During my career as a mathematics teacher, I stressed to my classes the relevance of mathematics in its use for numerical analysis of data. Comparing statistics drawn from the black and white populations of America on median family income, percentage of families who own their home and life expectancy, reveals a significant difference between the two populations, indicating inequity based on race. The root cause of these differences is not so obvious, although some think that I, as a white male, am to blame.
White guilt is communicated both subtly and directly. In recent issues of Time Magazine, articles on race have capitalized the word “Black” but not the word “white”. Had I been this inconsistent on a high school English paper, my teacher would have gone nuts. To me, this is a subtle message that I should feel shame at being white.
A more direct message is sent when folks desire me to pay a reparation to compensate for the damage fostered by slavery and segregation. Why me? My ancestors scratched out a living in what is now Ukraine. Both sets of grandparents arrived in New York at the dawn of the 20th century and the families resided there. My family had nothing to do with slavery nor with enabling Jim Crow segregation.
I am providing a brief personal history, not to gain applause but to allow readers to answer the question posed at the end of this column. I was born into a working-class family with few luxuries. When I was 10, my father’s work was hurt by new technology and we lived from paycheck to paycheck. My father died when I was 15, leaving no life insurance, no pension and no savings.
I began working on weekends during the school year and full-time in the summers. My parents had little education, and instructed me to study hard, do my homework, get good grades, and I would have a better life than them. I obeyed their wishes and my effort was rewarded with two major scholarships that allowed me to attend an expensive university where I received a superior engineering education.
My wife’s family was more middle class, yet when her folks died, she received no inheritance. We both taught for 44 years, and supplemented our salaries by tutoring, teaching evening college classes and conducting teacher workshops. I, also, coached three sports. We were disciplined in our saving, today we are comfortable in retirement.
Our sons studied hard, did their homework and got good grades. Each received a major scholarship to a private university, and today, each has a position that utilizes their special talents, with salaries that far exceed their parents’ teacher salaries.
Now the question: is my success due to being a white male, or was it a consequence of following my parents’ directive?