The headline to this ThinkProgress story reads “A Black College Student Has The Same Chances Of Getting A Job As A White High School Dropout.” At the same time, this Pew Research Center study shows that 63 percent of Americans believe “Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for own condition.”
How do these two things square with each other?
They don’t. But that doesn’t actually matter. Americans aren’t swayed by facts or statistics but by narratives. The narrative we have internalized with regards to racism is one of unimpeached progress. We’ve gone from slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to a black president without a hitch.
Meanwhile, the thing that black parents across the country have told their children for generations about having to work twice as hard to get the same things that are handed to white people, remains true. Yet 63 percent of Americans choose to believe black people are unambitious, or lazy or incompetent. Racism, the kind that limited opportunities for black Americans, is a thing of the past, we would like to believe.
This was the entire point of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” He built his argument not around the injustice of slavery but the injury suffered from redlining and housing discrimination, racist public policies with roots in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He illustrates that we don’t have to reach so far back in American history to see the treatment of black people as second-class citizens. Truly, we don’t have to look beyond today’s headlines.
In his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ralph Ellison wrote: “Perhaps we are able to see only that which we are prepared to see, and in our culture the cost of insight is an uncertainty that threatens our already unstable sense of order and requires a constant questioning of accepted assumptions.”
The United States isn’t prepared to see its racist past or present, as it would upset the narrative that has become a source of national pride. We aren’t yet brave enough to forge a new identity.