I had never considered the idea that systemic racism existed until George Floyd’s death. As shocking as that sounds, growing up I learned about racism in history class. To me it was a thing of the past, and while my biases towards other people were clear in my actions and thoughts, I was completely blind to them. Maybe it was because I was sheltered- despite being half-Asian I haven’t faced much racism besides the odd “your English is really good” or “oh you must be good at math.” A lot of the jokes that were made about me being Asian were never taken seriously by me because I have always felt like I belonged. I grew up in a rich, predominantly white town where I was well educated. I grew up encouraged and nurtured to be successful in current society. Since finally acknowledging my privilege, I’ve wanted to know why I am. I found that there is not one answer (which I had suspected in the first place) but that there are many roadblocks put in place for minorities that are not there for white people. To explain how complex the systems put in place against minorities are, let’s take a look at how a plane crashes.
Aircraft accidents never occur due to one particular reason- there are always multiple factors contributing towards a plane crash. For example, a tired pilot with some subpar weather and a lack of communication about fuel during a delayed landing, Or a technical issue coupled with bad weather and an inexperienced second in command. These issues in isolation can create a bumpy flight, but together they are catastrophic. When I speak to people of colour about their experiences, and read about their lives, the more I have found that minorities are handed like the conditions for a plane crash almost every time they are born. The statistics are unclear, but it is generally accepted that 55% of plane crashes can be attributed to pilot error. In our society, we tend to place that percentage much higher on why people fail, often believing those who fail deserve 100% of the blame. But when looking at why pilots fail, why people fail becomes more clear. By diverting blame from individuals, we can see what in society is causing the problem allowing a path for solutions.
According to Aviation Safety Magazine pilot errors consist of decisions caused by fatigue, inebriation or lack of experience. While it is ultimately the pilot who fails, these reasons are often linked to situations outside of their control. Pilot fatigue can be caused due to back to back flights, inebriation caused by a need to escape from the social isolation of the job, and lack of experience can be attributed to poor employee scheduling. you could argue that these are merely excuses, and people are ultimately in control of their own choices, but consider whether this is really true for everyone. For example, if the pilot is fatigued due to overwork he could just quit, but not everyone has the resources to give up a stream of income. What if they have four kids relying on them? They could stand up to their superior, but if they are terrified of being fired and losing income/ benefits that are desperately needed- they won’t. We tend to think of situations such as these as the outliers, but is that just because our privilege exposes us to them less? When you look at the plagues of a pilot who has crashed a plane, it is easy to see why minorities fail.
Poverty is one of the most pressing disadvantages people of colour must navigate around. The Kaiser Family Foundation displays data showing that poverty in America is not equal. It is clear where our biases in society lie as 19% of those in poverty are Hispanic, 22% are Black, 24% are Native American. Only 9% of those in poverty are White. The correlation between wealth and race are even more shocking when looking at those in the upper class. In a breakdown of US millionaires in 2013, Statista revealed that 7% of millionaires were Hispanic, 8% were Black, and Native Americans didn’t even make the chart. However, 76% of millionaires were White. The ability to invest in one’s own interests and development, combined with the willingness to take the risks needed to be extremely successful require a degree of financial stability. It is nearly impossible to hold down a full time job, develop high level professional skills, and make time for the self reflection necessary to maximise the potential of one’s own skills- and while the exceptions of success are often talked about when criticism towards the system is brought up, to figure out the root of the problem, shouldn’t we be looking at the rule?
To focus on the segregation in society between the wealthy and the poor, let’s disregard race for a moment. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he highlights a study done by sociologist Annette Lareau observing the parenting styles of a group of twelve families. Her findings indicated two parenting styles divided not by race, creed or sexual orientation, but by wealth alone. Well off children learned skills such as negotiation and self advocacy, and were encouraged to participate in sports and hobbies by their parents. The children of wealthier families also carried a sense of entitlement- they expected to be listened to and valued. In comparison, children of lower income families had their hobbies treated as “cute” rather than a skill to be fostered. Children were also found to be more submissive than their upper class counterparts. Lareau’s findings reflect the real outcome of generational wealth seen in society. A Journal Article published by The London School of Economics found that “the existence of a positive relationship between family background and children’s outcomes is a well-established finding.” Despite Laueau’s findings that the difference in parenting styles were not related to race, the unequal distribution of wealth in America demonstrates race and the advantages associated with wealth are intrinsic.
Additionally, Gladwell mentions another study from John Hopkins University led by Karl Alexander about the correlation between the educational gap between poor and wealthy students.. The study looked at the differences in reading levels between lower, middle and upper class students. The initial study had been conducted after summer holiday and results showed that by fifth grade there was a substantial gap in reading comprehension scored between high and low class students. Yet when these measures were taken at the end of the school year, lower income students actually outperformed wealthy students. The time invested into education over the summer caused wealthy students to improve comprehension, while those from families from lower income families lost comprehension over summer holiday. Because experience and success in any skill have a strong correlation this pattern over time leads to a clear advantage for the wealthy. The advantage of time to learn is given to wealthy students from a young age, and in more places than summer holiday. I spoke to a friend who explained to me that her school had an average class size of over thirty. With higher class sizes, students are given less attention by their teachers and have less resources to support any hunger for learning they have to acquire the transcripts required for university. Many children from low income families score more poorly on entrance exams so many forgo the opportunity. Before you know it, what started out as a few summer vacations of time has turned into three to four years of additional practice for the wealthy.
The focus on education at a young age needs to be addressed to begin to close the wealth gap between races. Children’s interests must be fostered, and they must be taught to negotiate and demand to be listened to. They must practice, and fail early and often but be given a chance to learn from their mistakes so that they are less likely to fail later in life. They must be given the appropriate time and resources to do this. How do we do this? Where does this start? In order to change the system, government resources need to be reallocated, and people need to care. As a society, we need to calm the weather, give the pilots a good night’s rest, and make sure they are prepared to handle their flight so that they can touch down safely.