Race Is a Problem in America, but Doesn't Define It | Opinion

I am a person with brown skin. I give it about as much thought as the color of my eyes, despite the fact that others haven't. I come from some dark-skinned immigrants: My grandfather on my father's side was born in Lebanon, and my grandfather and grandmother on my mother's side were both born in southern Italy.

All came to America with nothing. There was discrimination and rank bigotry directed by white people at my Italian grandparents when they arrived, and throughout their lives. Words like "dago" and "guinea" were slurs used to degrade them. Italians were caricatured in film and generally depicted as gangsters and mobsters. And worse. Italians in America's South were hit particularly hard and subjected to mob violence. Even lynchings. My Italian side was Catholic, too, and Catholics in America faced bigotry. Blaine amendments were a feature of late 19th- and early 20th-century life, as Protestants did their best to defund and destroy Catholic education in America. Those amendments made their way through 37 state legislatures.

My Arab last name brought more than its fair share of slights and bigotry, too. In the small New Jersey town of 20,000 where I grew up, we were the only family with an Arabic last name. The name calling and the insults happened. Traveling through airports—and I travel quite a bit for work—has been a nuisance, as I have been presumed worthy of suspicion and special treatment by airport security ever since 9/11.

But for every white person with a bad attitude, there were many more good and decent ones my family met along the way. Most white folks we knew were not merely good to us—many were rooting for us.

My grandparents taught my parents, and my parents taught me, that bigotry and hate are sins but, sadly, part of life everywhere. It is why they found solace in the church, which itself contains sin because it, too, is filled with human beings. People have been hating "the other" since the beginning of time and across every continent and race, and the horrific results have ranged from repression to genocide. They are not white inventions—sin, hatred and tribalism. They are a part of the human condition.

My grandparents understood that America was a far from perfect place, but much better than their own home country in almost every imaginable and measurable way. Not long after they left Italy for good, Benito Mussolini made a mess of the place.

My grandparents loved America in a way only immigrants can love their adopted home. Folks don't flee countries because they are living good lives, generally speaking. They flee because they are desperate. Because the governments of their homeland don't respect property rights or freedom of expression and religion. Or all three. Many escape totalitarian regimes, and many others escape communist regimes.

One thing I know: My grandparents didn't come here to transform America; they came here to have America transform them. They worked hard, started their own businesses with no help from banks or anyone else, and watched their kids and grandkids go to college, work hard, marry—and live the American Dream.

They watched America become a more tolerant nation, too. A better nation. And watched their family grow in ways they could never have imagined.

This northern New Jersey grandson of Arab and Italian heritage fell in love with and married a beautiful white girl from Mississippi, who is part French, American Indian, Irish and Viking. My 15-year-old daughter, Reagan, is a walking United Nations. Her ethnic mixture is absolutely American. She is the pluribus in E pluribus unum.

It's something to be proud of, the way people from so many nations unite around a common culture, set of laws and values in our country. It's beautiful the way we live, love and make families.

Princeton University's Cornel West, a leading African American scholar and a progressive critic of the country and capitalism, doesn't agree. "I think we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment," West said recently on CNN.

West echoed the remarks of a growing chorus of black, brown and white progressive activists who are attacking the foundations of American life. He argued that non-white Americans are "getting left out" and that "white supremacy is going to be around for a long, long time." Matthew McCarthy, the CEO of Ben and Jerry's, seemed to agree. "A white supremacy culture is something white people have to own," he told the same network.

One can say many things about America, but to call it a nation defined by "white supremacy" is simply untrue. That has not been the experience of most ethnic Americans like me. Indeed, many millions of minorities have come here and prospered beyond our wildest dreams. And prospered because we embraced capitalism—and the ideals set forth by our Founding Fathers in 1776.

Protesters police brutality hug
Two men embrace next to a makeshift memorial in honor of the victims of police brutality, during a demonstration against racism, in Hollywood, California, on June 7. Agustin Paullier/AFP/Getty

And that is not mere hyperbole. The fact is, white people and Christians do not come out on top in America when measuring by one of the greatest sources of power: income. In U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Asian Americans had the highest median household income in 2018: $87,94. That's a full $20,000 higher than the average American family, and significantly more than the average white household, which was $70,642.

Indian Americans and other Asian Americans are leading the charge, and have done so well in America that they now represent about 25 percent of Harvard's undergraduate student population, and 41 percent of MIT's. And yet they account for only 5.6 percent of America's total population. But not all Asian American groups do as well as others in America. Indian, Filipino, Japanese and Sri Lankan Americans made twice the household income of immigrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma, according to a Pew analysis back in 2017. Those disparities simply can't be attributed to discrimination, let alone white supremacy.

Among religious groups in America, Jewish Americans are the most financially successful, according to Pew's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, with 44 percent of households earning $100,000 or more. Perhaps no group in the world has faced more discrimination: A staggering two out of three European Jews were murdered during Hitler's reign of terror. Today, by some estimates, American Jews make up about 50 percent of all Jews worldwide. There's a reason so many Jews live here—and white supremacy isn't one of them.

When they arrived in this country, Jews faced serious discrimination, including the notion that Jews somehow got rich by either stealing or appropriating money from people who weren't. Jews faced quotas at Harvard, were denied work by many businesses and were not permitted to participate in many social and cultural institutions in America, too. I remember the local golf club's position on the matter: "No Jews allowed." It disgusted me and my family, like all forms of anti-Semitism and racism to this day. And yet many Jews prospered in ways many of their white European counterparts—and the white Christian majority—did not.

Another minority religion came in second in the Pew study of American household income by faith: Hindus. And the vast majority of Hindu Americans are dark-skinned and come from countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Arab Americans, another dark-skinned ethnic minority, make more than the national household average, and Lebanese are by far the highest earners in the sub-category, earning significantly more than other Arabs, and nearly 25 percent more than the average American household. Italian Americans also perform far above national household income averages.

Most interesting are the stories of Nigerian Americans, because they, too, are thriving in America. Molly Fusco chronicled the remarkable success Nigerians are experiencing in our country for Ozy.com in 2018. "Today, 29 percent of Nigerian-Americans over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree, compared to 11 percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the Migrations Policy Institute," she wrote. "A growing number of Nigerian-Americans are becoming entrepreneurs and CEOs, building tech companies in the U.S. to help people back home."

She pointed out that racist stereotypes were far from gone, but "overt racism hasn't stopped Nigerian Americans from creating jobs, treating patients, teaching students and contributing to local communities in their new home, all while confidently emerging as one of the country's most successful immigrant communities, with a median household income of $62,351, compared to $57,617 nationally, as of 2015."

These are stories more Americans should know about their own country, especially the success of so many dark-skinned ethnic minorities. That's why my grandparents would have been angered to hear such widespread use of the term "white supremacy" to define their adopted home. Their lives were a living testimony that any ethnic group from anywhere can live and thrive here. It's the reason millions of immigrants choose to come here every year. They didn't float here on rafts from Cuba, or pay coyotes to get smuggled across the Mexican border, or come here as refugees from Vietnam or post-WWII Europe or the war-ravaged nations of Africa because this nation puts a premium on white skin. Or white culture.

Indeed, no country in human history has been more welcoming to foreigners than the United States. Ideas like rule of law, property rights, free enterprise, freedom of speech and religious conscience are the reasons my grandparents came here. They loved the sight of the American flag—and what it represented.

My family also empathized with African Americans and the very different history they experienced in this country. From slavery to segregation and beyond, black people have faced unique and extreme barriers. This brutal and disgraceful treatment is in many ways still being felt by black communities today.

When my parents watched a black family in my small hometown get the run around for simply trying to buy a home, they felt called to lead a successful anti-blockbusting effort. My mother took some heat for that. The black family in question lived on our street for years, and we got to know their story. And the history of discrimination that impacted their ability to accrue real net worth.

I watched that happen. It was not 300 years ago or even 100 years ago but the late 1970s. The cost in real net worth to black families because of blockbusting—the Yankee version of segregation—was real. So, too, was the cost of legal segregation in the South. And slavery.

In law school, I read the Dred Scott opinion and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Those are stains on the country—and the effects of the original sin of slavery are still with us.

I remember reading the words from Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" describing to white pastors in the South, and across America, why he was leading the protests. At one point, he explained the impact white racism had on his own family:

"When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'"

A few years ago, I read Terry Teachout's remarkable biography of Duke Ellington called Duke. It is not merely one of the best books ever written about music—and a musical genius—but a heartbreaking story of race in America. Racism was an ever-present part of Ellington's life.

Even the club that changed his life, the Cotton Club, was an emblem to racism. The name of the club, and its design, were a celebration of plantation life, and black folks were not allowed to come hear Ellington play. The club was for whites only. And it was in Harlem.

The most poignant part of the book, for me, came when Ellington traveled to London to play at the Palladium in the 1930s. For the first time, he got to stay in a world-class hotel. "You know, I love this place," he told a writer. "I don't know if you realize this, but I have the utmost difficulty staying in a place like this in the United States." I nearly cried reading that line.

There are so many more stories like it, stories of racism and the pain it caused so many African Americans. Rich and poor black people, and even famous black people. Brown and white Americans need to know that history.

It is enough to make anyone cry, reading those words. Black people should know that millions of brown-skinned and white-skinned people know this past—and try our best to understand its brutal nature.

Black people also need to know that the picture of a sadistic white cop kneeling on George Floyd's neck outraged every brown person I know—and every white person I know too. We all want an end to police brutality and discrimination too. And we all want more opportunity for black people. Much more.

George Floyd memorial site
A growing memorial site at the spot where George Floyd was killed by a police officer has become a gathering spot for the Minneapolis community protesting police brutality on June 4 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty

But calling all or even most white people racists—or worse—calling America a nation driven by white supremacy doesn't help black people. Or white people. Because it simply isn't true. "Accept that you're a racist," read the headline of a column in Forge, a Medium publication. "Then, get to work dismantling racism." That kind of talk is becoming increasingly common on campuses and schools—this idea that white people are racist whether they know it or not.

Worse still is the idea that you are either "with us" or "against us." We can be for ending police brutality, but not for the disbanding of police departments in major American cities. We don't believe vilifying all police officers is right. Indeed, many of us think more black people should become cops. Activists especially might learn it's a harder job than they thought—and much more complicated.

Big city police unions have been a big part of the problem, as nepotism prevails in hiring patterns and bad officers get slaps on the wrist for dangerous conduct and keep their jobs.

Big city public school bureaucracies are also to blame. Indeed, if one thing needs to be disbanded in our big cities, it's the monopoly power the public school unions have over the education system. It's no accident that President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama chose to send their children to private school during their years in Washington, D.C. Poor minority kids should have the same option to choose a school.

Ask any real estate agent, and they'll tell you most parents choose to live in places where schools work. And when the schools stop working, those parents move or send their kids to a private school that does. That choice actually drives accountability—just as it does in every other aspect of American life. There is some real money being spent by public schools: New York City's annual public school budget is $34 billion, the Los Angeles budget is nearly $8 billion, and Minneapolis spends over $600 million each year on its public schools.

Can you imagine the revolution that might be unleashed if you put some of that money in the hands of poor African American parents? Or used it to increase the availability of broadband to our poorest communities, especially our neglected rural ones.

Prison reform has been happening, and evangelical Christians have helped lead the charge. States like Texas and Georgia have been ahead of the curve on the issue, and President Donald Trump—no matter what you think of him—has too. He signed the First Step Act in late 2018, the most comprehensive prison reform bill in American history. One driven by the most unlikely allies, including Koch Industries and the American Civil Liberties Union.

You didn't see that story for long on CNN or Fox News because it was good news. And it was bipartisan good news. Hopefully, the death of George Floyd will drive further reform on the state prison systems, where the vast majority of inmates in America reside.

African Americans need to know that almost every brown and white person I know is with them, and that black lives matter to us. But too many social justice advocates—black, brown and white—lose us because of their antipathy to capitalism itself. They believe that capitalism and free enterprise are the problem. We believe they are the solution.

Business destroyed George Floyd
An owner of a garage poses with burnt wreckage of the cars that were burnt by people taking advantage of the protests, on June 2 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty

Indeed, brown people like me are often not included in the social justice movement because we don't agree with the redistributionist agenda of many progressives. We aren't the "right kind" of brown people. Minorities and immigrant families like mine know that wealth isn't created by theft or exploitation, as progressives believe. It is created by serving others. No one forces anyone to buy an iPhone or eat at a restaurant. The idea that people get rich in America by stealing from others is a lie. And an affront to all the ethnic minorities who own businesses and have created wealth for their families, their workers and their communities.

Hearing the voices of black business owners in places like Chicago and Minneapolis who had their life's work destroyed was so heartbreaking, especially to those of us who've built businesses, and know that it's not mere property that was destroyed. It was a lifetime worth of work and savings. It was jobs destroyed, and capital destroyed, and a tax base destroyed, too. It was the hopes and dreams of black business owners destroyed.

Many of us believe black people need more access to capital to start their own businesses, and more opportunity to develop the skill sets required to thrive in the 21st-century economy. That poor people—black and white and brown—need more education in areas like financial literacy. And entrepreneurship. More black ownership of businesses, real estate and stocks is the social justice we're after. And more opportunities for engineering and science degrees, and training in fields that pay far more than prevailing wages.

There are many things to do to make this country more just, and opportunity more equal. And many more black, brown and white voices need to be heard to figure out how we become a country that lives up to its founding ideals. Ideals represented in the first inaugural address of Obama, our first African American president, in 2009:

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."

Was President Obama lying then, or have things gotten that much worse since he left office? I submit that those words were true then. And they are true now. And they are words to remember about a good and great country. An imperfect country, no doubt. But a good and great one.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts