Share the Wealth?
|Last week, I shared my experience of the barriers to personal charity, how individual impulses of generosity will not accomplish reparations. Today’s story addresses the difficulty of sharing assets. Not to discourage, but to highlight the need for prayerful creativity to work through our defenses. May the Holy Spirit show us a real path toward wealth justice, and may we have the courage and conviction to take the first steps. -Renée|
In 1969, young radical Vern Fein attended a conference at Michigan State, where he asked the question that many white people ask today: “What can we do?” The answer is usually, “Figure it out. Do the research as a white person, examine your own attitudes, and figure out what to do and do it.” This professor- a formidable Black man, dressed like a gang member, with a gold chain around his neck, a prominent nose ring, and a Mohawk, sporting a sleeveless T-shirt with a radical slogan on it- had a different answer. Vern recalls the experience, reflects on his response, and considers his position a generation later.
“Thank you for coming. I am assuming you all are really interested in racial justice or you wouldn’t be here so I thank you for coming today. I am going to address what I know every white radical always asks of Blacks—What can we do? What can we do to help the Black movement? And it is a sincere question as I know you really want to know and believe you are willing to do almost anything for the cause—and many of you have put your bodies on the line for Civil Rights—as you are doing against Nixon’s horrible war. So thank you for that too.”
Then he gave us the answer, one I will never forget and one that is just as relevant now as it was back then. “Young ladies and gentlemen: You asked me what you can do to help my people. It is simple, but I don’t think you’ll do it. But if you do choose to do what I say, you will get measurable results and help us take major steps in redressing the stain and sin of white oppression of Blacks in this country since the first slaves stepped off that boat in Virginia in 1619.
You see and maybe know that discrimination is not the main problem in this nation for my people. Oh, it is good to stop it. It is good to drink from the same water fountain, eat where you want, not rot in a separate doctor’s waiting room, go to equal schools, visit a library when you want, etc etc. And vote and be elected and move some of our people into key positions we were never allowed to be in before. Yes, the great Civil Rights Movement has accomplished all of that and more and all Black people are grateful and yes, how can we forget, reduced lynching to a footnote instead of a common practice. Nothing can and will ever take away from those victories even though there are still a lot of other barriers that need to fall.
But the big picture for my people is not only personal—it is economic. For the vast majority of African-Americans daily living, paying the bills, providing for your kids, getting health care, getting jobs that pay a wage you can live on—those are the things that are the hardest, most crippling. That’s what keeps the vast majority of Blacks and other people of color in financial bondage so that they cannot compete with the white world and instead stay in poverty and in ghettos in substandard housing and substandard everything. Despite our heroes like Jackie Robinson or even Dr. King, that is the true reality for us. An average Black family makes more than $30,000 less income a year compared to white families. That’s a $30,000 gap. And we wonder why so many people of color are mired in poverty. That is our deal. That is why we can’t move up and claim equality in our society. We hear pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, but there are no bootstraps.”
“You ask us what you can do to help? I’m going to tell you, but I don’t expect you to do what I am going to ask.
Go home from this conference and call a meeting of your close family. Tell them you have something meaningful to relate to them. Include your parents, siblings, grandparents, close aunts and uncles. You’ll know who you should invite.
When you are gathered, ask them this. Ask the older folks to list all their assets for you. How much salary do they currently make and how much do they have invested, how much property do they own, stocks, bonds, etc etc? And all of them will have a pretty good idea. It’s what defines them. They may not have exact figures but will know fairly well the sum total of their assets. After all, they will say if asked or if not asked—we’re saving it to pass this on to you and our grandchildren—so you don’t have to worry.
And they will ask you why you want to know that. They will probably think it is a way for you to have assurance about your future. But that does not matter.
You will not be coy or beat around the bush. Instead, you will briefly say something like this: ‘Dad, Mom, Grandpa, Grandma, Aunt Lil, Uncle Bruce. etc., you know that I just got back from a political conference where I learned a lot. I know most of you don’t like that I went there, but you love me so I ask you to hear me out.
At the conference, one of the speakers was a young Black man. We asked him what we can do to help end racism in this country. He was a good speaker, a professor at Michigan State, who made a lot of sense to us. He said that the economic disparity between black and white families was the biggest issue. There is over a $30,000 average income gap between the two. (Ignore all uncomfortableness in the room. Speak slowly and clearly and stay focused and be as brief as possible.) He said if that income gap is not closed significantly nothing will really change the terrible disparity between the two races in our country. He said it is not mostly about friendship between Black and whites or even about privileges. He said it is about money and the freedom for Black people to fully participate in the society on every level, but now for scads of reasons, blacks are held back economically and can’t compete on equal footing so the discrimination over assets at all levels will continue until that is changed.
(The room is getting more and more uncomfortable. You’d better proceed quickly now.)
So that is why I asked you to list your assets so you can reflect on how much wealth you have. Then, that speaker simply asked us to ask you to cash in half of what you own, still giving you plenty of assets, and give that money to Black business owners, to Black families for education, to building adequate housing, to allow the Black community to work hard the way you did to build up your wealth. To basically help Black people get on an equal footing so they actually have bootstraps you keep telling them they need to pull themselves up by. And you can throw in to help elect government leaders that will focus on lifting African-Americans and all people of color out of the economic doldrums to the financial freedom they need. And you can end with—thanks for hearing me out. If you like my idea, I and others will be glad to help you out in processing and doing this so we can have a better and more peaceful nation for all our people.’
“If you do that,” our speaker said, “and most of you will not have the courage. But if you do that, your folks will probably be aghast and tell you this is foolish and why it would not make a difference. That they had to work hard and that’s just what Black people have to do. They will not think of the inheritance they got or that Black people were in slavery and then under Jim Crow for decades, preventing them from succeeding, except for some individuals, particularly those who could hit a baseball far. They will not know or care to know about the history of Black oppression in this nation.
But, young ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know how to really change things in a significant way, that’s what you need to do and that’s what needs to happen.”
With that, he turned his back on us and strode from the room.
I do not remember what any of us did or said. I know I did not sit down with my rich Father and do what the speaker asked. Maybe it was an excuse, but my Dad had always said: “If you take all the money in the world and divide it up equally, in a few years, there will just be the same rich and poor again.” I was never able to counter his argument.
Now my daughter in LA, participating daily in these huge, stirring world-wide rallies about Black injustice was told that she too should figure out how to be helpful against the oppression of people of color. And she is in the process of doing that and I am justifiably proud of that in a way my Father never could be. Different generation. I went to college and protested the Vietnam War. He never had a chance to go to college, participated in WWII through the Merchant Marines, and became a millionaire through the tavern business and investments, starting with a loan from his mother. The same was true for the rest of my reasonably rich Jewish family.
I became a teacher, my wife a secretary, and though we do not have nearly the assets either of our families had, we are more than comfortable in our retirement.
Suppose in her investigation of the problem, my daughter attends a meeting and a young, vibrant Black woman shows up and says the same things to her the 60’s radical said to us? And my daughter comes home and confronts me about our willingness and ability to cut into the vast economic gap between the races?
How will I respond?
As thousands are in the streets now due to police brutality which has morphed into a discussion about racial discrimination on all levels, the economic disparity has risen to the top of the list because that is the defining reality of why the chasm between Black and white life persists.
How will our nation respond?
I’ll tell you the truth about me. Probably you want to know that. Maybe as you are reading this, you are thinking or should think about how you would respond?
At this point, I will not take half my assets and distribute them to people of color in any capacity. I think one or a few of us would not make that much difference and I can’t imagine how to promote and organize such a movement. Certainly if the majority of white people did that it would make a huge difference. But I think given the weight of white privilege that is extremely unlikely to happen. Perhaps that is a copout and it is fine if you tell me that or believe that. I might decide later that you are right. However, there are clearly things that individuals can do for specific people or families or for and with local community groups. I am not excluding them, just focusing more on the bigger picture because the problem is so big and the solutions so massive.
But what I will do now is work very hard and urge people to throw the thugs out of office who run this country for the rich 1% and the corporate world and try to elect a government that will address these issues—jobs, education, health care, etc— by the way it begins to invest in minority advancement-reparations a key method—at all levels and I won’t let up, and neither will my dear children, until great and continual strides are made. In reality, in our nation at this time, that is the best we can do and, I truly believe, it will be enough for now. Join me/us anyway you choose.
I don’t believe that Black radical in the 60’s expected us to ask our parents to do what he asked. I believe he knew that a personal appeal wouldn’t fly. I think he just wanted to drive home the problem. In 1729, Jonathan Swift modestly proposed that the English sell the Irish babies so the English could eat them in a variety of delectable ways so that they would not be a burden and could even help economically. This proposal—a call for reparations—is neither that radical, shocking or modest. That is why I decided to revisit this remembrance with its remarkable relevance for our day and time.