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Why I Feel Less American Than White People
Ria Parker
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A few years ago, my sister, mom, and I went to Pennsylvania for a mini-getaway. One day, we went to the bank and found ourselves walking behind a white man. I saw him look back at us a couple of times with fear on his face, and he started walking faster. He acted like he thought we were going to rob him!

When he arrived at the bank we were right behind him. He pulled the door open fast and was getting ready to close it on us, but my mom caught it. When we were walking back to the hotel I asked in disbelief, “Did you see the way that man was closing the door on us?”

“Yeah, he thought we were following him,” my sister said.

“That’s the world we live in,” my mom said.

This may be the world we live in, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it.

I’ve been taught in school that the government is supposed to protect all Americans from harm and guarantee our rights, but black people aren’t treated as fairly as whites in the court system. According to the latest statistics from The Sentencing Project, an organization that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system, black people are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites. In some states, including New Jersey, that rate is 10 times. In Maryland it’s even worse: 72% of the prison population is black.

‘Less Than’ Labels

Because I’m black, I am labeled an African-American and not simply American. It’s the same with people of other ethnicities and races even though they may have been born here—for example Asian-American or Mexican-American. But we seldom hear European-American or White-American to identify a white person. They are just American.

These labels make me feel like people of other colors and races will never be as American as white people. I think of this when I’m filling out surveys or job or school applications and they ask you to check off the box to identify your race. I wonder if I will be considered “less” when they see that I’ve checked off black or African-American.

When many envision an American, they likely think of a white person with blue eyes and blonde hair. When you look up the word “American” on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are of white people.

Technically, the indigenous people of this country should be called American and define what an American is, since they were on this soil first.

image by YC-Art Dept

In 1776, America gained its independence, but my ancestors weren’t freed until almost a hundred years later. Even after slavery was abolished, Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted and blacks continued to be treated as second-class
citizens for another 100 years.

Separate and Not Equal

Jim Crow laws allowed for segregated bathrooms, schools, and seating on buses and in restaurants. And separate did not mean equal. For example, black public schools were given hand-me-down school supplies from the white schools and were funded at a fraction of what the government gave white schools.

In the 1920s, some southern states passed laws that allowed only whites to vote in primary elections, another device to keep blacks down and guarantee white supremacy.

Other barriers whites created to prevent blacks from being able to vote were poll taxes and literacy tests. To terrorize blacks and keep them from protesting, whites used violence. According to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal organization, more than 4,000 black men, women, and children were lynched in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950.

Discrimination Continues

This massive legal and cultural effort was not just in the South. Between 1934 and 1968, federal housing agencies refused to give home loans to black people, which meant they couldn’t buy homes in white communities. In New York, the federal loan subsidies for housing developments like Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan and Levittown on Long Island required that they be reserved for whites only. If somehow blacks did get into white neighborhoods, they were often terrorized into leaving.

In 1944, the GI Bill was passed. It provided veterans who fought in World War II with benefits such as free college tuition, job placement, and home loans. But most of these benefits were denied to black veterans. A major study in the 1940s conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Veterans Committee found that it was “as though the GI Bill has been earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’ ”

All of these laws and prohibitions were designed to keep African-Americans locked into an underclass and prevented from being as whole as whites in American society.

Generations of African-Americans were prevented by law and even violence from buying houses, voting for lawmakers who might have had their interests in mind, and going to good schools. Therefore they couldn’t build up their wealth and the opportunities it provides. When you look at statistics on housing, education, and jobs, black numbers are going to be low: Slavery and legal segregation are still affecting us.

So when white people look at “us,” of course we may appear “less” to them. This in turn makes me feel like less of an American because that’s how some white people see me.

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(NYC-2017-09-05)

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