I’m not writing about the way things ought to be, I’m writing about the way I think things were, and to a lesser degree still are. Although we have made significant progress over the past fifty years, black males in the U.S. are still afforded fewer opportunities than whites and even black women.

In our society men are afforded more opportunities than women – opportunities to gain skills, take jobs, generate wealth and accumulate power. In the gentle phrasing, we have a patriarchal society. In the harsh phrasing, this is sexism. Sexism is certainly far less than it used to be, but I don’t talk to many women who think our society has moved completely beyond sexism and achieved true equality of the sexes.

Sexism works at two levels. In a sexist society, ordinary women aren’t assumed to be capable of competing with men. They are offered fewer opportunities because men assume they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of them anyway. But extraordinary women were offered fewer opportunities as well.

At some point, life is a zero sum game – there is only so much to go around, so many jobs, so much wealth, etc. This means that there are often winners and losers, and one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Life is a competition. Sexism has the effect of lessening the number of competitors. When our society was more sexist, extraordinary women were denied opportunities because they might perform so well as to undermine the whole notion of the inherent superior ability of males.

Racism still exists as well, again, far less than it used to be but still there. Blacks are afforded fewer opportunities than whites. Racism follows the pattern of sexism. Ordinary blacks weren’t offered opportunities because many whites believed they wouldn’t be able to act on them anyway. And extraordinary blacks were denied opportunities because their success would undermine the whole idea of the superiority of whites.

If sexism trumped racism, then the social hierarchy would place black males below white males but above women. But in our society racism trumps sexism and the combination of the two upends the social hierarchy for blacks. Males in a sexist society view females as less competition. White males don’t worry about competition from most females, whether white or black. But because men were viewed as inherently more able, black men were seen as far more dangerous to the continuance of white superiority. Because men are viewed as more competition, black makes were afforded even fewer opportunities than black females.

So in essence the insertion of racism into sexism caused the social hierarchy to flip for blacks – black women, because they were women and less threatening, were afforded more opportunities than black males. Black males, because they were viewed as more likely to upend the racial hierarchy, were afforded fewer opportunities than black females.

“Society” is the accumulated actions of tens and hundreds of millions of individuals. Even when sexism and racism were more prevalent there were certainly many white males who treated women and blacks equally, who went out of their way to offer opportunities to people regardless of sex and race. And we have made significant progress on both over the past fifty years. Extraordinary women and blacks perhaps don’t have the same degree of opportunity afforded extraordinary white males, but the gap is far narrower than it used to be and at this point in our history I don’t think anyone would argue that an extraordinary woman or black male is unable to seize control of her or his life.

However I am not convinced that we have managed to extend equal opportunities to ordinary black males. This isn’t an abstract argument. The vibrancy of our country is dependent upon tapping into the potential of all strata of our society. Potential does not respect the boundaries or sex, race or class – it is spread throughout our society. The continued dynamism of our country is dependent upon tapping into the potential and energy of all levels of our society. As we approach Martin Luther King’s birthday, it is worth remembering that the future of our country depends on continuing to make progress on racism – we need to make sure that ordinary black males have the equal ability to participate in our society.
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