By Mike Matejka
Our nation is at a unique watershed in human relations. African-Americans have been killed too many times in the past before George Floyd, but the response to this man’s death is international and all-encompassing.
I was a grade-schooler during the Civil Rights 1960s. I watched Birmingham demonstrators hosed and the Selma – Montgomery march. I was not mature enough to understand, but these images stirred something in my heart that told me the movement was just. Growing up in an all-white neighborhood, I heard fears and derision over the back fence, but never at the kitchen table.
George Floyd is not only a time to march, but also time for self-reflection. As a white male, I know it’s soul searching time. The biggest challenge many of us white folk face is seeing beyond the personal and learning about systematic injustice. Having an African-American neighborhood, friend, family member or co-worker does not liberate us from examining systematic injustice.
Slavery was 150 years ago but that doesn’t mean the scars are not deep-seated. When the Civil War ended, African-Americans were given the right to vote, but quickly southern states repressed those rights and reduced many to near-slavery through share-cropping and prison labor systems. Our own state was not immune; the first 1818 Illinois constitution was very explicit that this would be a white man’s state. If we dig in McLean County history, we can find unwritten but enforced mandates about where African-Americans could live, work and how downtown stores and restaurants discriminated.
We can say that is all behind us, but a critical lesson is how wealth is generationally passed. Few of us can honestly claim we are “self-made.” Everyone had help along the way. Because our white grandparents and parents had access to decent jobs and could buy homes — the greatest wealth repository for average people — white families accumulated property. According to a Brookings Institute study, in 2016 the average white family (including home value) had a $171,000 net worth. The average African-American family’s net worth was ten percent of that, $17,150. African-Americans work, aspire and want what’s best for their family. The disparity is because earlier generations never had access to decent jobs, mortgages, banking, education and other opportunities to accumulate wealth. That is what is meant by systematic racism.
So fellow white Americans, don’t take it personally. Instead, think about the breaks you’ve had in life and don’t presume your African-American neighbors had the same opportunities. I write this not to cause guilt but instead to challenge us to look at those hidden inequities and see what we can do to help make change. Now is the time to unravel our shared history and treat people fairly, opening those doors to employment, education and credit that have been too long denied.