Is There Ever A Point Where You Can Be Too Rich For Racism?

August 12, 2013  |  

Is it possible to transcend race, particularly racism?

In the book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson writes very convincingly that the black community is broken up into four distinct parts: the mainstream middle class with a stake and ownership in America; the small transcendent elite, who have the power to make white folks genuflect; two emerging classes of African immigrants and biracial people; the large abandoned minority, who have little hope of escaping poverty. Of these classes, Robinson writes:

The Mainstream tend to doubt the authenticity of the Emergent, but they’re usually too polite, or too politically correct, to say so out loud. The Abandoned accuse the Emergent—the immigrant segment, at least—of moving into abandoned neighborhoods and using the locals as mere stepping-stones. The immigrant Emergent, with their intact families and long-range mind-set, ridicule the Abandoned for being their own worst enemies. The Mainstream bemoan the plight of the Abandoned—but express their deep concern from a distance. The Transcendent, to steal the old line about Boston society, speak only to God; they are idolized by the Mainstream and the Emergent for the obstacles they have overcome, and by the Abandoned for the shiny things they own. Mainstream, Emergent, and Transcendent all lock their car doors when they drive through an Abandoned neighborhood. They think the Abandoned don’t hear the disrespectful thunk of the locks; they’re wrong.”

I am reminded about the differences of experiences for these four economic and social segments in the black community after reading about the profiling and racial discrimination Oprah Winfrey experienced on her recent trip to Switzerland. Clearly race still matters, even for the black elite like Winfrey. But at some point, you have to acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, what color you are probably matters less when your net worth is up in the billions. At the very least (or most depending upon how you view things), it should be enough to make a few white folks, as Robinson would say, genuflect – maybe even the entire country of Switzerland (which on Friday issued an apology through its tourism bureau to the media mogul for being discriminated against at an upscale Zurich boutique).

In the Entertainment Tonight interview, which managed to garner international attention, Winfrey spoke very candidly about the existence of racism and how even a woman of her influential stature has experiences with it, although it will manifest itself differently. In the video, Winfrey declares with a matter of certainty that, “Nobody in their right mind, unless they’re a Twitter thug, is going to call me the N-word.” Why? She doesn’t say, but let’s just assume it’s because she’s got-damn Oprah “Money Bags” Winfrey and she can buy and sell your a** 20 times over.

Nevertheless, Winfrey says that “True racism is being able to have power over somebody else, so that doesn’t happen to me that way.” Winfrey then goes on to give scenarios of the types of racism she experiences: the first example involves being the only black woman in the boardrooms where she does business. Although she doesn’t give detail of a specific incident, she does tells us about a feeling she gets that “They don’t sense that I should be holding one of those few seats.” The second incident is more detailed and involves the boutique in Switzerland, which we all by now pretty familiar with.

While Winfrey sees her personal instances of racism as different, in actuality, what Winfrey experiences in the boardrooms as well as as in that upscale boutique in Switzerland, is no different than the kind of racism that the average black person would experience. We might not be post-racial, but we are certainly more passive aggressive and subtle as a society in how people express their inward hatred for one another. Therefore, your all-white coworkers might not call you a “N-Word” to your face (and yes, calling someone a N-Word does seem to be mostly reserved nowadays for Twitter thugs, operating from safe distances) but, just like Winfrey, they will certainly create energies in the environment, often hostile, to let you know that you do not belong. Likewise, we all have our own personal stories of being told or made to feel in some way or form that we didn’t belong in a shopping experience – whether we are followed, denied entry, detained, ignored, or even directed to much more “suitable” items. It’s called Shopping While Black. Therefore, this type of subtle and unspoken racism is not exclusive to rich billionaire Oprah. In fact, it is pretty universal to every segment of the black community.

But although the experience of racism is the same, what is different is how a person of Winfrey’s stature is able to find resolution. Despite being routinely subjected to subtle forms of racism in workplaces and out on shopping experiences, rarely do average black folks have a way to seek addresses for those grievances (particularly relating to more subtle forms of racism), which doesn’t negatively affect them financially. And that’s if those grievances are even taken seriously. Yet Winfrey uses an incident at the boutique as merely an anecdote during an interview and her incident of racism is received much more serious in tone and with higher regard than if it had occurred to the non-billionaire version of Black John and Jane. Enough to warrant an apology from Switzerland’s tourism bureau for “terribly wrong” behavior even as they have yet to address the grievances of actual black citizens (and non citizens) of Switzerland, who are being denied housing, jobs, and harassed out on the streets, in large numbers, because of the color of their skin.

And we’ve seen this kind of disproportionate response to the racism experienced by prominent blacks before. Remember when noted and highly-regarded scholar and historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. was detained and arrested for allegedly breaking into his own house? Gates’ situation, while deplorable, was no different than the experience of the average young black or brown man in New York City. And yet his incident was found important enough to warrant a response (and ultimately a beer summit) from the President of the United States whereas the black and brown men of NYC, who have been stopped and interrogated by police more than 4 million times since 2002, has yet to garner that same level of concern and intervention.

Another point to consider is that had the salesperson known that Winfrey was in fact, Oprah, her attitude towards her would have likely been different – unless of course the sales clerk was a hardcore racist and just didn’t want any black folks near the exclusive products (does happen). But very few people, even with their personal bias and prejudices, would have turned down a healthy commission off an almost $40k bag (had she purchased it). In other words, it wasn’t just because Winfrey was black, it was because it was assumed that she was black and broke.

So it does beg the question: is there a point where the color of your skin no longer matters as much as how much you have in your pockets? Can a person really transcend race and what does this mean for the rest of the segments of the black community, particularly those in the Abandoned class? I’m thinking, what if Oprah had been an actual poor black woman, who just wanted to “see” the purse? I imagine the response from most people would have been very different. I could see poor Oprah being escorted out the store by security, if not the actual police. I could see very few folks, of any color, being sympathetic.

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