basic: plain, socially awkward, unattractive, uninteresting, ignorant, pathetic, uncool, etc.
budtender: a person who specializes in serving marijuana to consumers, especially in legal dispensaries
casual: a new or inexperienced person, especially a gamer (also in filthy casual)
plastiglomerate: type of stone made of melted plastic, beach sediment, and organic debris
**salty: exceptionally bitter, angry, or upset
selfie stick: a pole to which a smartphone is attached to take selfies from a distance
Cornel Pewewardy, a Comanche and Kiowa, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, School of Education, The University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
Racial inequality and economic inequality are not synonyms, but they are as closely linked as it is possible for two things to be. They are the bread and butter of American problems.
The racial wealth gap. The racial wealth gap. The racial wealth gap. Let us focus here, for a moment, on the real enemy: The racial wealth gap. For an up-to-date picture of the economic discrepancies in America by race, here is a quick snapshot of facts taken from the newly released Assets & Opportunity Scorecard from the Corporation for Enterprise Development:
Poverty: 10.9% of white households earn incomes below the federal poverty line, versus 23.5% of Latino households and 26.1% of black households. Furthermore, we can see that there is a racial gap not only in income but in wealth; here is a racial breakdown of the asset poverty rate, defined as the Percentage of households without sufficient net worth to subsist at the poverty level for three months in the absence of income: for white households, 18.7%; for Latino households, 43.3%; and for black households, 45.6%. Perhaps the starkest measure of racial wealth inequality is median household net worth: for white households, $111,000; for Latino households, $9,000; and for black households, $7,000.
This is racism’s newest mutation–multicultural racism, where one ethnic group can be played off against another. But it is wrong to call West Indians the victors in this competition, in anything but the narrowest sense. In American history, immigrants have always profited from assimilation: as they have adopted the language and customs of this country, they have sped their passage into the mainstream. The new racism means that West Indians are the first group of people for whom that has not been true. Their advantage depends on their remaining outsiders, on remaining unfamiliar, on being distinct by custom, culture, and language from the American blacks they would otherwise resemble. There is already some evidence that the considerable economic and social advantages that West Indians hold over American blacks begin to dissipate by the second generation, when the island accent has faded, and those in positions of power who draw distinctions between good blacks and bad blacks begin to lump West Indians with everyone else. For West Indians, assimilation is tantamount to suicide. This is a cruel fate for any immigrant group, but it is especially so for West Indians, whose history and literature are already redolent with the themes of dispossession and loss, with the long search for identity and belonging. In the nineteen-twenties, Marcus Garvey sought community in the idea of Africa. Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, yearned for Zion. In “Rites of Passage” the Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite writes:
But here is where things become more difficult, and where what seems obvious about West Indian achievement turns out not to be obvious at all. One of the striking things in the Red Hook study, for example, is the emphasis that the employers appeared to place on hiring outsiders–Irish or Russian or Mexican or West Indian immigrants from places far from Red Hook. The reason for this was not, the researchers argue, that the employers had any great familiarity with the cultures of those immigrants. They had none, and that was the point. They were drawn to the unfamiliar because what was familiar to them–the projects of Red Hook–was anathema. The Columbia University anthropologist Katherine Newman makes the same observation in a recent study of two fast-food restaurants in Harlem. She compared the hundreds of people who applied for jobs at those restaurants with the few people who were actually hired, and found, among other things, that how far an applicant lived from the job site made a huge difference. Of those applicants who lived less than two miles from the restaurant, ten per cent were hired. Of those who lived more than two miles from the restaurant, nearly forty per cent were hired. As Newman puts it, employers preferred the ghetto they didn’t know to the ghetto they did.
Here, then, are the two competing ideas about racism side by side: the manager issues a blanket condemnation of American blacks even as he holds West Indians up as a cultural ideal. The example of West Indians as “good” blacks makes the old blanket prejudice against American blacks all the easier to express. The manager can tell black Americans to get off their butts without fear of sounding, in his own ears, like a racist, because he has simultaneously celebrated island blacks for their work ethic. The success of West Indians is not proof that discrimination against American blacks does not exist. Rather, it is the means by which discrimination against American blacks is given one last, vicious twist: I am not so shallow as to despise you for the color of your skin, because I have found people your color that I like. Now I can despise you for who you are.
It is tempting to use the West Indian story as evidence that discrimination doesn’t really exist–as proof that the only thing inner-city African-Americans have to do to be welcomed as warmly as West Indians in places like Red Hook is to make the necessary cultural adjustments. If West Indians are different, as they clearly are, then it is easy to imagine that those differences are the reason for their success–that their refusal to be bowed is what lets them walk on by the signs that prohibit them or move to neighborhoods that black Americans would shy away from. It also seems hard to see how the West Indian story is in any way consistent with the idea of racism as an indiscriminate, pernicious threat aimed at all black people.
All black people of my mother’s generation–and of generations before and since–have necessarily faced a moment like this, when they are confronted for the first time with the allegation of their inferiority. But, at least in my mother’s case, her school was integrated, and that meant she knew black girls who were more intelligent than white girls, and she knew how she measured against the world around her. At least she lived in a country that had blacks and browns in every position of authority, so her personal experience gave the lie to what she read in the encyclopedia. This, I think, is what Noel means when he says that he cannot quite appreciate what it is that weighs black Americans down, because he encountered the debilitating effects of racism late, when he was much stronger. He came of age in a country where he belonged to the majority.
This idea of the West Indian as a kind of superior black is not a new one. When the first wave of Caribbean immigrants came to New York and Boston, in the early nineteen-hundreds, other blacks dubbed them Jewmaicans, in derisive reference to the emphasis they placed on hard work and education. In the nineteen-eighties, the economist Thomas Sowell gave the idea a serious intellectual imprimatur by arguing that the West Indian advantage was a historical legacy of Caribbean slave culture. According to Sowell, in the American South slaveowners tended to hire managers who were married, in order to limit the problems created by sexual relations between overseers and slave women. But the West Indies were a hardship post, without a large and settled white population. There the overseers tended to be bachelors, and, with white women scarce, there was far more commingling of the races. The resulting large group of coloreds soon formed a kind of proto-middle class, performing various kinds of skilled and sophisticated tasks that there were not enough whites around to do, as there were in the American South. They were carpenters, masons, plumbers, and small businessmen, many years in advance of their American counterparts, developing skills that required education and initiative.