Category Archives: Politics

Being Qualified No Longer Matters

It took “Dancing with the Stars” to jolt me into the realization that many voters no longer care whether candidates are qualified. Bobby Bones, who hosts a nationally syndicated country music radio show, has a large and devoted following that just voted him into the finals on “Dancing with the Stars.” He’d never scored higher than 8 with the judges, but viewer votes pushed him to the top, eliminating a star who’d repeatedly scored perfect 10’s. Bobby Bones is certainly a delightful person who’s overcome a heartbreaking childhood, but this is dancing with the stars. I was fine with keeping him on the show along with the other stars who couldn’t dance, but voting him into the finals? Come on! Even Bobby was giving a thumbs-down when he eliminated the best dancer of the season.

I should have realized about qualifications when Hilary Clinton, arguably the most qualified candidate ever to run for President, was defeated by Donald Trump, who had no experience in government. I hoped Trump’s election was a fluke, and, after all, Hillary, the qualified candidate, had won the popular vote. Still, “I can’t stand Hilary” was often stated as the reason why a voter acknowledged but ignored her qualifications. But somehow I imagined that, given all those likeable stars on “Dancing with the Stars”, the dancing would determine who won. Or that the judge’s scores would prevail. Thus the jolt. Now I am truly frightened for our country.

Many voters now seem to vote for candidates who are like them. It’s deeper than preferring candidates who look like them. With Obama’s election and the recent Congressional elections of the first Muslim and Native American women, the first black women from New England, the first Latina women from Texan, most of us seem to have gotten over the need to elect candidates who look like us. (Both Bobby Bones and the dancer he defeated are white males.)

Instead, many voters seem to be choosing candidates whose personalities make them feel good about themselves or who could be their friends. Quotes from Bobby’s followers included “I can’t get up in the morning without listening to you. I love you Bobby Bones.” It’s the same as “I can’t stand Hilary.” Trump’s a master at being a buddy to his base. The crudeness, barbs, and nasty tweets bond his followers into an in-group. And when Trump boasts at his rallies that he knows better and does better than any other President, isn’t he conveying that, by supporting him, they, too, know and do better? It appears that his base says, “Who cares if he’s qualified? He’s one of us!”

But when I analyze how I choose political candidates, my analogy with “Dancing with the Stars” breaks down. Mike Pence is qualified to serve in government, but his positions (banning abortion, curbing LGBT rights, promoting coal over clean air, and funding vouchers for charter and religious schools) are not mine. I can’t stand Pence, but that’s because of his positions more than his personality. Was that what the voters who couldn’t stand Hilary meant? Were they referring to her platform or her likeability?

I realize that for me, it’s not qualification in the “can-do” sense but in the “what I value” sense that drives my vote. It’s not friendship, shared background, nor making me feel good about myself. I’ve even voted for a crook because his positions match mine. Perhaps, because I value dancing, my analogy does hold.

Qualification, personality, platform – on what basis do most voters vote? Not knowing may be scariest of all.

VOTE!

I urge everyone who hasn’t already voted to go to the polls on November 6. Only if we all vote, will we know what most Americans want. Remember the term “silent majority”? Well, the silent majority has let the voting minority take over this country. I cringe when I hear any politician say, “This is what Americans want.” Unless most Americans vote, politicians can’t speak for “Americans.” And who knows: if we all vote, we may find that we are not as divided as we think.

But you say, “My district is gerrymandered so that my vote doesn’t count.” I say, “Vote in every election and for every local and state office because it’s at the state level that districts are gerrymandered. Choose candidates who will district fairly or, more cynically, who will gerrymander in favor of you.”

You say, “The electoral college determined the 2016 election. Clinton won the majority, but Trump is president. Why bother to vote?” I say, “The electoral college applies only in presidential elections. Vote in 2018 for Congressional candidates who will work to eliminate the electoral college.”

You say, “I can’t vote.” Perhaps you committed a crime or your name has been removed from the rolls. I sympathize but ask that you not give up. Next time, volunteer to get out the vote for a candidate, especially a candidate for governor, who will see that whoever is in charge of elections will work to reinstate you.

But how do we know which candidate to vote for? Who will represent what we value and want? With fewer newspapers, more social media, and a deluge of 30-second TV ads, it’s hard to find a candidate’s positions. Attack ads like “My opponent will take away your Second Amendment rights” should make us ask for specifics. Will he eliminate the Second Amendment, take away my bump stock so I can’t kill a lot of people with my hunting rifle, make me wait for a background check before I can buy my gun, or force me to hunt with a bow and arrow? Maybe if politicians talked about the details, they’d find enough in common to write bipartisan legislation.

It used to be easier to vote by party. The Republicans, who used to be counted on to guard the nation’s treasure, are now running up the deficit. They’re pro-life but seem to have little interest in providing those lives with services or a healthy environment. Democrats are willing to support the newborns with SNAP, housing subsidies, and clean air, but then they want to send everyone to college for free. Voters who would ban abortion but fear climate change must decide which issue takes precedence.

To learn positions, voters must seek information about individual candidates. The League of Women Voters’ non-partisan voters’ guide, www.VOTE411.org, is available in New Jersey and some other states. Voters need only enter their address to see the responses to League questions of every candidate on their ballot (provided the candidate answered). Voters who don’t know who their candidates are can use their sample ballots to find their candidates’ names, Google them, and then visit their websites or read what’s been written about them.

“Too much effort,” you say? Nonsense! You’re looking for people who share what you value and want: a “you” but with power. What is more important than having a say about our wealth and health, the people around us and the planet we share?

“But,” you say, “the candidates I vote for rarely win.” Yes, but as in sports or the lottery, you cannot win if you don’t play. Keep trying. Vote!

The Right to Life

The right to life”—we are all endowed with it. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, next to the right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course we believe in the right to life. But what if that life will be denied the liberty to pursue happiness? When we stick up for the right to life by trying to ban abortion, do we consider whether the child whom we mandate be born will have the love and care to maintain life? Do we consider whether the three rights are equal? Or whether “quality of life,” as implied by liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should be taken into account? And are we talking about only the unborn lives or also those of the living who will be impacted by each new child? Because I can’t answer these questions for others, I support the availability of abortion.

I know a couple who already had four young children when they found they were unexpectedly pregnant with a fifth. The baby would likely be as beautiful and bright as its siblings, but the parents had neither the money nor energy to absorb another child without jeopardizing the welfare of all five. In a decision that would remain painful throughout their lives, the parents chose abortion. Abortion was not taken lightly. No need for the in utero photos brandished by pro-life supporters. The parents could picture the child whose life they were ending. But they could also picture the struggle for food, bedtimes with too few beds, no time for stories, no room in the car for everyone, and not enough money to be sure that each child would have the chance to experience anythingfrom camp to college.

Not that I prefer abortion. Contraception is my solution. I’m furious when two people, perhaps even strangers, hot for sex, and likely inebriated, have a one-night stand that results in a human being no one wants or is prepared to raise. Furious if a child is conceived to prove its father’s sexual prowess. Furious if its mother spreads her legs so she can boast, “See, he loves me. I’m going to have his baby.” No child asks to be a badge of its parents’ sexuality. Each baby deserves to be the result of a loving commitment to raising a human being. But since it’s unlikely that sex will be limited to those times when adults want to create or increase a family, contraception is the answer.

But contraception isn’t always reliable, affordable, or available—and never in rape. And so I support abortion because I care most about the welfare of the child after it’s born, not its right to a life that could be miserable. To me, abortionlike food, adequate housing, educational opportunity, and, most importantly, the parent’s desire to have a child—must be available to insure that each child born can pursue happiness.

What about the mother’s right to liberty? Without abortion as an option, a woman is forced to carry an unwanted child through birth. Nine months of her life dictated by others—perhaps because the contraception she’d counted on failed. Pro-lifers might argue that the baby can be put up for adoption. More cruelty because once a woman has heard and held her baby, maternal instincts kick in. Giving the baby away is wrenching. And what if the child is not adopted? Right now, more children are eligible for adoption than there are adoptive parents. Even if we believe that life begins at conception, can we recognize that abortion might be a better alternative than lives constrained by whatever conditions caused the request for abortion?

Republicans in Congress, sympathetic to their evangelical base and with no respect for a woman’s right to liberty, champion the right to life of a fertilized egg but show little interest in assuring that the resulting child has a chance at happiness. They’re reluctant to increase support systems such as CHIP, to raise the minimum wage for over-worked parents, or to allow the puny tax breaks for the middle class to extend beyond eight years. Don’t the conditions of life count, too? Who should be the judge?

Musings

I’ve blogged only once since Trump became presidenta blog about white supremacy. Helplessness and fear do not inspire blogging, yet may I share my despair?

Recently I went to a rally in support of DACA. Before the rally even got underway, we were told that the previous night ICE had taken away four Princetonians. I imagine men in black bullet-proof vests, ICE stenciled on the back, pulling up to a house in the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood. The house is dark and peaceful, its occupants sleeping. Suddenly the door bursts open and four people are dragged outto detention camps, to deportation. ICE is not the nice Princeton cops who obey Princeton Council’s resolution to protect immigrants and who trust me with the key to the Suzanne Patterson Building, no questions asked nor ID needed. ICE is strangers who invade my town against my wishes.

Can I help? I march and chant with 200 others. I choke up when a Dreamer takes the mic and asks “Couldn’t you have given up part of your Thanksgiving for me?” She’d been on a four-day hunger strike before Thanksgiving to call attention to her imminent deportation. She’d sat, hungry, outside a Congressman’s office and been ignored. She and others had tried to interrupt the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to state their case. They were removed. Now she’s crying. She knows no country other than the United States. In coming here her father had wished only to give his children opportunity. Is that a crime? Time is running out and she is desperate. With the others I cheer my support. But what clout do I have with the five New Jersey Republican Congressmen who don’t support a clean Dream Act?

Thanksgivingand the Girl Scouts publishes an essay arguing that little girls should not be forced to hug relatives they may see over the holidays. I’m shocked at this attack on family. My granddaughter not hug her grandpa, my husband? And then I remember hearing from friends about sexual abuseabuse committed by inebriated fathers or by that dear old friend of the family whom they’re told to call “Uncle Jimmy.” My skin crawls. How can men do this to little girls? The Girl Scouts are right. But what do we do about those fathers?

During Thanksgiving grace, I give silent thanks that North Korea has not yet fired a nuclear warhead at the United States. If it hit Seattle, I’d lose my daughter and granddaughters. If it hit Manhattan, my son would be vaporized, never saying good-bye to his children. No matter. They and I would have little time to mourn him as radiation drifts across New Jersey. Is it worth treating my melanoma when Kim Jong Un may rain cancer down on all of us?

And then there’s the tax reform bill. Medicare and Medicaid slashed. Deductions for property tax, income tax, and student loans gone. “Personhood” inserted as part of the attack on abortion. Little tax relief for those earning under $70,000which is everyone earning minimum wageand a huge tax break for the 1%. Any attempt at fairness is obliterated.

And so I write the nine Republican senators who haven’t yet agreed to support the bill and beg them, in individualized emails, to vote against it. Beyond signing thirty online petitions per day, it’s all I can think to do. Then on NPR I hear that Senator McCain, the one I counted on, the one who saved Obamacare, has thrown his support behind the bill. And before I can post this blog, the Senate has approved the bill.

The world as I knew it, the world as I wanted it, is being destroyed and I feel helpless to prevent it. Are words enough?

White Supremacy

It’s been a long time since I last blogged, but Trump’s election left me speechless. Then I read the latest Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report on white supremacists and was suddenly struck by how pathetic their beliefs are. I’m better because my skin is white? Skin color isn’t even one of my accomplishments. It’s like little kids boasting “I’m older than you are.” Wouldn’t it be more valid to base one’s worth on something internal? Probably that’s what experimenters realized when they tried to correlate white skin with larger brains, more refined morality, etc. Their attempts, now discredited, are an admission that skin color is a feeble basis for superiority.

Do we need white supremacy to compensate for our individual disappointments? My mother based her superiority on the triple bulwark of race, ethnicity, and religion. We were WASPS, “not Catholic, not Irish,” she often added, to reinforce the point. But mother had few personal accomplishments, and her ambition was to be rich and a member of high society. She was thrilled when I dated the grandson of IBM’s founder, ate steak with his family, and drove around his property in an antique car. She was furious when I turned down his invitation to go yachting because I’d already promised the day to a young man of lower class.

I can understand that she resented my failure to bring her status. I can understand that she was not content with having kept me well-fed, clothed, and educated. I don’t understand what kept her from trying to find herself and to take pride in her own accomplishments. By ninth grade, I had an inkling of what I might accomplish and no longer needed to rely on being a WASP. But perhaps personal disappointmentsunemployment, poverty, and a sense that the American dream is no longer possible lie behind today’s resurgence of white supremacists.

Of course, supremacy denotes power. For our own safety, we’d like to be members of the group in power, and, in America, that’s people with white skin. I’ve certainly benefited, and I’m well aware of the institutional injustices that people of color have been powerless to prevent. It’s natural to fear that people who don’t look like us won’t share our interests and so will trample us if given power. White people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Muslimsall of us want to protect ourselves. Trump’s “Make America great again” was a familiar appeal to white supremacy. But did white people win?

Trump really represents Wall Street, corporate interests, and billionaires. Look at his cabinet nomineescertainly mostly white (and male) but all members of the 1%. Look at his policies. Trumpcare would have reduced by millions the number of people who have healthcare while letting each of the nation’s 400 richest families save $7 million per year. Medicare, Medicaid, and social security are on the chopping block. Investment brokers who handle retirement funds will no longer have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own compensation or company profits. Banks may risk our savings. The Environmental Protection Agency is being decimated, and global warming, which threatens our existence, is denied.

The 1% is now supreme, the group with power. They do not share our interests, and they will trample us. People of color will be hurt the most, as usual, but so will the rest of us. For all our whiteness, we are watching our social safety nets disintegrate while the richest among us get tax breaks.

White supremacists have been duped. Skin color has nothing to do with values. If we want supremacy and its power to protect, we must band together with people who may not look like us but who share our interests. We’ll need a platform that rises above the divisiveness of race, ethnicity, and religiona platform based on the need for shelter, sustenance, and security. And we must vow to vote in such numbers in 2018 that no elected official dare ignore us. Paradoxically, our success will give each of us a sense of personal accomplishment.

Volunteering in Trenton

The following two articles were published in the Princeton Packet In October, 2015.  The first is by my writing instructor, Anne Neumann, the second by me.  We were both responding to a question about volunteering in Trenton that had been raised at a forum we attended together.  Our responses, however, are quite different.

Volunteering in Trenton

by Anne Waldron Neumann

On September 20 the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) sponsored a panel on racism: a praiseworthy effort. But eight panel members and two topics—the Black Lives Matter movement generally and racism in Princeton specifically—made the resulting discussion somewhat disconnected and overly general.

Given two minutes each for initial comments, a Princeton historian got as far as black homeowners being displaced by Palmer Square in the early 1930s, and by Paul Robeson Place in the late 1950s. Young panel members described social media as disseminating both productive exchanges and vitriol. Ministers discussed religion’s role in overcoming racism. One panel member said that white people use “playing the race card” to mean taking unfair advantage, while black people know that race taints the entire deck.

Final questions for the panel were collected in writing. Several people asked about a clergyman’s suggestion that something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could address Princeton’s racialist history. Someone else asked about Hillary Clinton’s belief that government can’t change hearts and minds. (“I don’t believe you change hearts. You change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate,” Ms. Clinton said.)

And one anonymous audience member, presuming extreme economic and therefore class disparities between many Princetonians and many Trentonians, asked how to be involved in Trenton in ways that “might be effective and comfortable.” Since none of the panel members addressed the question, the moderator asked the largely white audience instead.

As I see it, the question was both crucial and contradictory. Several audience members did describe volunteering in ways they found effective and comfortable: serving food in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, participating in “People and Stories,” and combining a passion with outreach by coaching soccer. But wouldn’t being meaningfully helpful in Trenton entail, for most white people, being profoundly uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it clarify both the disadvantages many Trentonians suffer and the white privilege that’s usually invisible?

“White privilege” includes systems that determine wealth over generations: going to the “right” school, acquiring the “right” cultural capital, getting the “right” job, and (probably, with your parents’ help) buying the “right” house—one that will never lose value precipitously. White privilege also includes seeming trivialities such as, if you’re well-spoken, never being called “articulate” and never being asked to be a spokesperson for your “race.”

Racial sensitivity training is designed to make white privilege visible. An African-American friend described participating in a well-known exercise in which workmates stepped forward if they’d ever been asked to show identification when paying by credit card, been stopped for driving too slowly (perhaps even in their own neighborhood), and so on. By the end of the exercise, the black employees had crossed the room while white ones had hardly budged.

It’s easy to think of ways to get white people across the room in this exercise: just ask the good opposite of the usual bad questions. If you don’t know any jokes about people like you, take a step forward. If you own your own silverware, take a step forward (take another step if it has at least three initials on each piece, and a baby step if the initials are from a previous generation).

But what about good things that might get black people across the room? Step forward if you can sit on your front porch and know a neighbor will stop by to chat. Or bad things that would cause white people to step forward? “If your child ever told you to f*** off and lived to tell the tale, take one giant step,” my friend suggested.

Clearly, cultural differences as well as economic ones may divide white and black folks. So, to return to the PCDO forum question, can privileged white people genuinely help underprivileged black people? White volunteers might give some black people more experiences—hopefully positive—of interacting with white people. White volunteers might gain experiences—surely sometimes painful—of interacting with black people. As I see it, volunteering in Trenton would at best change hearts and open minds.

I do think government can also help change hearts and minds. The presidency is a bully pulpit, after all. But, by and large, I’m with Hillary Clinton. Not that Princetonians shouldn’t volunteer in Trenton. But we need to change the laws and systems that determine how resources are allocated. We need, as Thomas Piketty argues, to tax not just return on capital but its possession. We need to make rent partly tax deductible, not just interest on mortgage payments.We need equal treatment under law enforcement. We need universal voter registration. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting districts set by bipartisan commissions.

In short, we need the healthful society that promotes healthful hearts and minds. We need to make volunteering in Trenton both comfortable and unnecessary.

Volunteering in Trenton, Part 2

by Chrystal Schivell

In last week’s “As I See It” column, Anne Neumann discussed a recent Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) panel “Getting Beyond Racism.” Like Anne, I was troubled by the question about “how to be involved in Trenton in ways that might be effective and comfortable.” As I listened to audience members mention TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer, I remembered situations I’d encountered in my 23 years’ teaching at Trenton Central High School:

A young lady in Trenton High’s nursing program has prepared diligently for the test that will certify her as a nursing assistant and allow her to work in a hospital after graduation. The test is on a Saturday, and her father has agreed to drive her. The father fails to show up; a taxi is out of the question. She misses the test and is not certified.

Tamara, the vice-president of student government and a gifted student, is accepted at Syracuse University, her dream school. Buoyed by monetary awards she received at graduation, she attends freshman year. Back home, her mother is in a traffic accident, a new car is needed, and insurance rates go up. Tamara’s family can no longer afford Syracuse, and she enrolls at MCCC.

A Trenton High senior has been accepted at Georgetown and runs to show a black teacher the letter. “Why did you choose such an expensive school?” is her response, not “Bravo!” But she’s intuitive: no guidance counselor has explained to this bright young man how to apply for scholarships. His regal bearing belies his financial ignorance and need as the son of a single mom, recently arrived from Jamaica, who works as a domestic. At Georgetown, one week, his meal ticket runs out. He’s “hangry” (hungry and angry). Friends ask him to join them for drinks. He covers with “No, you guys run along. I have to study.” But he cannot study, cannot sleep. He remembers he has $4 in his bank account, but in those days the minimum withdrawal from an ATM is $5. He goes to the gym to work out, finds a $5 bill on the basketball court, buys a TV dinner, and credits God for his luck.

A colleague asks me whether I have any candle stubs. Her electricity has been cut off.

The effective help these people needed was moneyin some cases advicebut primarily money. Were the members of the forum’s audience aware of the need? Did they feel a need to address it?

“Trenton” is a code word for “poor black people.” Let’s examine what happens if we split “poor” and “black.” Probably we white Princetonians who become involved in Trenton see our involvement as enriching the lives of black folk. It soothes our guilt. But if, as panelists noted, race is a fictionwe are all members of the human racewould we be equally satisfied helping poor white people? Is our emphasis on poverty or race? I’ve known black teachers and counselors who cared little about enriching the lives of their black students; some even resented their success, jealous that the students might be getting ahead of them: “You’re from the projects. You’ll never become a doctor.” My point: effective involvement in Trenton means addressing its poverty.

Anne Neumann called for legal and systemic changes to lessen economic disparity. I agree, but meanwhile, for me, the disparity is immediate and has faces. A Trenton High colleague often said, “You can’t save all the whales,” his analogy for dealing with the poverty we witnessed. No, but my husband and I saved two.

My advice is to find among the poor children in “People and Stories” or on the soccer team one with whom you have a natural affinity. Ask permission of the parent(s) to become financially involved in their child’s life. If they agree, start with emergency funds for that taxi or TV dinner. Give your phone number and be prepared to drive the child to tests, science fairs, or out-of-state competitions. Suggest joining the parent(s) for parent-teacher conferences. When necessary, provide tutoring and pay for SAT, and AP tests. Invite the child to your homeand to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. Use your experience to help the child plan for college and then check that the scholarship money and student loans really do cover the child’s needs. The list will go on: will you help with housing if the child goes to graduate school? What if the child needs a car to get to work? It’s the commitment that’s crucial—being there for that phone call if things go awry.

Money is never a comfortable topic. And if you treat your financially adopted child as you would treat your own child, you may find that you spend very generously. But you will have been effective. The enrichment you gave initially with soccer and “People and Stories” will enhance your adopted child’s futurenot dead end in frustration.

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Truth)

To understand what black people (at least in America) have in common, white people must recognize what we ourselves have in common: our privilege. From childhood, I knew I was privileged because Mother told me I was an aristocrat and better than even most other white people. As a child, I believed her. Although we were poor, I went to the best private schools on scholarship—in hand-me-down uniforms. And, when Greenwich friends invited me to their mansions and country clubs, where the only black people were employees, I learned I was more privileged than black people, too. When my grandmother died, we inherited wealth amassed by generations before us, including wealth from an ancestor who, though a Northerner, had sold tent canvas to Southern rebels during the Civil War. Inheriting is like winning the lottery, but it is an advantage, like education, denied to a people who started as slaves and were later limited to share-cropping and menial jobs.

Many white people don’t enjoy my particular privileges, but, whether or not we realize it, we whites all enjoy privileges black people don’t. Peggy McIntosh’s well-known White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack lists 50 examples, such as, “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearace of financial reliability” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” My favorite is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” It mirrors my last post about white people’s misguided eagerness to “understand” black people based on characteristics.

Black people don’t share characteristics any more than white people do. But black people do share experiences—the experience of being second-class citizens, just as white people share privilege. To understand black people we must recognize that all have experienced—or anticipate experiencing—an inequity based on color. Some are blatant lies—”Sorry, the apartment was just rented.” Some are what are now called microagressions—”I never see you as a black girl.” Each item on Peggy McIntosh’s list represents an instance in which a black person is not treated as well as someone who’s white. Her list reminds us that, in a society still dominated by white males, only white men can feel entirely comfortable. If we want to understand black people, we must acknowledge the truth of these experiences.

The black experience is unlike that of other immigrants in America. Black people were the only immigrants to come here against their will rather than to escape famine and persecution or to find better jobs. Marriage among slaves could be forbidden; mothers, fathers, and children could be split apart and sold to different slave owners; learning to read was risky. Their color made them stand out. Few blacks could elude the slave catcher. Nor could they elude the prevailing myth, designed to justify their enslavement, that black people were inferior. The free labor provided by slavery was the foundation of the South’s economy. Southern cotton fed Northern mills, and America profited. The economic benefits and social evils of slavery, whether in America or elsewhere, cannot be denied.

The painful legacy of slavery and its economic benefits persists in the perception that black people are different from, if not inferior to, other groups—even that they require well-intentioned “understanding.” And, not surprisingly, the people in power since colonial times—white men—want to keep their power. Thus racism persists as a strong undercurrent in politics and the economy. Black people know they can occasionally expect to be treated as second-class citizens. And Africans who’ve just arrived in the States, even those who are wealthy and unfamiliar with racism, learn the same lesson. After all, only white men can feel entirely comfortable, knowing that they will be considered for employment and certain they will never be told that towels are needed in the restroom.

Understanding black people means acknowledging America’s history of white power and black enslavement. Some black people emphasize our painful legacy: “America was built on the backs of our people.” To them, I can’t say “Get over it,” even though I’d like to spare myself a guilt that I, as an individual, feel I don’t deserve. I can’t dismiss those individuals who see themselves as victims because black people, by virtue of their color, are victims of America’s history, just as white people, like me, are beneficiaries. Other black people adopt a “Let’s move on” attitude. That attitude is easier on me, but I shouldn’t assume it means we’ve reached a post-racial society. The past remains alive in Ferguson and on Wall Street. The “Let’s move on” advocates know that much work remains before black people are assured of first-class citizenship. If we want to understand black people, we must be prepared, as we listen to each black person we meet, to accept the validity of either perspective.