Juneteenth: Winner Take All

Young girl as Miss JuneteenthA January 2016 survey by YouGov.com revealed that the majority of white Americans view African Americans as takers vs. givers by a significant margin, 50% to 16% – with 34% unsure. Conversely, 45% of African Americans see themselves as givers. But it is troubling that 19% see themselves as takers, and a whopping 36% are unsure.

The same survey found that the majority of white Americans at 62% say that your class has a bigger impact on your life in America than your race. Most African Americans disagree, with 67% believing that race is profoundly more important than class.

So how did whites and African Americans come to such different points of view on race and class? And what does this mean for law enforcement, affirmative action, health care and voting rights policies? In addition to the YouGov.com survey, a look at Juneteenth gives us some clues.

The Unfilled Promise of Juneteenth

Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated each June 19th in several U.S. states, commemorates the day when the last of the southern slaves were “freed,” two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, and months after the end of the Civil War.[1] Reconstruction, which began with hopes of equality and progress, ended with Jim Crow laws enacted to keep most African Americans uneducated and in low-skilled work. Black Codes restricted black people’s right to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land, and move freely through public spaces. States criminalized men who were out of work, or who were not working at a job whites recognized. And nine southern states enacted a system in which state prisons hired out convicts for labor, providing incentives to arrest black men for whatever rigged-up crime could be fabricated.

So during slavery, Reconstruction and later, African Americans gave pretty much all they had to the United States, but those contributions were never valued, as the givers were seen as inferior and the gifts seen as just part of the package. The narrative, created to justify slavery, that blacks were a “subspecies” that needed “care” by whites and were content with all those things that the Black Codes denied, became reality for many whites. And the YouGov.com survey results suggest that many African Americans drink the same Kool-Aid.

Policy Implications

So according to YouGov.com, white people as a whole view African Americans as takers and believe that race is much less important in affecting one’s life chances than class. However, the percentage of conservatives with this view is staggeringly larger. Nearly 70% of white conservatives see African Americans as takers. With a conservative Congress in power and a Supreme Court that is one justice away from being conservative-leaning, it is doubtful that federal policy decisions will fairly support African American communities. At the local and state level in communities across the United States, the situation is even worse.

One in three black males will go to prison in their lifetime. One in 100 African American women are in prison now.”

For example, when it comes to voting rights, 22 states have enacted new restrictions since the 2010 midterm election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Shelby County, Alabama, leaders pushing for voting right restrictions have said, “things have changed in the South,” and second, that the “evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”

This is, of course, code for arguing once again that African Americans are takers. Just as their predecessors during Reconstruction argued that once slavery was over blacks did not deserve remuneration for 245 years of free labor, many of today’s conservatives argue that blacks are getting undeserved preferential treatment at the polls. And the fear is that African American takers will vote for Democrats so they can get social programs. Jeb Bush actually said that as president he would give African Americans “hope and aspiration” instead of bribing them with “free stuff.”

Taking Free Stuff

Seeing blacks as takers means that you assume that men, women and even children are susceptible to the “five finger discount.” My sister told me about an incident where she heard people in the store she’d walked into whispering that she and her boyfriend had just stolen a car. His doctor father had given him an expensive car as a graduation present. No matter what you think about the conspicuous consumption involved, I assert that had my sister and her boyfriend been white, no one in the store would have questioned why the guy had the car.

Educating more and more people about race and class intersectionality is a key element in making things better for all of us.”

Takers and the Law

If African Americans are takers, law enforcement must keep them from taking what is not theirs and must punish them more harshly when they do. According to the NAACP, African Americans now constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in three black males will go to prison in their lifetime. One in 100 African American women are in prison.

Nationwide, African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons. Black youths with more class advantage are more likely to end up in jail than their white peers with less class advantage. People who believe that African Americans are takers will argue that racism has nothing to do with this latter finding.

If you are a taker, the logical conclusion is that you also indolent and aberrant in your behavior. So although about 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. And so on, and so on.

Taking Health Care for Granted

If you are a taker and especially a low-income or working class one, you do not deserve free or cheap health care either. While more complex than the following point, Obamacare is seen by its detractors as a social program that takes money from the haves and gives to the have nots, or takers. These folks will tell you that they don’t want their hard earned money going to people “too lazy to get a job or pay their own way.”

And the Winner Is …

Perhaps the most hated policy considered to help takers: Affirmative action. This is where the belief that race is unimportant and the belief that class is much more so collide. The Wall Street Journal and NBC recently asked if affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas.

Only 34 percent of whites agreed with the statement, compared to 82 percent of African Americans. Most whites believe that “affirmative action programs have gone too far in favoring minorities, and should be ended, because they unfairly discriminate against whites.” Even some liberal whites argue that the programs should only take into account class, as blacks with more class advantages do not need the extra “leg up.”

As a middle-class black woman who is constantly told how “bright,” “articulate,” “masterful” or “quick” I am, I know how slim my chances for attending the college of my choice would have been without affirmative action. Sadly, I watch young African Americans facing the same stereotypical beliefs about their mental acuity today. For example, when people learn that my very light-skinned 10-year-old nephew is black, they suddenly ooh-aah about his excellent grades and then nod knowingly about his musical ability and athletic prowess.

The Take Away?

Honestly, I wish I had one. But I love the work that Class Action does on race and class intersectionality. I believe that educating more and more people about these issues is a key element in making things better for all of us. I believe that sharing our stories with each other breaks down barriers.

And I’d like to know what solutions you have employed to change the view that African Americans are takers. What has worked? What has not? Let me know, and I will share that with other members of the Classism Exposed family.

By the way, Happy Juneteenth.

[1] Slavery lived on in several states beyond 1863 with the territory of Texas being the last holdout. In fact, there are records that show slaveholders leaving Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, etc. to move to Texas to keep their slaves. And even when the last vestige of slavery was ended in Texas, former slave owners used violence to keep “freedmen/women” on plantations. According to former slave Susan Merritt, “… lots of niggers [were] hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ’em.’ ”

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