The Post Racial Wasteland

The current state of race relations in America has been boiled down to the recent outrage over police brutality in minority neighborhoods. While many barrels of ink and pixels of screen space have been used to decry the deplorable state of policing in at-risk minority neighborhoods, very little has been used to look at the root of the problem.

Self-selecting communities have been a little mentioned effect of the post civil rights era. As strict institutional barriers regarding mobility among races fell by the wayside, the less rigid barriers erected by the free market took their place. What we now face, is a prototypical South Africa drawn up on the lines of wealth as opposed to institutional racism.

I had the opportunity to see Johannesburg, South Africa through a variety of lenses typically unavailable to an American tourist. After 5 months of traveling through Australia and Southeast Asia, I landed in Johannesburg to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders showcase. Alongside the literally towering figures of Dikembe Mutumbo, Andrei Kirilenko and the first African born GM in NBA history, Masai Ujiri, I saw 50 of the most talented young athletes on the continent, while taking in sites from “the other half” or more accurately the other 90% in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our days were spent at the gleaming American school on the outskirts of Jo-Burg proper. A facility that would’ve made many prestigious American schools blush with inadequacy, the school was a shining beacon. It was also surrounded by the ubiquitous razorwire fences that had become as much a part of the South African landscape as the baobao and marula trees. Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the institutional policies that made racism a part of the land, but in an economic climate that sees white South Africans bring home an annual income nearly on par with Americans, the black population sees on average 1/7th of that.

The first thing that I was told in Johannesburg was to exercise extreme caution. Expensive jewelry, phones and computers were to be kept in a bag, if not locked up away from your person. To be mugged in Jo-Burg is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

That crime was considered such a fact of life was a concept completely foreign to me. Besides a few minor dustups in Vietnam and Thailand, I had encountered no such crime in my travels up to this point in areas far poorer by per capita GDP measures.

As I wandered, Christopher Columbus style for the lack whites that I saw, through the Central Business district, I realized that the crime seen in South Africa was not a case of absolute poverty so much as the corrosive nature of relative poverty, a condition much more likely to yield violent and volatile results. White South Africans (and a growing black plutocrat class) live behind their razorwire fences in compounds more reminiscent a Westchester hamlet than the shantytowns of nearby Soweto, where I visited a primary school where an astounding 39% of students are HIV positive. This problem was defined far more by economics than race.

The America I inhabit looks more and more like that South African scene every day. While the rich suburb of Carmel, Indiana dickers over a new 27 million dollar youth sports facility, the potholes just 6 miles south are large enough to eat a VW Rabbit.

Indianapolis found itself budgetarily unable to plow side streets this winter, but the Monon Running/Biking Trail used primarily from the wealthy “Yuppie” class found itself plowed nearly on the hour. Our self selecting society and parochial local tax structure has combined to essentially create a tale of two cities in nearly all of our major metropolitan areas.

The ties that bind Americans together are more fragile than ever before. Whereas the post-war generation saw managers and laborers living in the same neighborhoods, sending their children to the same schools, and taking in the same entertainment, the Jim Crow of today has replaced the “Coloreds Not Served” sign with one that looks like $. Racism has been replaced by economic elitism; the color of money washing away the color of skin in the new segregation of the haves and have nots.

There’s no need for a sign on the door telling who isn’t welcome when the cocktail is $14.

A quick look around the rural portions of my state will reveal a growing ghetto, made up not of blacks but of a largely white economically disenfranchised population. The HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana caused by intravenous drug use has shown that social issues are also color blind. Their problems are a mirror onto those of the Great Society Generation that saw the lower class inner-city family unit fall victim to drugs, broken homes and a lack of economic opportunity.

Discretionary handouts do not replace economic opportunity on either a moral or results basis. The problems of drug use, teen pregnancy and violence have gotten progressively worse as opportunity has become more distant. These policies served only to excuse the thriving upper classes from economically disenfranchising their lower class brethren.

As multiple generations saw economic disenfranchisement become the only reality that they’d ever known, an economic evolution took place which threatens to separate the socioeconomic classes into entirely different species.

“Us vs. Them” rhetoric of has been used to great effect in politics and it has become a self-fulfilling policy. Simply glancing at a chart of obesity and birth rate by income will show that those making under $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be obese, and have a birth rate 80% higher than those making more than $75,000 a year. These differences are magnitudes larger in reproduction, habitat and size than those separating the distinct African and Asian elephants.

While wealthy urban elites wring their hands at the outbreaks of violence in NYC, Baltimore, and St. Louis, it is not of some deep seeded concern but instead because they are afraid that the invisible but present boundaries of privilege will not be sufficient when the feces and fan intermingle.

The only long term solution to the problems cleaving the American dream from an ever increasing portion of the populace is the economic revitalization of these depressed areas. The economists I studied in college maintained that overall economic growth was the only outcome that mattered, but if “on paper” GDP growth only goes to fund further militarization of the police force and additional social handout programs, what did we actually gain?

Urban or rural, the root of the myriad social problems seen today is not drawn along the oft-cited lines of race. To quote our famous Cajun sage:

“It’s the economy stupid.”

An Enduring Legacy

A few days ago, I put a picture up with reference to our trip to the Diodi Primary School in Soweto. The focus of my post was headed elsewhere, and I really didn’t feel that I did justice to a picture and a place that were incredibly powerful.

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The Soweto area of Johannesburg is one of the poorest in the city. As we drove to the schools, the Western-style shopping malls and retail centers rapidly gave way to handpainted signs and low slung brick housing which in turn gave way to shantytowns of steel shacks on the dust covered plain.

39% of the students at the Diodi School are HIV positive.

39%.

When Caryl Stern, the chairwoman of the UNICEF US Fund, offered that stat on the bus ride over, I assumed she’d misread the fact sheet.

That can’t be right…can it?

I should’ve known better, people as driven and successful as Caryl do not make mistakes with statistics like that. The stats were spot on, and my view on the world quickly began crashing down around my ears.

Suddenly Africa became real. It was no longer a place simply transmitting tragic but ignorable news. Suddenly it was a real humanitarian crisis complete with faces and names.

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As we entered the school, it was an amazing scene. I would guess that there were roughly 300-350 kids waiting for us in the center of the grounds, screaming and shouting to beat the band. Our group included the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, players Greg Monroe, Andre Kirilenko, and various executives from the NBA and NBA Cares Foundation.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

And me. I was there too.

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After a brief introduction, we broke up with about 75 of the kids in 3 classrooms, leading a small group discussion on “dreams.”

I’ve talked about dreams worth having on this blog. Living to the age of 30 is likely to be an unfulfilled dream for many of these kids.

And you thought that Lexus was important.

I was picked to be a group leader. The kids should’ve been rightfully disappointed that they got me instead of an international sports star, but I was still treated like some sort of combination of Elvis/The Beatles/Shaq.

We got down to business, talking about these kids aspirations for the future and the importance of education in achieving those dreams. Several wanted to be basketball players, an obvious choice given the group, but one little girl wanted to be a fashion designer.

We drew out our dreams (nothing like being embarrassed artistically by a group of South African 9 year olds) and then went around the table to discuss them. At that point, I had to choose one child from our table to present on our behalf, and Judith, with her unique dream of fashion designer was the ticket.

She and I walked up to the front of the class, as the NBA players presented with their kids. I felt 3 feet tall and invisible as I presented my dream of being an author, and talked about the role of education in my dream. Judith got up, shy as anything, and looked down at the ground as she whispered to the large group.

About 10 seconds into this, I stopped her, stooped down to look her in the eye and said, “Judith, you have a dream to be proud of. Look up and tell these people about it.”

Suddenly it was like a different little girl emerged from the one standing before me. Her voice became magically magnified, and she looked directly at the audience. When she walked back over to take her place in front of me, I whispered good job, and she beamed like she’d just been drafted by the Pacers.

We walked outside and the kids showed us some of the games that they play. Basketball wasn’t among them as the court was a rusted mass of 4 broken down hoops, but they taught us their form of dodgeball/cricket/Jenga and some chalk games that can be played with whatever rocks are around.

As Noah and I were playing, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Judith had been searching for me since we’d left the classroom. She very shyly said, “I want you to have this.”

It was the picture she’d drawn of her dream as a fashion designer.

I’ll attribute it on the dust kicked up by the game, but my eyes got awfully watery.

Judith walked away as I tucked the picture into my pocket. I scanned the grounds and came upon this little boy, very literally on the outside looking in. I walked over to him, unsure of what exactly I was going to say, but just wanting to reach through that tangled mass of barbed wire to let him know that someone saw him.

The resulting picture is as haunting as I’ve ever taken.

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In the West, much is made of racism. In America, it is truly the one thing that a public figure can never come back from. Ray Lewis was implicated in a murder, and retired a secular saint. Michael Jackson was a pedophile in all but criminal record, and at the time of his death was mourned publicly as if he were Mandela. Ted Kennedy left a girl to drown due to his own drunken recklessness, and died a respected senator.

However, if the charge of racism is leveled at you, look out. Paula Deen went from beloved TV personality to absolute pariah in roughly 20 minutes. The mere mention of racism is enough to make most politicians detach a hand from the constant wringing while they wet themselves. Donald Sterling, the NBA’s longest tenured owner, saw his team taken away for racial slurs stated in a “private” phone call with his decades younger mistress.

I think that much of this has lost the point of what racism is. Racism isn’t about a derogatory term, a slur or a joke. Racism is about the dehumanization of a group. Seeing people not as brothers and sisters in humanity, but instead as a lesser creature, the same as you’d look at a squirrel or monkey.

It is that dehumanization that allows conflicts like the one in Gaza to go on decade after decade. It is the legacy of that dehumanization that still haunts the African continent today.

That is racism, the true corrosive kind that adversely affects human lives.

Donald Sterling shouldn’t have had his team taken away for stupid remarks to his 20 something mistress. He should’ve had his team taken away for the systemically racist policies that he was found guilty of using as a Los Angeles landlord.

One instance was words spoken in private, betraying an absurd ignorance of life and technology but not actually impacting anyone’s life. The other kept actual people from receiving housing based on the color of their skin.

The difference is, one can be made into a soundbyte and played in 15 seconds. The other… requires a more nuanced analysis than Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless baying at each other like a pair of hungry hounds.

As I look at the legacy of European dehumanization on this continent, I am shocked at the level of racism that still exists in this world. Everywhere in Johannesburg has a wall topped with barbed or electrically charged wire. Sometimes both.

Riding home from dinner last night, I was talking to my driver about this. He was 10 years old when apartheid fell, and he told me that there was hardly any walls and barbed wire before that. This was largely because if you were black walking into a neighborhood of whites, you’d better have a work permit or you could be sent to jail or even shot.

As the institutionalized political walls of apartheid fell, real physical walls appeared.

Just like an alcoholic who puts the cork in the bottle without dealing with his addiction, the underlying problem remains. The legacy of dehumanization merely took on a brick and mortar face, as opposed to the hateful ones of politicians.

Unfortunately, that makes the next step in the struggle for equality that much harder. It is easy to rally international political support against a regime which systematically disenfranchises large portions of a population. It is much harder to whip up the same intensity in the face of endless, unnamed walls.

As I saw that little boy on the wrong side of the fence, the problem hasn’t been solved, it has merely evolved.

I’ve seen a lot of the world in this trip, but the most important part of my personal evolution has been the elements of the human condition that I’ve been exposed to. To stand in the middle of abject poverty, next to millionaire basketball players is a surreal experience.

The differences could not be more stark, nor the need for action greater.

For all the gutwrenching emotions that such a scene can bring, I couldn’t be more happy that I’m here, in the land of Gandhi and Mandela, seeing this with my own two eyes.

The world is not set into neat teams, us vs. them. We are all brothers in this shared condition we call humanity. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves of that. These kids depend on it.