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Color of Money: The cost of racism

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Racism has taken a toll on our society in many ways. One of its costs has been the lost economic mobility of generations of minorities.

I nearly lost mine.

Like so many, I watched the horridness that was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend, including the twisted, angry faces of racist marchers and the blows landed by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Their punches personified their bigoted views.

The rallies should remind us all of the long-term psychological impact of racism and why it's so hard to overcome. It was because of racist policies that my grandmother Big Mama was scared to change jobs, invest her savings or seek out opportunities that might bring a higher standard of living.

Big Mama worried constantly that whites would take away the assets she had accumulated. It made her extremely secretive about her finances. Her anxiety was a learned behavior from her grandparents, who were slaves. Slavery left them with a deeply rooted fear -- and justifiably so -- of being ripped away not just from their family but also from what they owned. This dread was passed on to my grandmother. So at times, when I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity, Big Mama would discourage it.

I nearly didn't go to college because my grandmother was afraid.

In my senior year of high school, like so many other students, I was trying to gather information to complete the paperwork to apply for financial aid. My high school guidance counselor said I would qualify for the federal Pell Grant program, which was created to help needy students go to college.

My grandmother couldn't afford my tuition on her own, so the Pell grant would have been my ticket to obtaining a higher education.

Big Mama refused to provide the information I needed to fill out the financial aid forms.

"No, sir, I'm not signing anything," I recall her saying. "Ain't no white man going to take my house."

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