Last week, I sat down to have what I thought would be a pleasant lunch with someone I had talked on the phone with quite a few times. I’d never met her but we had developed a good professional rapport. Our conversation was moving along fine — we both exchanged some of our personal background and found we had quite a bit in common. All was fine until she asked how I came to do the work I do — meaning research related to race and historically Black colleges and universities. I started to explain how I came to understand the deep racial equity in the United States despite growing up in a low-income, predominantly White community in rural Michigan. I shared with her my belief that in the U.S. it is easier for individuals to overcome class inequalities but that deep prejudices around skin color in America make many situations more difficult for racial and ethnic minorities and curtail their access to opportunity. She stopped me in my tracks and said, “You don’t really think that people lack opportunity based on race, do you?” I replied, “Absolutely! I believe that opportunities in the U.S. are limited by class, gender, sexuality and most of all race.” She replied that “everyone has equal opportunity. They just need to work hard.” We were only 15 minutes into the lunch — the food hadn’t even been served.
My lunch companion was an older White woman who grew up poor and “pulled herself up by her bootstraps.” She referred to herself as self-made several times during our lunch. I reminded her that hardly anyone is self-made. With a few exceptions, most people have been helped by their families, mentors, scholarships and even strangers. Some people have a lot more help than others and many times these contacts and resources are based on race, among other things. I could have left the lunch but I like to hear the other side. You can learn a lot from those who hold a different opinion from yours and you can sharpen your own perspective (or in some cases change it) by listening to and engaging with others.
As I pushed back at her assertions, she pushed at mine, eventually suggesting to me that those who are “fat” or “short” face the same kinds of discrimination in the U.S. that African-Americans do. One merely needs to work hard to succeed. That was it for me. As someone who has studied the history of race in America for the past 15 years, I told her exactly what I thought of her ideas. After trying to convince her that racial discrimination is a much larger issue than being “short,” and having no luck, I said, “Your ideas are racist.”
I couldn’t change her mind about the issue of opportunity in America. She left believing, at least out loud, that everyone has equal opportunity, regardless of race, class, or gender; success is solely based on working hard. She didn’t accept my assertion that racial hurdles are more difficult than others because of our country’s oppressive history.
During the lunch, I was quick on my feet with examples and statistics, but it wasn’t until later that evening that the best arguments came to me. I wished I had asked her if “short” and “fat” White people had ever faced an epidemic of lynching? Yes, others had been persecuted but had their unequal status been written into the Constitution? Did they constitute three-fifths a person? Had they been sold into slavery — denied the fruits of their labor for 200 years — and subjected to de jure second-class citizenship for another 100?
Throughout history there have been individual acts of racism and systems that perpetuate racism. Both continue to this day. Most people notice individual acts of racism but fail or refuse to notice systemic racism. Fortunately, there are many people pushing against systemic racism and striving for equality in the United States, but we have not reached equity. Whenever people argue that the end of legalized segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination have leveled the playing field, I am reminded of the words of Lyndon Johnson: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
I long to live in a nation that provides equal opportunity to its citizens — although my lunch companion thinks we already do, the facts tell a different story. Some of us have more than others and what we have is not of our own making. The key to increasing opportunity is to acknowledge the gifts you have been given and use them to benefit others. Individual action and responsibility are important, but we also need to create systemic opportunities for people, especially young people, to shine and take responsibility.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).