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Why Are Black-Specific Colleges, Caucuses, and TV Channels Acceptable, but Not White-Specific Ones?

In a society with a clear majority, the social homogeny can sometimes be so pervasive it becomes hard to recognize at all

By Martin VidalPublished 4 months ago 13 min read
Photo by GTorres on Pixabay

Previously, I wrote an article that sought to answer the following question: Why does it seem to be more acceptable for Black people to joke about or criticize White people than the other way around? It received a lot of attention, and some of the comments others posted under it were questions that I wanted to address in turn.

The questions that kept recurring were:

1. Why are Black people allowed to call each other the N word, while White people are not allowed to use it?

2. Why are there Black colleges, television channels, congressional caucuses, etc., when to make something explicitly for White people would probably be seen as racist?

3. Why are there government programs that only benefit Black people, when the opposite would be seen as racist?

I find the first question, about the “N word,” too obvious to make a real explanation of. That word has a terrible history that all Americans are well aware of. Some Black people have reclaimed and altered its meaning for usage among themselves, but that evil history remains fresh in our minds, and non-Black people using it has been deemed a bridge too far. I can’t think of much else to say on that matter, so let’s move on to address the other two questions in full.

Why is it acceptable for there to be Black colleges, caucuses, television channels, etc.?

When the status quo prevails for long enough, aspects of it become invisible because it’s all most of us have ever known. For those who are blind to it, I’ve thought about different analogies to try to illustrate the context the question above is being asked in, and the best I can come up with is this:

One fish turns to another fish and asks, “Why do flying fish get the special label of ‘flying’ while all the swimming fish are just called ‘fish’?”

Just as the “swimming” is implicit, as almost all fish are “swimming fish,” the “White” describer for institutions in the United States is implicit, as the default for all institutions is that they’re primarily constituted by and for White people. For example, what would be the point of a White-specific caucus in a Congress that is already 75% White? It’s redundant. In a country where White people are the majority, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s obvious why minority groups would seek to establish some unions and institutions of their own.

We can see the same in media. Here is a list of the ten most popular U.S. tv shows of the 2000s: “The Big Bang Theory,” “House,” “Modern Family,” “Criminal Minds,” “Supernatural,” “NCIS,” “The Office,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Breaking Bad.” They don’t have much in common, but they do all have primarily White casts. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this in a country that is primarily White, but how could anyone begrudge a minority group trying to stake out an area of the media environment that is tailored to them, when the default is that it is tailored to another group?

I’d also like to address an alternative: integration. When I was a kid watching Disney movies, all of the main characters were White. As they’ve remade those iconic films, they’ve allowed actors of different races to play some of the characters. There was controversy recently over the pick of Halle Bailey, a Black woman, to play Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” remake. You see outrage over that type of inclusion, and you see outrage over Black-specific media. It seems that many people on the other side of this issue would only feel it acceptable for Black people to be included in media in a very narrow way, such as with the token Black characters found on many of the shows listed above.

You see some of the same in the “all lives matter” response to “Black lives matter.” If brevity wasn’t a constraint on any slogan, it might’ve read “Black lives matter too,” and that is the true meaning regardless. “Black lives matter” is not a statement of exclusion. “All lives matter” is an obvious truism; after a string of deaths of Black people at the hands of police, “Black lives matter” is simply a statement asserting Black inclusion under that implicit truism. Why are there no “Historically White Colleges and Universities”? Every college and university in the U.S. that is not a “Historically Black College and University” (HBCU) is a historically White one, and those constitute the vast majority of colleges and universities in the country. Moreover, HBCUs were institutions of higher learning that existed prior to the end of segregation and that, at their inception, were by law only allowed to educate Black students. Why is there a channel called “Black Entertainment Television” but not one called “White Entertainment Television”? Almost all of the channels at the time of its founding were implicitly “White Entertainment Television.”

Why are there government programs designed to only benefit people of color?

The short and obvious answer is that you can’t make an already unequal scale balanced by adding equal amounts to both sides. Things are already slanted against Black people in the U.S., so doling out benefits unequally (in favor of the disadvantaged group) is ultimately a step towards equality, not away from it. However, if everyone could accept that the deck is in fact stacked against Black Americans, there’d be no argument around this point. The real point of contention is whether or not this inequality exists and whether or not it is the result of racism.

First off, the inequality clearly exists: Black people are only 12% of the U.S. population but make up almost 40% of the prison population. 17.3% of non-Hispanic Blacks have a four-year degree versus 30% of non-Hispanic Whites. The net worth of the average White family is nearly tenfold the net worth of the average Black family. These are facts, and there’s little room for argument here. However, the rebuttal will be something along the lines of “Those numbers have been earned, society is no longer racist, and it’s Black people’s own fault,” and that’s the fundamental assertion that needs to be debated.

With those two earlier links in the argument done with, we can get to the real point of this section, and that’s addressing this question: Is society still racist in a way that actively impacts the trajectory of Black American’s lives today? I would argue this: Our society doesn’t have to be actively racist for it to continue to disadvantage Black Americans born today. It’s unavoidably the case that American society was racist for much of our history. People that argue that society is now fair for all races would point to how long ago slavery, segregation, etc. ended. (However, I would like to make clear here that segregation was only outlawed in 1964, which is within my father’s lifetime.) I do believe racism is alive and well in modern America, though significant progress has been made towards shifting hearts and minds in the last half century or so. However, fundamentally, what people seem to underestimate is how long the effects of the outright racist policy of old can linger on for.

It’s no mystery to most people how being born to millionaire parents can alter the course of your life versus being born to impoverished parents. Let’s conjure up a thought experiment, wherein we take two White families, one poor and one wealthy, and do a comparison of how life might unfold for their children. The children of the rich family will have access to the best education, they’ll be free from most external responsibilities and stressors, and they’ll very likely have a network of friends who also come from wealthy families, so they’ll have a powerful set of connections. If they have an idea for a business, and their parents won’t fund it directly, it’s much more likely that someone in their larger social circle will be able to (versus the poor kid’s social circle). The top-tier education they received throughout grade school (likely with additional SAT prep on the side and plenty of time and opportunities for extracurriculars) readies them to attend a top-tier university. They can even hire special advisors to help them directly with the application process. Once they have a degree from a prestigious university, the job field opens up for them beyond what even just their social circle would allow for. Perhaps the down payment on their first home is made by their parents (if the home isn’t gifted to them in full), so they can take more risks work-wise or put their extra money towards investing. They’ll then be in a position to do just as much for their children when the day comes.

Meanwhile, the poor White kid will tend to live in a neighborhood with a higher crime rate, as is more common in low-income communities. That’ll likely serve as a stressor, a distraction, and maybe even a lure towards committing some criminal acts themselves. Since it’s a high-crime area, it will also have a more active police presence, and if they happen to commit a relatively innocent crime, like smoking marijuana or a small act of vandalism (as adolescents are wont to do), they are more likely to be charged for it. Their parents would also be less capable of using their means to get them out of trouble, and less able to afford after-school programs or babysitters to keep them out of trouble. If they have younger siblings, and the parents aren’t able to afford childcare or to have a parent stay home, they might have to spend time babysitting said sibling, time they could’ve been using for personal development. There’s, of course, no money for SAT prep. That score is so important to colleges, yet whatever improvement this impoverished White student might’ve seen from that extra practice is lost to them. Their general education isn’t what it could’ve been either. When they come of age, they’re naturally expected to help out and their parents can’t afford to support them into adulthood, so they need to get a job and can’t just focus on higher education. Their parents can’t get them a car, so not only do they have to work while going to school, but hours of their day are lost to the inefficiencies of public transportation as well. It can be hard to stay in school at all with all of these added pressures; if they can make it the four years it takes to get a bachelor’s degree, they very likely won’t endure even more to get a graduate’s degree. And there’s no money for a really expensive school, or even a school outside of their immediate area. What they are able to pay for with student loans, will leave them encumbered with a sizable debt from the time they begin to work in their intended profession.

Everyone who was born into a family of modest means can readily understand that, even if you can ultimately work up through the social ranks, things are going to be significantly more challenging for you than for the offspring of the wealthy. Some rich kids are even able to directly buy their way into top-tier universities, out of mandatory military service (when such policies have been enacted), out of criminal charges, etc. Most people would readily agree that things are not equal for the kids of the rich versus the kids of the poor, and that those inequalities are more likely than not to persist over subsequent generations. Social mobility is possible, but it is also very difficult to achieve, and a large shift can’t be expected from most people over the course of one generation to the next.

Now, to return to the race divide: America took all of its Black citizens and forced them to be uneducated and dirt poor. It freed them from slavery and gave them nothing. It then continued to subjugate them for generation after generation. I don’t agree with the assertion that racism ended with the Voting Rights Act and the end of segregation in the 60s, or even with the election of Barack Obama, but I will accept it here for the sake of argument. Even when accepting it as a given that racism no longer plays an active role in people’s lives, we’re still underestimating how little time has passed in the grand scheme of things. The Baby Boomer generation was born in the time of segregation, and they still hold onto the reins of power today. We’ve only had a few subsequent generations reaching adulthood since then, and that’s simply not the scale on which we can expect such forced inequality to rectify itself in. People on the other side of this issue say, “Most Black people now weren’t even alive back when racism was codified in law.” It’s only natural that we consider a lifetime a long time, since it’s all the time any of us has, but a culture and a society is bigger than any one of us, and it sometimes shifts on geological timeframes.

If we force an entire population into abject poverty, how many generations do we anticipate it will take them to catch up to the average? If we took a million White families and gave them a subpar education (if any), and held them back from any opportunities to make wealth for themselves so that they were forced down to the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, and did this for long enough so that it’s all they and everyone around them knows, how many generations would you give them to catch up to the average family? The average White family according to recent estimates has a net worth of $171,000, which again is nearly ten times that of the average Black family. If your family’s net worth is $171,000, how many generations will it realistically take you to grow it tenfold to $1,710,000? (Mind you, multiplying your money starting from a net worth of $17,150, the average for Black families, is a lot harder than starting from $171,000, as the barrier to entry for basic steps in growing your wealth — such as owning a car, home, or having an investable surplus — can only be accomplished with a certain amount of money available to you.) Have you yourself grown your family’s net worth ten times over? If not, why would you expect all Black Americans to have done as much? It doesn’t matter if “racism ended” at, or sometime after, those pivotal moments in American history (no matter how ridiculous I find the claim). It’s like tying someone down their whole life, so that their muscles could never properly develop, and then arguing that they should be able to move just as quickly as anyone else now that the restraints have been removed. Even if everything is currently equal, advantage compounds and disadvantage does as well, and it will take much longer than any of us expect for the playing field to level out.

Higher crime rates come alongside lower income. Less educational achievement does too. A whole host of unfortunate outcomes, from worse health to less happiness, come along with it as well. Poverty is an oppressive force all on its own. If you force a community down under that pressure, it’s not enough to stop pushing them down. The pressure will act to hold them there until sufficient time has passed for enough truly remarkable individuals to work their way up, despite that restrictive force. Why is there policy in place aimed specifically at helping Black people achieve social mobility? You have your answer. Should there be policy in place to help all poor people? Many would argue “yes,” but White Americans that happen to be poor were not forced into poverty because they were White. The same cannot be said about Black Americans.

Conclusion

It feels a little unusual writing an article primarily about Black-focused institutions and policies as a guy who is part Hispanic-White and part Ashkenazi Jew, but I grew up in a predominantly Black city and basically all of my friends since I was a child have always been Black, and this is likely a big part of what lead to me being so sympathetic to the trials of Black people in this country. And while I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a Black person living in America, my life experience has given me a rare perspective from which to see both sides of the divide. I’ve heard questions that most Black people are probably never asked directly, which has allowed me to gain insight into the way a lot of non-Black people see these issues, and I feel enough comfort with the Black community to try to give an answer to these questions publicly.

I’ll certainly be called divisive by some for writing this piece, but my hope is that by showing some Black people the type of questions non-Black people have asked me (and thereby giving insight into their point of view), and by addressing those questions that some non-Black people have which maybe no one in their circle is in a position to give a knowledgeable answer to, some on opposite sides of the issue can perhaps see how the disagreement stems from different underlying perspectives. The inequities that disadvantage Black people in America are not a Black American problem, they’re an American problem. I love this country despite its flaws, and as people and as patriots we should all come together to right its moral wrongs.

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About the Creator

Martin Vidal

Author of A Guide for Ambitious People, Flower Garden, and On Authorship

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    Martin VidalWritten by Martin Vidal

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