“Why do you talk about race so much?”

“Why do you talk about race so much?”

Hmm… that is a good question.  Why DO I talk so much about race?  When I started this blog, I was completely aware of how much my perceptions of and experiences with race pervaded my worldview.  I am an African-American woman from a middle-class background attending a very prestigious public institution.  I am often the sole Black student in my classes, and I am intimately aware of what it is like to be the only Black person in the room.

And then I go 10 miles west and I’m in the 8th largest city in the state of California.  According to the 2000 Census reports, Oakland is the most diverse city in the United States (along with Long Beach, CA), where 150 languages are spoken and nearly every racial/ethnic group is represented in its population of 420,183.  The elementary school I volunteer at after school weekly is largely composed of Mexican-American, African-American and to a lesser degree, Caucasian and Filipino-American students.

  • 90% of the students at this elementary school are eligible for the Free Lunch program.
  • Nearly 60% are designated English learners (most of whom are Mexican-American, children of migrant workers (whether  their parents are documented or not is not mentioned in the reports).
  • 48% of the parents of these students are not high school graduates, 35% are high school graduates, 2% are college graduates, and 3% completed post-graduate degrees.

And some stats about the area:

  • the median household income in this zip code is $29,181, significantly lower than the U.S. average ($56,604)
  • The average home value in this zip code is around $129,700, significantly lower than housing values in the Bay Area (which tend to be closer to the millions)
  • Close to 60% of residents in this area are renters, and just over 40% are home-owners.
  • there are 53 liquor stores and 0 grocery stores in West Oakland.  (compare this to the more affluent Claremont neighborhood where there are 6 grocery stores in the proximity of 3 blocks.)

The disparity is striking.  In the class I helped teach, there were 20 students, 15 of whom were Hispanic (I know this is a problematic label), 3 of whom were Black, and 1 who was White.  All of these students were brilliant and unique individuals- some of whom were dealing with domestic violence, cycles of poverty, and one girl even had a cousin incarcerated for murder.

I am no sociologist (I am trained as a historian), but I do believe that this is the result of the inextricable intersection and intwining of race and socio-economic status.

The U.S. Census Bureau 2006 estimates show 34.1 percent White, 30.3 percent African American, 0.9 percent Native American, 15.6 percent Asian American, 0.7 percent Pacific Islander, 14.6 percent from other races, and 3.8 percent from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 25.9 percent of the population.
-Wikipedia, citing 2006 Census statistics

According to [http://www.movoto.com/neighborhood/ca/oakland/94621.htm] an overwhelming majority of foreign-born residents in this area are Mexican.  So, when I think about race, it isn’t the black/white binary that characterizes the rote social sciences curriculum in public school.

Again, “why do I talk about race so much?”

My answer is this:  Race is a social construct that stratifies society in ways both invisible and visible, tangible and intangible.  Race plays a mostly indirect (sometimes direct) role in socio-economic status and education levels.  Race is a salient issue that cannot be ignored for the sake of a “post-racial” society.

I firmly believe that race must be de-constructed before we as an American public can move beyond the past wrongs.  White Americans living today are not responsible for the sins of their fathers (genocide, slavery, etc.), but they share in a world that is shaped by the actions of their predecessors.  I am not pointing these inequalities out because I want White Americans to act out of guilt.  White guilt never changed anything- throwing money at the problems of people of color and hoping that paternalistic platitudes would show “those people” the error of their ways never changed anything.

What we should change is what is in our hearts and minds.  Daily we are bombarded with messages, some bad, some good.  We often internalize these messages as part of the socializing process.  We need to challenge the status quo- the things we thought we knew- and think carefully about what comes out of our mouths, and about the consequences of our choices and privileges as consumer citizens.

That’s what this blog is about.


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