I LOVE MY MAMA!
Correction: I love both of my parents, but I especially love my mama because she is one of my best friends. We have served to fill the gap that my late grandmother left.
If you have known me at all during my 28 ½ years of life, then you would know that, aside from my late grandmother, my mother is undoubtedly the person who knows me best — quirks, routines, habits, vices, etc. There is nothing that I would not do for my mother, and (mostly) vice versa. So, trust me when I say that success for me is often times envisioned as me travelling, writing & lecturing, becoming U.S. Secretary of State, and buying, either a large house for me & my family (I’m too broke to think about marriage or children) or a large brownstone for me and a ranch style house for my mama-n-em. This love, devotion, and need to make my mama (and daddy) proud is what has driven me to any modicum of success. At the same time, that very same love, devotion, and need to make my parents proud is also contributing to the modern cycle of working poverty that my peers and I face.
My family is like many of yours — we have got elders who laid the foundation, we have got middle-aged aunties and uncles that tried to take the next step (via military, some college, and a good job for 30+ years), and we have got cousins (military, some college or a degree, some working, some ne’er-do-well). To an extent, I am perceived to be the one that would go to college and “make something of themselves” and, I have felt the pressures, internal and external, of that. Notably, I have always felt a pressure, real or not, to use my academic prowess to pave a way for me and my family to take the next step, socioeconomically. With that next step, I have felt a perceived familial obligation to help my parents out and “pay them back” for the many sacrifices that they have made to get me to this point in life. Granted, they have never specifically asked for that, but it is a debt that I feel is owed to them; and, more importantly, that it come first before my own gratification. It is the familial tithe coming after the spiritual tithe (which is on my bucket list but right now my bank account is telling God to hold on this this $20). And, this is something that I know many of my black and minority friends, colleagues, and contemporaries feel as well.
What I call the “familial tithe” is based on familial or generational wealth, and there is evidence below to prove it.
“According to The New York Times, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04. Also, The Economic Policy Institutefound that more than one in four black households have zero or negative net worth, compared to less than one in ten white families without wealth. The Institute for Policy Studies recent report The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Divide is Hollowing Out the America’s Middle Class (RZW)showed that between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700), and the median Latino household declined 50 percent (from $4,000 to $2,000). At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800.”
“Furthermore, blacks have an annual spending power of $1.2 trillion, but their households only held a median of $11,000 of wealth in 2013, according to federal data. What’s even more disturbing is that by 2053, the median wealth for black families will fall to zero if the gap continues to widen at its current pace. The median wealth for whites is 12 times higher than that of blacks at around $140,000, and the inequality in wealth continues to grow and widen with each generation.”
“Another consideration are ‘intergenerational financial transfers,’ like when a parent helps a recent college grad out with rent or, say, gives her $1,000 a month to spend on whatever she pleases — the two looked specifically at how family inheritances, which are usually larger and tend to come all at once, factor into building and maintaining wealth…’About 13 percent of black, college-educated families get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families,’ according to a release announcing new research. More specifically, white families that receive such an inheritance receive, on average, more than $150,000 from the previous generation, whereas that figure is less than $40,000 for black families. As Mark Huelsman, a policy analyst at Demos, an advocacy group, tweeted previously, ‘the average family inheritance to a white college grad can pay off the average undergrad debt balance’ — more than $30,000 — ‘and have enough left over for a 20 percent down [payment] on a $575,000 home.’ (And that’s assuming the inheritor has student debt to begin with.)”
As a black person, we are raised with an ever-present consciousness of our history and our family’s plight to set us up for success. Once we achieve success, we feel a duty and obligation to not only pay it forward, but also to pay back those who have made it possible. This is something that our white contemporaries do not have to contend with as they are born into generational wealth, even poor whites are buffeted by institutional and systemic bias and white privilege. This emotional and financial tax on black and minority success is engrained, both, culturally and societally.
Culturally, we know that through W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” principle that a small segment of the black populations is generally able to breakthrough into upper and upper-middle class white society and become pioneers who suffer isolation and humiliation by white peers, yet are, both, revered by and expected to use their access and skills to uplift the vast majority of blacks precluded in the lower socioeconomic wrung due to racism and other discriminatory factors. Societally, we see this in practice in the form of affirmative action in academia and tokening in diversity & inclusion spaces, where a talented few blacks are allowedinto traditionally white spaces to, either, meet a quota or to add “flavor” to an organization. Yet, these black people remain marginalized as a result of being the only (or few) minority and there not being any resources or groups to allow them to feel included or white folks not receiving cultural sensitivity training to learn how to deal with blacks and minorities. Furthermore, those organizations often do not see the incentive of adding more diverse people to the pool continuously in order to shift the culture of pervasive whiteness. Subsequently, those minorities within the affirmative action or tokening lens sometimes begin to perceive themselves as exceptional of the rest of their community or forget the community altogether and begin to associate with the white culture (ex. “Get Out”). In addition, those receiving affirmative action or tokening are also expected to lift up and move those unable to receive those opportunities with them through income (“let me hold a dolla”), experience (“you work with these white folks, you think you could help me…”), or skillset (“you know you always been the writer/politician in the family, who you know that could…”). The pressure borne on these individuals is not fault of their own or of the community that needs their support and which has supported that individual, but it is the result of institutionalized and system racism embedded in all layers of society.
I have experienced this pressure at my high school which is an all-boys Catholic school in Cleveland and has one of the largest minority populations of the many private and parochial schools. I love my alma mater and I am grateful for the education received and friendships made there. Specifically, I am humbled by the many financial sacrifices made by my parents and my late grandmother to allow me to go there. However, it was maybe 30 blacks in my graduating class of 115. Moreover, one of my best friends and I were the only black students in National Honor Society when we were inducted our senior year, maybe the only ones to take multiple AP courses, and one of the few to graduate with honors. However, we knew the expectations that we had for ourselves, our families had, our white peers had, and our black peers had regarding our success. Recently, I met with the school President (my former Chemistry teacher) to discuss the issues of retention and recruitment of black students to the school. I pointed out causes for these issues stemming from the fact that there is an absence of black faculty and leadership, the lack of courses, clubs, resources, and mentoring made available for black students, and the lack of fostered engagement of black alumni by the school, none of which were available when I attended. In that meeting, I laid the facts bare and sternly. Moreover, I offered to do what I could help better the situation for current and future black students. I have not heard anything back yet from the school as for next steps….
I am blessed with skillsets as a writer, a policy analyst, and as a government and community relations professional. I was always aware of the opportunities that these skillsets would afford me and the advancement in that may still come my way (one day). I also recognize that I have helped my family and community financially, both, when I had a job and currently when I do not. I do that because I love them and I would do anything for them, but also because I owe them for helping get me where I am today. I know I will continue this, likely, well after my parents are gone, and I don’t mind. However, I know that I and many of my peers should not have to do this, because the system has been stacked against us from the start. However, each time I want to say forget it and forget the system, I remember the loans and mortgage refinancing and other sacrifices that my parents made to get me here, how I want to see the smile on their face whenever I am able to get them a place to live debt-free one day. This matters to me because I live not just for myself, but I live to make my mama proud.