Every once in a while I read an article about people arguing against the idea of systemic racism. They'll use anecdotes from successful people of color as proof that the modern United States is fair and just, and that the fight for equality and equity between races is over. We did it! We solved racism, and it only took 400 years!
One of the recent examples is an autobiographical post from Carol Swain. She talks about how she worked hard and made good decisions to work her way up from a dirt-poor childhood to a professor at an ivy-league university. While that on its own is remarkable, she then uses her story to show that people arguing for equality and cultural equity today is toxic and wrong. She triumphed through adversity, so aren't rights are equal enough?
There's a couple of problems with this argument:
One, Life has only so many winners. You can keep pushing to be the best you can, but society can all but ignore your efforts for a multitude of reasons. Swain worked hard, faced untold levels of adversity, and came out the other side a victor (in part) because she kept trying. Success didn't come to her overnight, but she kept working. If anything ever stopped her, she picked herself up and tried again later. If you look at her story objectively, it's an admirable success story.
Not everyone gets that story. Sometimes people's efforts to succeed are then met with failure. When life's boot steps on your face, do you shrug it off and get up? For some people, the answer is "no." Some people have to take a moment before trying again. Others need to take a few moments. Sometimes people give up on it forever. Fail enough times, and some people stop trying any new thing altogether.
"Yeah, but life will always have winners and losers, DivvyO, and that's never going to change," you may be thinking, and you're right. The point isn't to make everyone a winner.
And two, She had help.
One statement in Swain's story stood out to me:
"I met people along the way who helped me and sincerely wanted to see me succeed—not because they had something to gain, but because they were decent people. Almost all of these individuals, by the way, were white."
I know that this was an attempt to point out that race relations are better now (We did it! We won!), but taken on it's face: Carol Swain had white people helping her out. Not just any white people, but decent white people. Altruistic, helpful, decent white people.
There's a trope in the entertainment industry where a minority character helps the white lead succeed in his quest. It's called "The Magical Negro." They have some special power or insight that helps the main character out where he would otherwise fail. This was prevalent in early 2000s cinema with movies like What Dreams May Come, The Green Mile, and The Legend of Bagger Vance (a story based on one of the original Magical Negroes: Krishna, who was actually blue).
Swain points out that her success wasn't achieved on her own. She says in her own words that she wouldn't have made it to where she is today without these supporting characters.
She had Magical Crackers. And as far as I know, they aren’t a fix for systemic racism.
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