In the past, Old Money in America has been predominantly, but not exclusively, Caucasian. The term WASP, for White Anglo Saxon Protestant, didn’t just come out of nowhere, and being a “Wasp” is often akin to having some of the cultural characteristics of Old Money (conservative dress, reserved behavior, and maybe driving an old Volvo.) As immigrants continue to arrive on our shore, what Old Money looks like is slowly but surely changing. But issues remain. And I’m going to address them here.
At the risk of assuming the role of Captain Obvious, I’m going to say that racism was and is a problem in America. Old Money–the upper class, if you like–has as much of it as any other social class. Sociologists have studied and debated its causes exhaustively. Activists have worked for change tirelessly. Those in positions of leadership, and those with moral authority (professors, priests, pastors, and the like) have implored with their respective followers to see others in a fairer, more compassionate light. Demagogues have, in opposition, fanned the flames of hate with vile rhetoric, mostly to serve their own agendas.
While there has obviously been progress, it’s equally as obvious that we still have a long way to go. So, what’s Old Money’s role in this journey? First, like Voltaire once said, we’ve got to cultivate our own garden. It’s not easy and rarely pleasant to take a look in the mirror and be honest about less-than-noble aspects of ourselves. But if we’re going to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life, that’s exactly what we have to do on a regular basis.
When we see people whose skin color is different from our own, what are we afraid of? What are we angry about? Why are we so certain that they don’t share many of the values that we share? What makes us believe that their hopes and dreams for the future are so different from ours?
Our past plays a huge part, to be sure. If you’re over 50 years of age, you can easily recall de facto if not dejure segregation. You heard comments and opinions that came from your parents, extended family, friends, classmates, and colleagues. You absorbed, considered or rejected these in whole or in part as you grew up and experienced the world on your own terms.
So the first thing each of us has to do is ask ourselves some hard questions about how we really perceive and treat others, and why. This is a personal exercise, and no one can really do it for anyone else.
The second big player in creating our psychological landscape is the media. Even with ‘diversity’ being touted widely and as passionately as it is today, the mainstream media subtly and overtly promotes racial stereotypes consistently. (I don’t look at the mainstream media as being ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, which it certainly may be. I look at it as being ‘corporate’, which it certainly is.)
So, in addition to asking ourselves some tough personal questions and challenging ourselves to personal growth, we might also consider backing off our daily diet of sensational television news and less-than-quality internet content.
As we do this, we must also endeavor to identify what might be cultural differences that exist between us and someone else–the kind of food they eat, how they entertain, the traditions and celebrations they observe and participate in, the clothes they wear–as opposed to seeing them as ‘less than’ because they are different.
We also have to search for common ground. It’s a cliche, but it’s also very easy. Most African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, and Wasps all want their children to get a good education. They want to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. They want opportunity. They want a society that is, more often than not, fair. They want to be respected, and they want to be heard.
To find, experience, and embrace this common ground, you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone and mix it up with folks different than yourself every once in a while. It’s just that simple. Yes, they may be from a different social class than you, but, as one of our recent contributors stated, if you can’t hang out with kings and commoners alike, you really aren’t Old Money.
Most of what I’ve discussed so far is what we can do individually. What can we do as a society? This, too, is simple.
First of all, we have to get back to our Source Document. That’s the one a bunch of white guys drafted a couple of centuries ago that mentioned that thing about All Men Being Created Equal. Granted, women didn’t have the right to vote and slavery was in full-force when this was written. I’m not sure, but I think that you had to own property to vote. It was not exactly a time or place of robust voting or human rights. I think we just didn’t like the king.
Historical contradictions aside, this is the ideal that this country was founded on and has, uneven and often misguided laws and endeavors aside, tried to adhere to and achieve. And it’s this ideal that most of us still believe in.
So how do we collectively continue to work toward this? How do we form a society that is less racist? There are some simple steps that admittedly are not original, but bear repeating.
First, we’ve got to have equal protection under law. Fire departments respond to a fire in a nice part of town the same way they do in a poor part of town. They do their best, regardless of who they’re serving. Police need to do the same. The courts need to do the same. Public officials (Flint, Michigan) need to do the same.
Working people need to make sure they won’t be fired for no reason, or an unjust one. Business owners need to be regulated fairly, but not overly so. Yes, it’s a tricky balance, but we need to do better.
Second, we need to make sure that all children get equal access to healthcare. How we do this is up for heated debate at present, and this debate will probably continue. But children don’t ask to come into this world. They are vulnerable, and they are our hope. It is not only unfair but inhuman to allow them to suffer, especially in this era of modern medicine.
Third, we need to create a more equitable education system. Schools in poor neighborhoods don’t remotely compare to schools in affluent neighborhoods. What’s more, an educated populace may concern some people, even if they won’t admit it. So let me address that without ambiguity.
If you’re so certain that you’re superior to other races, classes, or groups of people, then please allow them to get a quality education so they can enter the workforce with relatively the same tools that you have. This way they can compete with you on a more level playing field and make their way in the world based on their intelligence and hard work.
Still, you’ll have nothing to worry about because you’re so superior, and this won’t threaten your position in society, or your ability to prosper. If you can’t handle that challenge comfortably, I would suggest you seek out a country where the system of capitalism is less demanding and based more on cronyism than vision, innovation, and drive.
Because this is America. This is where people arrive with nothing and educate their children. Those children move into the suburbs. And their children have the opportunities to rise, remain, or fall based largely on their own initiative and talent. Every subsequent generation has something to build on because we, as a society, endeavor to make this country a fairer, more inclusive place to live.
No Money becomes New Money and may even make it to Old Money. To limit or truncate this dynamic is to erode one of the most important aspects of our country: upward mobility.
In summary, I don’t expect us all to be singing Kumbaya, My Lord, around a campfire this weekend. However, it would be nice if we didn’t kill each other on a regular basis.
We all have prejudices. If we don’t have the courage to address them and change, then we can at least have the decency to let them remain private, act in a civil fashion in public, and let others, whatever their skin color or religion, make their way in a world that, day by day, becomes more just.
13 thoughts on “Racism: Roots and Remedies”
Thanks, Amy. – BGT
Another good one. Especially the part of a quality education for everyone from little up and then competing on a level playing field. It’s’ easy to feel so superior when you’ve been given so many opportunities that you take for granted. You only know what you’ve been taught! Thanks, Byron
Thank you, Bev. Much appreciated. – BGT
Chapter IV – compulsory reading
Chapter VI as well
Outstanding piece Byron, I just loved it! You know I don’t partake in social media, but I just had to say ‘bloody well done!
Thank you, Jessica. I’m glad you enjoyed it. – BGT
Hi Byron. This is so well said. Thank you for writing it. I’m African-American and the values of Old Money resonate with me deeply. As I was reading your book, I was curious if it included your experience with African-Americans who are Old Money as well. In response to the last line of your book, I intend to join you. (Wink, nod.)
Thank you, Simone. My experience is that Old Money, whether it’s WASPs, African Americans, Hispanics or Asians, behaves much the same. Everybody prioritizes education, family, hard work, privacy, and financial independence. Everybody tends to dress modestly and speak articulately and quietly. Life is filled with hard work, simple pleasures, and a sense of purpose.
Old Money Guys and Gals in the African American community have expressed to me a sense of alienation from many of their coworkers and some friends who still pursue the “glam and glitz” and make more a priority of putting on a show than having money in the bank. My response was candid: “Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger.” When you start adopting the Old Money lifestyle, you’re going to retreat from some activities, some habits, and some people. It’s sad, but it’s inevitable. And it happens, no matter what your ethnicity.
The flip side is that you’re going to enter a whole new world where material possessions mean less and accomplishments, relationships, and experiences mean much more. You’re going to find yourself having much more in common with people whom, at first glance, you’d think you’d have nothing in common with. It’ll be a shock and a surprise and a joy.
Regrettably, I’ve found that Old Money African Americans and Old Money WASPs don’t socialize and do business together as much as I’d like them to. If I could do some social engineering, I’d get these two groups together and try to quietly initiate some lasting change in our country.
There’s a book entitled “The Other Brahmins” by Adelaide Cromwell which you might find informative and enlightening. It’s available on Amazon.
Thanks again for the kind words, and welcome. – BGT
I truly appreciate your thoughtful reply, Byron. I’m very much looking forward to reading “The Other Brahmins”, as you’ve recommended, and your future posts here. And, thank you for the welcome.
P.S. Apologies for the double post.
Hi Simone, it’s so good to see you here! I’m late to the party, but right on time.
I grew up next door to a New Orleans Creole family that has been well-off for more than a century and many other wealthy Black families were quietly tucked into the neighborhood. Old Money Black folks have always been around; they’re quiet, inconspicuous and, they are often a pretty closed society, but I’m not mad at them for that!
Byron, you hit the nail on the head with this piece. You’re right, nothing changes before looking in the mirror first and confronting assumptions. It boils down to knowing that we’re all completely human, all equal before God, and all entitled to respect. The rest is icing on the cake and without it the quest for equal opportunity is undermined by disrespect and sabotage. Thanks for your honesty.
Hi Byron. This is so well said. Thank you for writing it. I’m African-American and the values of Old Money resonate with me deeply. As I was reading your book, I was curious if it included your experience with African-Americans who are Old Money as well. In response to the last line of your book, I intend to join you.