American Races
9 min readJun 11, 2021

An Analogy for Racial Inequality in America

The various forms of disadvantages faced by the African-American community today are the direct consequence of America’s past and present struggle with racism. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was given a simple analogy to explain these inequalities: African-Americans were not allowed to run ‘the race’ until after it had already started. This explanation was given to me in a variety of forms from my black mother to sympathetic White friends and teachers. It was typically accompanied by the somber conclusion from both sides that, “Unfortunately, Blacks just needed to work twice as hard to achieve the same thing as a white person.” It meant that individual black people and the community as a whole needed to focus ahead and not look behind so much.

For my mom and other African-Americans like her the narrative was that while African-Americans had started the race late if you just ran fast enough you could still win. For ‘woke’ white Americans the narrative was things used to be bad, but the race was fairer than it had been. What many continue to misunderstand is that rather than one long marathon, the race for the American Dream has been a series of sprints. The past matters precisely because it set the field for the present. African-Americans did not start the race late, this is the first of several races that we have been allowed to fully compete in. And because the winners of each previous race gained advantages and set the rules for the next race, African-Americans continue to suffer significant disadvantages no matter how fair the current race may seem.

An image from 1595 depicting conflict between Native Americans in Mexico and Spanish colonists led by Francisco de Montejo. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Heat #1 — The Prelims (1565–1776)

The first race in American society began with the Spanish settlement of Florida in 1565, followed quickly by the British in Plymouth Virginia in 1587. When I refer to the ‘races in American society’ I speak of the eras during which the economic, political, and social systems of the country were formed and evolved. In the initial race, the contest was to see which European group could seize the tracts of land upon which Native Americans had run their own races for centuries. In so doing they not only created the…