Racism has taken a toll on our society in many ways. One of its costs has been the lost economic mobility of generations of minorities.
I nearly lost mine.
Like so many, I watched the horridness that was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. The rallies should remind us all of the long-term psychological impact of racism and why it’s so hard to overcome. It was because of racist policies that my grandmother Big Mama was scared to change jobs, invest her savings or seek out opportunities that might bring a higher standard of living.
Big Mama worried constantly that whites would take away the assets she had accumulated. It made her extremely secretive about her finances. Her anxiety was a learned behavior from her grandparents, who were slaves. Slavery left them with a deeply rooted fear — and justifiably so — of being ripped away not just from their family but also from what they owned. This dread was passed on to my grandmother. So at times, when I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity, Big Mama would discourage it.
I nearly didn’t go to college because my grandmother was afraid.
In my senior year of high school, like so many other students, I was trying to gather information to complete the paperwork to apply for financial aid. My high school guidance counselor said I would qualify for the federal Pell Grant program, which was created to help needy students go to college.
My grandmother couldn’t afford my tuition on her own, so the Pell grant would have been my ticket to obtaining a higher education.
Big Mama refused to provide the information I needed to fill out the financial aid forms.
“No, sir, I’m not signing anything,” I recall her saying. “Ain’t no white man going to take my house.”
Her reasoning was ridiculous, I thought at the time. But I understand better now why Big Mama was so frightened. She experienced firsthand how freedom, land, jobs and homes were denied or taken way from blacks. My grandmother’s terror of losing what she had worked so hard to achieve wasn’t paranoia. It was real.
Thankfully, my high school counselor referred me to a scholarship competition sponsored by the Baltimore Sun newspapers. Big Mama didn’t need to sign any paperwork. I applied on my own. And I won.
It was a four-year scholarship that paid all of my tuition, room and board and offered a stipend for books. It also included four summers of paid internships alternating between The Sun and the now defunct Evening Sun. If I did well in school and during the summer internships, I would be offered a full-time position at one of the newspapers. I did succeed, and I took a position at the Evening Sun after graduating from the University of Maryland at College Park.
I know I was fortunate. But throughout my career, Big Mama panicked about upward moves I wanted to make. When The Washington Post offered me a job, she wanted me to turn it down.
“Child, you should stay with what you know,” she said.
Here’s another real legacy of racism — envy. Some of my relatives were not supportive of my efforts to get a higher education.
“You think you’re better than me because you go to college?” I often heard.
Such comments would cut to the core. When I got a better job or bigger home, they tried to make me feel guilty about my success. And often I did feel bad.
I would ask myself, “Why wouldn’t my people want me to do better? Why would they be so envious?”
One tactic that slaveholders employed to purposefully create tension among slaves — thus preventing unity and possible uprisings — was to give more privileges to some slaves. For instance, lighter-skinned slaves — often the product of rape — would work in the “big house” and so comparatively may have gotten better clothing or food than darker slaves working in the fields. As a race, African-Americans are still dealing with this division.
As I watched the ugliness on the streets of Charlottesville, it was as real for me as it is for so many minorities. We have to fight against the psychological effects of decades of degradation and racist economic suppression.
The streets of Charlottesville may have been cleared, but it’s vital that we not ignore that bigotry is still around and the cost it has on people of color. We can’t afford to allow racism to survive.
© 2017, Washington Post Writers Group