02/14/10: The struggle toward inclusiveness

This op-ed appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

I’VE BEEN thinking about the subject of race in an ideal society, a world where we talk about race without making everything about race. It’s something I long for, something I once thought was not only possible but just around the corner. I’m no longer sure that is the case.

I grew up in a completely integrated society. I never attended all-black schools, and I never lived in all-black neighborhoods. It was instilled in me at an early age that I could be whatever I wanted to be. There were no barriers — as long as I did well in school and took advantage of the opportunities. I truly believed that for a long time and couldn’t understand why folks my age thought differently. That all changed when I left the government to work in the private sector.

At 25, I came face to face with racism and how deeply imbedded in our society it is.

I will never forget the look of shock on the face of one interviewer at one of Norfolk’s largest private employers when I was being interviewed for the No. 2 accounting job in that company, an interview I had garnered on the strength of my resume as well as a phone call. He finally blurted out a question: How well did I work with white males?

I will never forget the partner in the then-13th largest CPA firm in the world telling me that he believed I could make partner, but that I’d work twice as hard to get there.

So much for that level playing-field idea.

Until then, I believed that, as my generation came of age, the old vestiges of racism would fall away. I learned a new term — institutional racism — and its effects on our society’s ability to leave the past in the past.

I began to see that the token black person doesn’t open the door for others; he or she remains the token, only to be replaced by another token. Those who have the power are willing to share only if forced.

So much of racism and prejudice — the two terms are not interchangeable: racism requires power, while prejudice does not — is not even intentional. When a person gets hired, for example, the natural instinct is to go with the one with whom you feel most comfortable, the result being hiring somebody who looks like you.

Working for myself full time for 23 years, I’ve learned that prejudice isn’t one-sided. On occasion I’ve had white people who, upon discovering I’m black, take their business elsewhere. Far more common is the internalized oppression in black clients. Without realizing it, they see blacks (and themselves) as inferior, and nearly every one who leaves me does so for a white CPA.

Parents unconsciously teach their children racism and prejudice, and our society reinforces it. No matter how open-minded one is about race, because it is a part of our fabric, most people succumb to its realities. Norfolk, for example, has a rule that its appointed boards — except the School Board — must reflect the racial makeup of the City Council. My father, a minister, used to say that 11 on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of any day. For the most part, that remains the case. Outside of work, how many of us socialize with members of another race?

I’m tired of seeing black politicians take advantage of black folk because it’s easy. I’m tired of white politicians taking advantage of blacks in general. I’m tired of seeing natural groups — the poor, for example — pitted against each other simply because of race, a point made by Leonard Pitts in a column The Pilot published this month.

I’m frustrated watching my nieces and nephews struggle with racism and having to talk them through it. I’m tired of reading stories that show discrimination in housing, in lending, in so many aspects that make the mythical “American Dream” an impossibility.

So while it is possible that racism and prejudice will diminish with each generation, I’m no longer convinced that they will be obliterated. There’s simply too much at stake in maintaining the status quo, in staying in this comfortable place where we don’t talk about racism and prejudice and their effects, where we continue to live the lie that everything is OK. We’ve come a long way since the various civil rights acts, but the distance we have yet to travel is equally as far and much more difficult.

At 25, I had hope. At almost 50, I’m struggling to maintain it. But an inclusive world is important, and I will continue pushing to get there.