My dad had a love-hate relationship with the University of Virginia, where white nationalists marched by the hundreds last weekend.
He took me there whenever we visited his nearby childhood home, to marvel at the Jeffersonian architecture and pristine grounds.
But Jim Crow laws banned my father — who eventually earned his doctorate — from taking even one class at UVA in the 1940s. Instead, he literally took the Chattanooga Choo-Choo past the school of his choice to the now-shuttered Morristown College.
In the 1990s, when I got accepted to Northwestern University, a white classmate told me it was because I was black, not because of my 4.3 GPA. Today, many of my younger relatives struggle to even attend — or afford — any college at all, scraping by on jobs that pay less than $15 an hour.
Yet people inside the U.S. Department of Justice are suggesting the real problem is anti-white bias in affirmative action, one of our nation’s most comprehensive efforts to dismantle systematic, historic and ongoing discrimination against marginalized groups. Forces behind anti-affirmative action lawsuits have begun to position Asian students as the latest group being hurt, rather than helped.
Our government’s plans to investigate discrimination against white students at our nation’s colleges and universities remind me of a familiar narrative: Black people game the system, and get an unfair advantage. It’s the latest version of the grossly inaccurate “welfare queen” figure popularized by Ronald Reagan as a justification for slashing federal safety nets and driving families into poverty. (Linda Taylor identified as white, mixed race or other heritages, but was described as unambigously black when she was labeled the welfare queen.)
Reality is far more complex.
It’s true that black women represent one of the largest-growing groups of bachelor’s degree recipients, according to the Status of Black Women in the United States report released in June by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
And the number of businesses owned by black women increased 178 percent between 2002 and 2012, the largest increase among women or men.
But even with these gains, black women still experience poverty at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group. On most every economic indicator, race matters. Businesses owned by black women had the lowest average sales per firm among all racial and ethnic groups of women and men, at just under $28,000. And black women’s median annual earnings ($34,000 for full-time, year-round work) lag behind most other women’s and men’s.
As a successful, middle-class black professional, I have financially supported relatives to attend college, paid friends’ mortgages, sent care packages to jail, and paid more car notes and phone bills for friends and family members than I can count. I have yet to hear one white friend or colleague share stories like this.
I’m glad to work at an organization that understands this, by investing about 40 percent of its grantmaking dollars last year in organizations supporting black women and girls.
When one group’s educational and economic life improves, we all benefit. Let’s reject the false narrative that pits any group against another.
As Black Philanthropy Month winds down, let us recommit our resources to breaking down barriers that limit opportunities for any group — for the long haul — so that no one is denied the chance to achieve their full potential.
Alysia Tate is director of programs at the Chicago Foundation for Women. www.cfw.org
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