Cleaning out my closet

"I was born a poor black child..."

Steve Martin's iconic declaration doesn't exactly tell my story, but it comes painfully close. I was born poor and white in a Kansas City suburb that had more in common with trailer parks than gated subdivisions. To use the politically incorrect—and still painful—vernacular, I grew up white trash.

But of course, my upbringing couldn't be that simple. As part of Kansas City's historic, court-ordered desegregation effort, I found myself bused to inner-city schools at the tender age of nine. For two-thirds of my primary and secondary education, I was the minority.

This experience not only shaped who I am today, it did nothing less than transform me. Given my birth and early childhood (which included stints of being raised by a single parent and time on Missouri's welfare rolls) my life should have, by all rights, taken a completely different path.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a tendency to "act black." This might sound offensive, or even juvenile, to the uninitiated, but I'm not referring to some Billy Crystal blackface stereotype—although I'm not above descending into what might be perceived stereotypical ethnic behavior. And I'll confess to liking jazz, blues and hip hop more than pop, rock or country. It's the unshakeable core of my personality, sown from years of spending most of my time with people who didn't look like me.

And every time race rears its ugly head in the news, I feel pangs of both regret and sorrow that this fantastic nation of ours still struggles with something that should be so simple.

The Trayvon Martin case that's so captivated the nation right now is just the latest in a long line of stories that continues to haunt us like some kind of restless, vengeful spirit of sins past. And it breaks my heart every time.

Maybe we still don't have all the facts, but this seems like such a simple case of right and wrong that it's breathtaking the wheels of justice have apparently ground to a halt. Would the shooter be in jail if Trayvon had been white? Or would we even be talking about it if the shooter himself were black instead? We'll never know.

What does any of this have to do with health care, employee benefits or even your 401(k) plan? Nothing, I suppose. But it does speak to the larger divide that separates us as a nation. And maybe it helps you, as a reader, to know a little bit about where I come from. You deserve that much.

Maybe it's because I see shades of race in our battles over class. Or because every time we fight over what's different about us, we lose sight of everything else that's not.

I frequently rail against the extreme polarization of our elected officials and the toxic environment of our political discourse, but through it all, I always hope. But at times like this, when a hoodie and some junk food can get you killed in your own neighborhood, I feel even that slipping away. 

About the Author
Denis Storey

Denis Storey

Denis Storey is editor for BenefitsPro.com and Benefits Selling magazine. He can be reached at dstorey@benefitspro.com.


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