Two months ago in this column, I referenced a startling study that painted a bleak picture of the outsize role race plays in the lives of black boys in this country.
The sweeping study, which analyzed earnings and demographic data for nearly all Americans in their 30s, found that black boys who grow up rich are more likely to become poor as adults, as reported by the New York Times. (Their white counterparts were likely to remain rich, the study found.)
Frustrated, frightened and fed up, I asked readers to send in their solutions to the lingering legacy of racism. In the weeks since, I’ve heard from scores of readers — 43 to be exact (not counting those who commented online). Each email was thoughtful and unfailingly polite. I can’t say I agreed with all of the sentiments, but I was grateful for each one.
Nearly all respondents (most of whom identified themselves as white), expressed thankfulness to have even been asked the question. Outside of that, their opinions varied wildly.
Some urged me to ignore the study and anything else that feeds my parental fears. “Trust yourself,” was the underlying message.
“I would take that article from the NYT and throw it in the trash,” one woman wrote. “It is written to make you feel hopeless.”
Far more people than I would have guessed disbelieved the study’s findings, despite the fact that it was conducted by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau.
“See if you can find some actual research on this,” another woman wrote. “It simply seems incorrect.”
A man from Abingdon advised me to view the study as biased toward the authors’ belief that racism underlies all.
“Yes, there is racism everywhere one cares to look,” he wrote. “But, I am a believer in personal fortitude. Take 2 steps forward and only 1 back. Hard work does pay off. The harder one works, the luckier they get. One cannot sit around as a victim or wait for a handout and feel good about themselves.”
Such bootstrapper beliefs were common.
For example, an 87-year-old white man suggested that my husband and I “focus on self-sufficiency”:
“My first thought is to stop obsessing about the ones who are not successful. Look instead to those who are, for example Walter Williams, Ben Carson, Thomas Sowell, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and the Tuskegee Airmen. I suspect that the problem of getting ahead for black men has more to do with culture than skin color. I have read that black men from Haiti living in the U.S. earn well more than native-born blacks.”
Ben Carson and the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II, showed up multiple times in reader responses.
A woman from Chincoteague, Va., combined the themes of self-reliance and successful role modeling: “Use examples for your sons of grown black — and white — men who best represent your principles. Robert Kennedy comes to mind, but don't forget about the Tuskegee Airmen!! I bet their mothers ignored studies, and just trusted in themselves.”
A black mom like me, however, shared the fear that no matter what we do, it might not be enough. She equated the “constant uphill battle” our boys face to that of the doomed Greek king Sisyphus, a metaphor the writer in me loved.
“Thank you for inviting the conversation and for being vulnerable enough to let readers like me know that I'm not in it alone,” she wrote. “And that no one of us has [the] awesome and weighty responsibility of raising, nurturing, and protecting black boys, figured out … especially with nearly 400 years of experience in this country, where century after century, those in power uphold and institutionalize systems of racism, inequity, and oppression and deny our full humanity. Our understanding of ‘successfully’ growing black boys to men remains a work in progress.”
The vast majority of respondents expressed sorrow and sympathy for the position my husband and I feel we’re in.
“Although I had many fears for my son when he was growing up, I did not fear that he would fail in any way because of the color of his skin,” one mother wrote. “As a mother, I try to understand what this fear must be like. I want to apologize to you on behalf of our country for adding this fear to the already-difficult task of being a parent. I apologize to you for the sin of racism that lies at the root of so many of our social problems.”
My very favorite comment came from a self-professed “old white lady” (she’s 67) who had few answers (same here!) and said only this: “Please tell your boys that for every person that is unkind, hurtful, or discouraging to them that there are 100+ of us who are quietly rooting for them. They might not know us or ever meet us, but we are here and we are wishing the very best for them.”
I hope they do meet her and those 99-plus others. But if not, we’ll keep pushing the rock uphill and hope for the best. If there’s one thing these thoughtful responses seemed to agree upon, it’s that there’s really not much more we can do.
Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works in communications at Constellation. She and her husband have twin 8-year-old sons, a 6-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears monthly.