- Posted October 18, 2012 by
Silver Spring, Maryland
I am not racist, am I?
Five days after completing her sophomore year at Princeton University, my 19 year old left for Korea. She would return with only five days to spare before starting her junior year. Contact with her through Facebook, Skype and email became my solace. So, on August 14, when I got an email from her, I pounced on it.
“Listening to Motown,” it said. “For some reason it made me think of you, and how you like only black people. lol.”
It was, I believed, partly a delayed reaction to a message I sent right after the finals of the women’s gymnastics at the Olympics: “Gabby won! Gabby won!” I told her triumphantly as if the 16 year old—the first African American to win the prestigious all-round gymnastics title—were my child too.
But my daughter had made a similar comment at her older sister’s graduation from the University of Maryland, in May, provoking mild annoyance. This time I laughed out loud. Surely, I my daughter knows that am too smart and too grand to be guilty of anything as abhorrent as racism?
Still, I thought about what prompted the comments.
My children’s surname begins with “A,” but my Terp was 19th in line and the first black student at the Department of History’s graduation ceremony. I had at least two reasons to cheer for her, and I did. Afterward, I looked anxiously for the next black student. I counted barely a sprinkling.
The University of Maryland said the actual number was 21 out of 182.
The ceremony was a microcosm of what education continues to look like for African American students. Unless it’s a graduation ceremony from a black college or University, the African American will be small. The numbers at UMD was particularly confounding because Maryland borders predominantly black District of Columbia and is itself, one of the most diverse states of the union. The University also has a 93 percent retention rate among its African-American students and graduates approximately 73 percent in six years but overall, the numbers are small compared to whites and Asian students.
Nationally, only 43 percent of African Americans graduate college compared to 63 percent white and 65 percent Asian Americans. With their graduation rate hovering about 36 percent and the incarceration rate about 33 percent, a black male has almost an equal chance of going to jail as he has graduating college.
The disparities in poverty rates, in healthcare, and educational attainment along racial lines, show that although tremendous progress has been made since the days of Jim Crow and Segregation, African Americans continue to pay a high price for circumstances forced upon them by slavery and racism.
For example, for their first 250 years in America African Americans could not own property, and until Reconstruction, were denied formal education. In a 2002 analysis, Franklin Raines, former CEO of Fannie Mae, estimated that those lost opportunities cost African Americans two million more high school degrees, two million more college degrees, nearly two million more professional and managerial jobs, $200 billion more in income, $760 billion more in home equity value, $200 billion more in the stock market, $120 billion more in their retirement funds, $80 billion more in the bank—an overall one trillion dollars more in wealth.
Reconstruction made more opportunities available but it took the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown versus Board Education and the force of the civil rights movements of the 1960s to get America truly started on the road to dismantling institutionalized racism. The process continues today.
So, when I see a few black children graduate from the University of Maryland—the same school that, in 1935, refused to accept Thurgood Marshall because he was black—I see progress but I also see the struggle that continues to be a disproportionate part of what it means to be black in America, and the enormous work that still needs to be done toward genuine equality. For those who graduate college, it is almost a guarantee that unless that person goes on to do something spectacularly silly, he/she has miraculously escaped the cradle to prison pipeline. Such is the importance of an education for a black child.
And, that’s why I cheered hard (or harder) for my daughter and all those newly minted graduates from one of our nation’s finest schools.
It is the same reason I cheered hard for Australian sprinter, Cathi Freeman at the 2000 summer Olympics; for Barack Obama’s political victories; for Oscar Pistorious in the London Olympics; for Venus and Serena Williams; for Gabby Douglas, and every person of their ilk.
I cheer for their individual successes, for the barriers they are breaking down, for the generations they are inspiring and for the point that their effort and successes make about character, and about people’s ability to overcome formidable odds.
While I am truly respectful of every person, who, by dint of his/her own effort, is successful at something, it is an incontrovertible fact that, for some, the journey is more challenging and by extension, the impact more powerful—for themselves, their families, and sometimes for a whole group, nation or race. It seems, therefore, that some people deserve the applause more.