DOES RACISM TRUMP EVERYTHING ELSE?

No!  But racism is on the ballot in 2020 in  a way unlike any presidential election in decades. Whether our nation will make major strides forward to overcome racism or fall backward is one of the most central political questions voters will decide  on November 3.

Something powerful happened as tens of millions of Americans watched the video of a white policeman murdering African-American George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. A massive movement of protest exploded around the country, indeed around the world. Commentators everywhere, even black leaders like Al Sharpton, expressed delighted surprise that large numbers of white Americans were joining the protests against police brutality against African-Americans. Polls showed a significant increase in support for the call to combat racism. Large numbers of famous black athletes joined the demand for change. Major professional sports leagues joined the call. The NBA and the WNBA postponed games (Trump said: “People are a little tired of the NBA”). The commissioner of the National Football League issued an apology for not listening to black players earlier and said: “We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. “

Widespread support emerged to remove images and celebrations of the white southern Confederacy which began the devastating Civil War  to defend slavery. The very conservative NASCAR organization banned Confederate flags. The state of Mississippi decided to remove the image of the Confederate flag from its state flag. Statues of Confederate leaders were removed. Both Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress voted to change the name of US military bases named after Confederate generals and leaders.

But Donald Trump opposed this groundswell of desire to combat racism. Instead of uniting the nation and leading us to make progress against racism, Trump continued to stoke racism and divide the nation for political gain. He opposed the removal of statues of Confederate leaders and said he would veto any bill calling for the removal of the names of Confederate leaders from federal military bases. He focused on the limited but real violence in some of the protests. ( I condemned that violence vigorously in my September 1 blog, pointing out that it could re-elect Trump.) Trump tried to appeal to white suburban women, implying that he was the only defense against violent radicals allegedly invading their white suburban communities.

All this of course simply continued Trump’s long-standing stoking of racism. Earlier he had spread the lie that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. He called Mexicans seeking asylum in the US, “rapists”. He spoke of a Mexican-American judge in a way that Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the US House, called a “textbook” case of racism. He failed to clearly reject the support of David Duke, a former KKK leader. On August 11-12, 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought together white supremacists and neo-Nazis. One white racist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and killed one person. Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides.” In his book, The Death of Politics, Peter Wehner cites a study that shows that the most important reason white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 was not economic concerns. Rather it was a fear that white Americans were losing their dominance in the country as the number of non-white Americans increased (pp.15-16). Trump subtly (and not so subtly) appealed to racism.

Tragically, many white Americans forget (or fail to understand) the continuing effect of centuries of racism – – slavery, then 100 years of legal and illegal oppression after the end of slavery, thousands of lynchings, separate  (and not equal) schools. The result of these,  and more recent, forms of systemic racism help explain the fact that today the net worth of the average white family is about 10 times the net worth of the average black family.

Few white Americans know how racism affected the implementation of the G.I. Bill (1944) designed to help millions of returning veterans from World War II buy houses and get a college education. By 1956, 8 million World War II veterans had received massive government help with education and 4.3 million had received inexpensive, government backed, loans to buy a house. But redlining ( banks refused housing loans in black neighborhoods)  and racist covenants (preventing sales to black buyers) in new white suburbs prevented African-Americans from gaining equity via home ownership. In New York and northern New Jersey, the G.I. Bill insured the home mortgages of 67,000 GIs. But less than 100 of those loans went to African American GIs. The same thing happened as many white universities refused to accept African American GIs – – thus depriving them of the government funded college education that white GIs received. The racist implementation of the G.I. Bill ( in addition to centuries of slavery and then lynchings, etc.) helps explain why the average white family today has ten times as much wealth as the average black family.

Another current factor is the very unequal education in poor, largely minority, urban school districts compared to more wealthy, largely white suburban school districts. The US Department of Education reports that nationally, high poverty  districts spend 15.6% less per student than low poverty districts. (One study showed that a 20% increase in per pupil spending a year for poor kids resulted in an additional year of completed education and a 20% reduction in poverty as an adult.)

The state of Connecticut illustrates the injustice. Rich cities like Greenwich have schools with many more resources (tutors, psychologists, guidance counselors), better buildings and better paid teachers than poor cities like Bridgeport. Greenwich spends $6000 more per pupil per year then Bridgeport according to the state Department of Education. Tragically, Connecticut is typical of the rest of the country. The “separate but equal” education of 100 years ago continues in a slightly different form today. It was never equal and it is not today.

The statistics on the number of white and black Americans shot to death by the police show a huge discrepancy. Current census figures show that 60% of all Americans are white and 13.4% are African-American. That means that there are about 4 ½ times as many whites as African-Americans. Do the police shoot to death about 4 ½ times as many whites as blacks? Not even close!  In 2019, the police shot to death 370 white Americans and 235 black Americans. If the police had shot the same percentage of whites as blacks, they would have shot to death about 1057 whites, not a mere 370. I am not saying that all (or even most) police are racist. But the stats point to substantial continuing racism in our police departments. That must end.

The ratio of black and white deaths for COVID-19 also illustrates persistent racism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the death rate for COVID-19 is 2.1 times higher for African-Americans than for whites. But that statistic does not reveal the full extent of the discrepancy. Much larger numbers of older people die of COVID-19 than younger people. And the black population is significantly younger ( 9% of white people are over 75, only 4% of black Americans). So when you take the age difference into account, the death rate for African-Americans is 3.6 times that of whites. (June 16, 2020 Brookings study.)

The reasons for this gross discrepancy are many. They include: poor or no health insurance (because of poverty); poorer health (again poverty is a major cause); less ability to work at home during the pandemic (again poverty and poor education); and the  need to use public transportation much more than white folk ( again related in part to poverty).

I want to be clear. I am not denying that there is a lot that is good about this country. Our ideals of freedom and justice for all are a great treasure. We have made great progress in many areas toward those ideals. Dr. King helped us make substantial gains  and the election of President Obama proved that.

But we still have miles to go. And the decision whether  to move forward toward greater justice or back toward  more racist times is a central issue in play in 2020.

 Trump makes subtle (and not so subtle) appeals to white racism and opposes important steps to overcome racism. Biden seeks to unite the country to struggle against racism. Biden wants to end racism in the police, not by defunding the police but by improving their work. Biden wants to provide healthcare and quality education for everyone.  Biden has named the first ever  vice-Presidential nominee with African ancestors. Biden will move the country closer to Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community where everyone can flourish.

Racism is a pro life issue. And it is on the agenda in 2020 in a huge way.

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