Joseph Gerics, Ed.D.
Retired Catholic school educator
Resides in Stratford
The town of Trumbull is currently racked by controversy over its advisory diversity committee, after the chair compared the Blue Lives Matter flag to the Confederate flag. Supporters claim she was speaking from personal experience of racism; critics accuse her of anti-police bias. Underlying this debate are divergent understandings of racism.
Folks like me, “on the back nine,” as one contemporary put it, and also white and middle class, are personally insulated from racism. When some minorities claim they encounter racism nearly every day, some of us just don’t see it at all, not having experienced it directly. We often think about race in terms of progress we have seen over the last 50 years.
No doubt much has changed. In 1965 the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed. Racial slurs and race-based “jokes,” fairly common in our youth, even in President Reagan’s cabinet, are largely unacceptable today. Minorities are far more visible in mainstream culture, particularly sports and entertainment. It is illegal to discriminate against minorities in hiring and housing, and some institutions and enterprises practice affirmative action. Many consider this remarkable progress.
Yet the significance of these changes is debatable. Since the Trump era hundreds of laws in 43 states have been proposed to limit voting access (Washington Post). Minorities are visible as “talent”—athletes and actors—while remaining underrepresented in management and practically invisible in ownership. Racial discrimination persists: hiring is subjective, and proving that race was a decisive factor in evaluating qualifications is difficult. Discrimination in rentals has been repeatedly demonstrated in many cities.
So what counts as progress against racism? Answering is not simply a question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, but of two distinct meanings of racism. The first is racial bias. Many whites claim not to be prejudiced. They may avoid and even speak out against racial “humor.” Never having hired anyone or rented to anyone, they may not have discriminated. They may have Black friends.
Yet most whites and Blacks live in separate social networks that manifest and perpetuate racism. Look at our churches, which still reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s comment seventy years ago that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Look around most workplaces—hospitals are particularly striking—to observe the color of the professionals and the color of the manual laborers.
Look at our schools. Central High School in Bridgeport is 14% white, 43% Hispanic and 38% Black (SchoolDigger). Trumbull High School is 73% white. Joel Barlow High School, serving Easton and Redding, is 85% white. Weston High School is 86.5% white.
Do racial demographics make a difference? Well, per pupil expenditures are $13,491 at Central, $17,350 at Trumbull, $23,477 at Barlow and $23,419 at Weston.
Wealthy suburban students are further advantaged in college placement. Despite the recent scandals resulting in prison for Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, most of us consider admissions a meritocracy based on objective standards like SAT scores. Unfortunately, not so. The best predictor of SAT performance is family income.
On average students from families with incomes under $20,000 score 970; those with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000 score 1070, those with incomes between $100,000 and $140,000 score 1150, and those with incomes over $200,000 score 1230 (College Board via Collegevine).
The average net worth of white families, $171,000, is almost ten times that of Black families (Brookings Institution, 2020). While exclusionary zoning in wealthy towns and neighborhoods may not be intentionally racist, it is effectively racist. Proportionately fewer Black families can afford home ownership in the first place, let alone homes on relatively large tracts of land. Trumbull, far more affordable than Easton and Weston, has an average house price of $399,200; Bridgeport’s is less than half, $174,700.
White families prefer to live in white neighborhoods. Research shows that property values decline once more than ten percent of a neighborhood is Black, and the loss in value continues as the proportion of Black neighbors increases (NYT op-ed).
Suburban officials resist state efforts encouraging affordable housing on the grounds of “preserving the character” of their towns, while denying that exclusionary zoning is racist. If racism means only prejudice, they may be justified, because “preserving the character of our town” is code for “keeping the poor out,” not only minorities.
That is precisely why we must acknowledge institutional racism, structural advantages whites in general enjoy compared to subordinated minorities. Whites are protected by a veil of privilege we normally don’t think about. In limiting racism to prejudice, we miss its pervasiveness. By taking a broader societal perspective, whites can start to grasp how we have benefited from generations of white supremacy.
Middle class whites like me tend to look at good fortune in our careers and financial security in retirement as earned rewards for hard work, diligence and frugality in delaying immediate gratification for the long term. We don’t reflect on other groups who work just as hard, yet reap far fewer rewards. We were wise in investing in home ownership and taking advantage of the resulting federal tax breaks, even if these benefits were unavailable to renters. And, if every increase in our property values means that poorer families are frozen out of the housing market, well, that’s just the way our capitalist economy works.
So, can Blue Lives Matter flags be compared to Confederate flags? Those defining racism solely as individual bias and prejudice would judge such a comparison unfair. But for those who recognize social structures that produce racist outcomes, including policies and practices that result in violence on Black bodies on a regular basis, the comparison may be valid.
Moving from the personal to the structural in thinking about race can be troubling. Few whites in Fairfield County want to fly Confederate flags. We all want our children to have a quality education and our homes to appreciate in value.
It is unsettling to unpack the implications of those desires in our segregated society. It’s not enough to join the next Black Lives Matter march if whites continue to send our children to segregated schools, and profit from tax, zoning and housing policies that benefit us while disadvantaging minorities.