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Color of Money: The cost of racism

Michelle Singletary on

Her reasoning was ridiculous, I thought at the time. But I understand better now why Big Mama was so frightened. She experienced firsthand how freedom, land, jobs and homes were denied or taken way from blacks. My grandmother's terror of losing what she had worked so hard to achieve wasn't paranoia. It was real.

Thankfully, my high school counselor referred me to a scholarship competition sponsored by the Baltimore Sun newspapers. Big Mama didn't need to sign any paperwork. I applied on my own. And I won.

It was a four-year scholarship that paid all of my tuition, room and board and offered a stipend for books. It also included four summers of paid internships alternating between The Sun and the now defunct Evening Sun. If I did well in school and during the summer internships, I would be offered a full-time position at one of the newspapers. I did succeed, and I took a position at the Evening Sun after graduating from the University of Maryland at College Park.

I know I was fortunate. But throughout my career, Big Mama panicked about upward moves I wanted to make. When The Washington Post offered me a job, she wanted me to turn it down.

"Child, you should stay with what you know," she said.

Here's another real legacy of racism -- envy. Some of my relatives were not supportive of my efforts to get a higher education.

"You think you're better than me because you go to college?" I often heard.

Such comments would cut to the core. When I got a better job or bigger home, they tried to make me feel guilty about my success. And often I did feel bad.

I would ask myself, "Why wouldn't my people want me to do better? Why would they be so envious?"

One tactic that slaveholders employed to purposefully create tension among slaves -- thus preventing unity and possible uprisings -- was to give more privileges to some slaves. For instance, lighter-skinned slaves -- often the product of rape -- would work in the "big house" and so comparatively may have gotten better clothing or food than darker slaves working in the fields. As a race, African-Americans are still dealing with this division.

As I watched the ugliness on the streets of Charlottesville, it was as real for me as it is for so many minorities. We have to fight against the psychological effects of decades of degradation and racist economic suppression.

The streets of Charlottesville may have been cleared, but it's vital that we not ignore that bigotry is still around and the cost it has on people of color. We can't afford to allow racism to survive.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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