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Racial Injustice has Benefited Me - A Confession

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

I'm watching America burn, and watching fingers point in all directions. Of course, I'm not a racist. I've never kneeled on anyone's neck or denied housing to anyone. So I'm clean. Right?

This situation has me examining how I tell my story, and I am more convinced than ever that how we tell our stories matters. I have benefited from racial injustice. How? Here's my story.

I was born in Muscatine, IA, a small town on the Mississippi river.  When I was nine, my life turned upside down when my parents split up and my father walked out the door.  My mother had to go to work for the first time in her life, and we barely scraped by for several years.  She moved us to a suburb outside Chicago in 1980.  We carried baloney sandwiches to school everyday in paper bags we were required to bring back and re-use the next day.  We worked really hard with very little.  After marrying a tradesman, my mother got her doctorate at age 50 and became a college professor.  My brother ended up at Harvard Law, and is now dean of a law school in Minnesota.  My sister has a doctorate and teaches in NYC.  And I am a filmmaker of moderate renown.

It’s a big success story.  And it all happened because we didn’t give up, and we worked really hard.

Except this version of the story isn’t true.  I mean, the facts are accurate, but the conclusion is all wrong.

Did we work hard?  Yes, I guess so.  But lots of people work hard and don’t have nearly as much to show for it.  So what is the missing factor?  The factor that may be even more important than the hard work?

We were white.

Let me tell my story again… accurately.

My great grandfather built a successful business in Toledo, OH in the 1920s.  There were blacks in Toledo in the 1920s, but getting loans from white-owned banks and building businesses catering to the broad community was not an option for them.

During the Great Depression, my great grandfather was doing well enough to send his kids to college.  Right out of college, my grandfather was invited to join a new college graduate track at the Firestone Tire Company.  Very few blacks were able to attend college in the 1930s.  A black graduate would not have been selected by the all-white management team at Firestone.

My grandfather went on to a successful 50+ year career in the tire industry.  I wasn’t born in Iowa because we were farmers.  I was born in Iowa because it was the home of Bandag, the world’s largest re-treader of tires and a multinational company that my grandfather helped build.  My grandfather traveled in the Bandag jet.  On several occasions I got to travel with him.  We were not poor farmers.

There were no black executives at Bandag.

Right out of college, my father also went to work at Bandag, reporting directly to his father.  He rose quickly to junior vice president, and we built a large house in Muscatine on 5 wooded acres.

And that’s when everything fell apart.  My dad left.  My mother went out looking for work.  We moved to the suburbs of Chicago and started over again with nothing.

Except that’s not true.  

My mother got the house in Muscatine.  She sold that house, and used the proceeds to buy a much smaller house in Glen Ellyn, IL, a wealthy, nearly all-white (at the time) suburb of Chicago.  Like many white, upper-middle class suburbs, Glen Ellyn had fantastic, well-funded, award-winning schools.  And it was those schools that put me and my siblings on tracks toward law degrees, doctorates, and, in a roundabout way, talking vegetables.

How did a wealthy, white suburb help launch my filmmaking career?  A good education was part of it.  A high school with lots of resources was part of it.  Making films with my church friends whose neighboring wealthy high school actually had film classes was part of it.

But here’s the real kicker:  After my first year of college, I came back to Glen Ellyn with nothing to do for the summer.  My mom mentioned to some friends at church that I had nothing to do.  They knew I was interested in filmmaking because I had shown one of my films at church.  A friend at church had a friend who owned a video production company that just happened to be looking for a summer intern.  A couple of phone calls and I had an internship, that led to a job, that led to my work in computer animation, that led to my career as a filmmaker of moderate renown.

What does that have to do with race or economic inequality?

We had friends who knew people who owned companies.  If we had relocated to a much poorer community - specifically a non-white community - the odds of bumping into someone at church who knew someone who owned a film production company would have been next to nothing.  Wealthy communities bring proximity to opportunity.

And why were we in that wealthy community, even when we were broke?  Because of the value in the house we owned in Muscatine.  That house, in a very real sense, gave us a second chance.

So what does that fact have to do with racial injustice?  

Everything. Way back in the 1930s the federal government decided that white families should be encouraged to own homes, and black families should not.  70 years of policies encouraging and underwriting white home ownership, and discouraging black home ownership have led to a profoundly inequitable America.

Today the average black household has 60% of the income of the average white household, but only 10% of the household wealth.  Why?  Because the #1 form of intergenerational household wealth in America is home ownership.  Home ownership allows kids to go to college with home equity.  Allows wealth to be passed through generations.  Provides an economic backstop against calamity.

Which is exactly what happened in our case.  When my family faced economic calamity, the house we owned in Muscatine, IA allowed us to replant ourselves in an upper-middle class community with fantastic schools and ample opportunity.  It gave us a second chance.

And this is what we have done to black families over the last 70 years.  We’ve prevented them from building the backstop to survive calamity.

So how I tell my story is important.

Did I work hard?  Yes, but not unusually hard.  Not nearly as hard as many of my brown and black neighbors, who hold down multiple jobs just to pay rent.  Were we of above average intelligence?  I suppose so.  But so are many people who struggle to find opportunity in America.  So what made the difference?

We were white.

And there it is.  So when I see people of color protesting injustice or living in poverty in wrecked communities, people in Ferguson, MO or Minneapolis or Chicago or Flint, MI, and I feel the urge to say, “Well, if you just worked harder you could do what I did...”

That is a lie.

We built a system to favor ourselves.  And it worked amazingly well.  Every generation of my family has benefited from the color of our skin.  Every generation.  It didn’t stop with the Emancipation Proclamation.  It didn’t stop with Brown v Board of Education.  And it still hasn’t stopped today.

So I will strive tell my story honestly.  Especially to myself. And I would ask you to do so also.  It's not much, but it's a start.

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