, Supreme) [repeat 8x]

Supreme people living with they backs aligned
Up against the wall cause these days are asinine
Living in a money matrix, how cats survive
Some will fade away and wither, others will blast a 9
Kings and Queens working 9 to 5's
And making nothing searching for a deeper purpose in life
This can't be life, with all this work this can't be right
Without no money in my pockets I just can't see right
I used to try to preach to younguns like, "Do right kids"
Now-a-days all that I can say is, "Get it how you live"
Live how you get it, shit!
Don't nobody wanna get...
A promotion up to fry cook like little Calvin did
Some would rather take a gamble, hey they might do bids
The allure of fast money in this hell-bound system
Got you look at two-hundred bucks a week
Versus, like a thousand in a day
Tell me what makes more sense to these


Trapped like rats in mazes for the cheese
Every natural resource is here, we don't really need money
But certain people need power over people
They act like that cause they're trapped inside their ego-sphere
And now you can't feel free
Without material possessions, you can't just be
And without 'em you're left stressin', so anxiously
So you grab the Smith & Wesson, then aim, then squeeze
To get what's comin' to ya
The block's so hot, it blew the top off the thermometer
The rush for drama is more appealing than a plain life
Cause life is insane, so insanity is a sane life
It's so easy to see, simple as day and night
Supreme people born out of the way of the light
In the darkness, trying to fly straight
To some folks it's like being a fish swimming with sharks, shit!

"Perhaps not since men turned their ears to the preachings of a mere prophet 2000 years ago have the words of humble men reached so many with such force. And, perhaps because it has been burning so long, now smoldering, now bursting into hot flames, now hastily covered over to smolder again until the next outbreak"


Supreme people only want the best and a
Supreme people won't settle for less than a
Straight from royalty put inside projects and a
Capitalist system that don't make sense to ya
Supreme people put against the fence, get up
Get irate and hostile if you ain't fixing the
Problem you created that make these conditions up
A little reparation for your acts are sent to us
Supreme people ride or die to get the bucks
Some by any means so, hey, lock your benzes up
Tuck your chain and watch and keep your defenses up
All they wanna do is live it up like you cause they're



Edit the description to add:
  • Historical context: Historical context.
  • An explanation of the overall story (e.g. "In this song, Eminem corresponds with a crazed fan who...")
  • The sample used for a beat.


Nasher said…
Extremely minor point. The first popularly elected African-American U.S. Senator was Edward Brooke (Republican) of Massachusetts. Aside from the craziness of that combination of attributes, he was also a leader in publicizing the risk of breast cancer among men. Pretty amazing life story.

Great post!

Dr. Pepper
Unknown said…
My daughter believes that racism is dying out that it is more of the older generation than the younger generation that has a problem. It is a shame that because you are black, you are look down anupon and that the house you grew up in, had to be sold for less than what a White House was sold for. I know how it is I grew up in an all black neighborhood, well mostly blacks. My nieces and nephews grew up in a mostly black neighborhood.

I tried to look at both sides of the coin, yes some neighborhoods are worst than others, but we cannot look at it has it all the whites fault or all the blacks fault. It is an individual thing. When a black person gets fire from a job, he claim racism. When a black person gets kick out of store, for wrecking it, he claim racism, when a black person can get hire for a job, he claims racism. If a white person did those things and it was a black person kicking him out do you think he would claim racism?

I am engage to a Samoa, but because of his dark skin color, people think he is black. When he was with his first wife, who was also white, and now me, we get more dirty looks from older blacks than whites. In fact I never notice a white person ever given me a dirty look.

I would also like to said that the black people have come along way, but there are those that causes problems for the ones who want to make it in this world. In an all black neighborhood, you have drugs, shooting, gangs, rape and not to mention a lot more. There is also poor housing and uneducated. Blacks don't get the teaching they should because either the student doesn't care or the teacher doesn't get paid nothing to care.

One last thing, why are blacks so quick to beat up white people, when one white person kills or hurts a black person? Example: Rodney King and the young teen ager in Ferguson who got shot by a white cop. Look on YOUTUBE for a white couple being beat up by a gang of blacks in Ferguson, Mo. This is in relationship to the murder that happen months black. This white couple had nothing to do with the young man's killer, but because of their skin color they were attack. PEOPLE NEED TO STOP BEING RACIST AND MOVE FORWARD IN THEIR LIVES. THEY ARE NEED TO STOP PREJUDGING OTHERS. As far as I know now a days a bunch of white people have never beaten up a black person, because another black person( who has nothing to do with the first black person) killed a white person.

Yes whites are consider above all other races, but it was the black man who started slavery on his own kind.

There are two good books you should read, I will send you the title when I look them up.

John Johnson said…
Thanks Dr. Pepper! I made the change to the text based on your recommendation and a quick check of Wikipedia.
Unknown said…
The key, Dorine, is it is absolutely not an individual thing.

One of the key points that John is making is that much of the racism encountered is institutional. Our systems are built to reward white people and punish black people, for the same actions.

One of the largest measures of success is having a savings built up. The disparity between black and white families is huge. As John mentions, when you can't buy a house, when you can't be financially secure, that cascades through generations. Our government has stacked the deck, at the federal, state, and city level.

Should be be better to each other? No doubt. But unfortunately this is not a problem solved by people "being nice". And acting like african american communities have cornered the market on violent neighborhoods is certainly both untrue and missing the point.
Foobar said…
John, thank you for this post. I think it's important to tell and retell this story about how federal policy systematically excluded blacks from federally--backed home mortgages, and worked with state and local governments to severely restrict where blacks could buy property. Realizing this was one of the most powerful moments for me in "The Warmth of Other Suns. I realized how my mom's family's story, from refugees to middle class in three generations, crucially depended upon getting a federally-backed 30-year mortgage on a house in a neighborhood of rising property values. That kind of story is stock American Dream stuff -- "they rose through their own hard work", and my grandparents did work so hard. But so did a lot of other people who were NOT ALLOWED to buy their own homes so that that hard work could be transformed into equity to pass on to their children.
Maybe you've done this elsewhere with your children and are using the words as shorthand but what struck me was the unproblematic use of 'white' and 'black'.

I admire your using daily interaction to address racism. It's a function of ethnic priviledge to assume one does not have to.

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