09/25/2010 11:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toward a Race-Blind Economy

I didn't get African-American literature until my senior year in high school. In the racially divisive southwest suburbs of Chicago, even some seemingly smart students I knew were revealed in weaker moments as prejudiced products of a peculiar form of white flight privilege.

Many in class cringed over our teacher's colorful selections. We read Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Zorna Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and collections by Richard Wright--with a bit of Shakespeare, Tim O'Brien and a poetry section to round out the year with work written by white men.

My teacher's selections of black authors (let alone female black authors!) should not have taken so much flak. The writing was mellifluous, poignant and intelligent. It also rang much more authentic to my working class ears and experiences than effete, well-composed writing could. My teacher opened many minds that year to the idea that if we are to judge at all, there is no reason to judge on appearance or socioeconomic circumstances. Character, as Martin Luther King would claim, is what counts.

Discrimination based on surface traits--the stain of history--has not disappeared, despite the straining of conscientious people everywhere. It claims the front and back pages and bedecks the tabloids. Tea Party activists are spreading racially charged hate while past political and economic wars in the third world against dark-skinned people linger in our collective conscience. In sports, Minnesota Twins infielder Orlando Hudson insinuated that Jermaine Dye, a prolific and powerful outfielder and free agent, is unemployed because he is black. There are allegations that Jesse James, the biker who cheated on Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, is a skinhead.

If we are to ever get past the 'isms' and other forms of shallow thinking and feeling, we must put aside our pride in the achievements of the groups with whom we identify. If we take a hard look, we can see that almost all of our groups have done wrong in addition to their achievements. We all deserve a second chance.

One could say a large cause of discrimination is basic dishonesty about economic inequality. Such a stance, which I had at one time, does not grasp the bigger picture. In middle class America it is fair to debate, not to complain. Ending the 'isms' will take time, perceptual shifts and creativity. But if we are to seriously investigate claims for more economic equality, we must first look to the regions of the globe where basic survival needs are not being met, some in the United States.

Economic equality can probably never perfectly happen; the result would be an economy without innovation or motive to create new things. It would lose its dynamism. True concerns over economic equality must cultivate reason in first examining people in our country and overseas who have not only less capital, but lower quality lives. Far too often, they are people of color. In the United States, migrant workers, mostly minorities, face daily trials and are horrendously underpaid. Others die just trying to make it to America. Furthermore, our urban ghettos should be viewed as venture capital opportunities, because the people there are often stifled by the endemic poor education and violence from living a comfortable life. Globally, the statistics on how many people starve to death or cannot get access to clean water are staggering. These concerns weigh much heavier than class quibbles.

Legislators have taken steps in reforming the most egregious misuse of money on Wall Street, where too often systems meant to support sectors of the economy (such as option and futures trading for agriculture) were used for little more than gambling. Consumer protection helps the middle class, whose investments went dry in 2009. Many people's calls (including my own) for transparency were also heard: derivative trading must now be more transparent as the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission will have oversight. For more details, check out this web site:

There was a time in this country's history when food products were not regulated.We are progressing. This summer's strong federal approach to greed and corruption can allay fears that the leaders of another seemingly populist ideology will not simply take their preponderant cut. Neoliberalism, trumpeted by seeming populists, almost had us so mesmerized by the mythical free market that we forgot about how money affects people. Goods and services are always people-centered. We should remember that the economy should work for all people.

Discrimination remains a problem because people are poor--and a disproportionate number of the impoverished are of color. It is a matter of course, many well-heeled people think and in confidence say throughout the world, that poor people have no money: they are lazy or stupid. Their parents did not teach them how to actualize their skills, they say. More realistically, laissez faire economics is lazy and unfair. It is a poor role model. It is unintelligent and it is time to realize it has run its course. While granting considerable freedom, a totally free market lacks heart. I believe since Roosevelt and through fits and stops we have been working toward creating a system that can more equitably help people harness their creative energies into productive activities. If the economy remains something only meant for sang froid cleverness, we will only perpetuate injustice.

There is no defending subtle racism. One can, in earnest, herald the inventiveness of Western society. Our ingenuity (brought about by lack of resourcefulness in over-using trees that led them to perforce dig coal) kindled the Industrial Revolution and later the technological world we know today. Advances in medicine and technology are considerable and make life quite good for those lucky enough to receive it. Before we celebrate, it is germane to remember that all cultures (including native people, Asians, Middle Easterners and Africans) had advanced civilizations as well. Moderns must truly advance our greatest ideals through our economy, (such as social security, welfare, our mixed0market system) to secure our civilization. Not all are lucky enough to benefit from Western health advances. People in destitute conditions cannot even get access to clean water, let alone try to reform health care. For our civilization to deserve its name, we must think about and feel for these people. Then we must try to improve their conditions.

Old ideas that maintain certain people deserve preferential treatment because of superstition deserve no more shelf life, just as the notion that greed promotes progress must fade. There is no freshness in the stale view of society as a competitive stage for the "masters of the universe" to run. Whatever one's world view, whatever one's view of the universe, we are all undeniably inter-connected. (The global dependence on the money system proves this, as Tarthang Tulku notes.) We are all from the same family of living beings, regardless of where we grew up or with whom.

There are a lot of ways to 'make it' on Earth. We can get the girl, become successful in business or become famous. There are many avenues toward wealth, yet becoming rich in soul is a far more beautiful road and a far deeper freedom. The fear, xenophobia and sexism our money system engendered in the past is too high a cost. Changing the money system will require the recognition that the greatest labors are works of heart. Time in the office cannot compare to time spent with loved ones and friends. Most common people know this because, with little access to high-level decision-making, they have become content with simple living. In addition, elites face the pressures of the societal and familial demands for success, efficiency and speed. When will conditions be good enough for all people to appreciate the hard work that has already been done by all peoples?

We cannot ignore each other's actions anymore. The way money worked in the past entrapped us in delusional thinking about each other's inherent worth based on inherited surface traits. The common denominator of surface traits and even developed talents are not hard to uncover: symmetry and highly defined symmetry, at that, are the hallmarks (see Aristotle). Unfortunately, many of us have ignored our deeper desires for community, peace and mutual respect due to the constant hairsplitting that seems to be the story of human life. Really, it is only history. And to get past our feudal thinking, we must strongly and boldly see the still open and bleeding hidden wounds. We cannot ignore each other's dolorous suffering anymore.