Response to recent column: ‘You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to look at it’

Stephani Ratkin Becker

Ever since I read Mr. Marty Rochester’s Op-Ed: “Oy vey: The excesses of identity politics,” I can’t get it out of my mind. My husband and I both grew up in St. Louis but currently live outside Chicago. I work at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law – whose mission is to build a future free from poverty and racism, where everyone has equal power under the law. As a white, Jewish woman of privilege I found Mr. Rochester’s piece both appalling and illuminating.

Where to begin?

Mr. Rochester neglects to explain from the outset that the non-white experience in this country is entirely different from the white experience due to historical and present-day systemic discrimination. Here are a few of the many injustices that non-whites currently experience in this country:

– People of color and women are disproportionately represented in low-paid jobs.

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– Black and Brown people with low income are overrepresented in the criminal legal system, and their children are disproportionately present in the foster system, which runs parallel to it.

– People of color are more likely to need income supports because present-day systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism in the U.S. make it harder for them to achieve financial stability.

– Black people, immigrants and people of color are at disproportionate risk of being uninsured, lack access to care, and experience worse health outcomes.

– Substandard housing, skyrocketing rents, disinvested neighborhoods, housing discrimination, over-policing of Black and Brown neighborhoods, segregation, and other forms of housing injustice impact people in America every day.

Stephani Becker

I find it curious/laughable that Mr. Rochester chose to cherry-pick income statistics from Quillette, an online libertarian magazine, showing that in 2019 whites earned less than certain nationalities. Okay. So what? That might indicate some incremental steps to pay equity but does not erase the history of systemic racism and gaping wealth gap in this country. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank,“in 2019, the typical white family had $184,000 in wealth and the typical black family had $23,000.” The Fed goes on to say “82% of Black families had less wealth than the typical white family in 2019. That is little changed since 1989.”

It seems Mr. Rochester is fixated on identity politics as something inherently detrimental. But ignoring identity is exactly how white supremacy is maintained – you can’t fix a problem if you refuse to look at it. We can stop talking about identity once it stops being a determinant in how people are treated, but until then, identity is too steeped into the fabric of our society for us to ignore.

Additionally, I would challenge Mr. Rochester to ask any of his Black, Latinx or Asian American friends whether they would want him to be “color blind.” Isn’t that erasing the Black person’s (or Latino or Asian American person’s) experience? I don’t think Mr. Rochester would want someone else to erase his experience/his truth as a Jew.

Mr. Rochester’s comments on President Biden’s commitment to diversity and representation in his Cabinet were not only racist but simplistic. The purpose of ensuring diversity in powerful positions is multi-layered. First, we need to stop centering the white experience in policy decisions. To tear down the racist structures in government, we need to start from the top down. In addition, representation matters; to all the young children of color who now see an Asian and Black woman as Vice President, a Latino man as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and a Native American woman as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, making decisions on behalf of the United States of America, it speaks volumes.

In closing, if Mr. Rochester’s commentary reflects on the values of the St. Louis Jewish Light, I find that extremely disheartening. I hope that if the Jewish Light continues to open dialogues through its opinion page and columns on the issues of race, income, religion, identity and intersectionality in America, it finds some additional, fresh voices who represent the diversity of St. Louis.

Stephani Becker is a 1989 graduate of Parkway North High School. She currently works at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.