I got into a heated debate with my friend’s husband last night about government handouts and people taking personal responsibility for their lot in life. Never once was race specifically mentioned, but somehow, having grown up in the real-life version of the fictional "Moskowitz" household where such discussions were rampant, I instinctively knew that each time he used the word “they,” he really meant Black and Hispanic people, immigrants, and “foreigners”—that handy catch-all for everyone else who isn’t white in America but doesn’t neatly fall into the above categories.

As a spouse in a mixed-race marriage, racism is an important and touchy topic for me. Curious, I did an Internet search and learned that, while the majority (38.8%) of welfare recipients in the United States are white, slightly over 37 percent are Black, and 17.8 percent are Hispanic. When you consider that, as of the last census, only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population is Black and 16.3 percent (likely an understated number) is Hispanic, the welfare statistics do give me pause. And while I’d be out of my league to posit causes for this phenomenon, I have little doubt that racism, lack of equal opportunity, and an ensuing loss of hope all play huge roles in perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty in this country. And in today’s economy, it is more difficult than ever—if not impossible—to break free of poverty’s shackles.

This is an especially timely issue for me now that my third novel, The Floater, is about to be released. Among other enticing story lines, it deals with the subject of racial discrimination in employment. Interestingly, another white male (one of my “test readers”) asked why my Hispanic protagonist should expect to receive a job offer simply because she successfully completed a summer clerkship at a major Manhattan law firm. Although she was one of only two summer associates (among twelve) who weren’t offered full-time jobs, he pointedly questioned why Norma should be affronted by having been singled out in this way when the firm only hires Ivy League law school graduates and she graduated from a fourth-tier school. Given the fact that Norma proved herself a better candidate than the younger summer associates, I suggest in my novel that such “requisites” are nothing more than a veiled means of perpetuating racial discrimination by establishing artificial barriers to entry that disproportionately favor well-to-do white candidates, while excusing firms from doing the real work of evaluating prospects based on true merit. Shouldn’t the fact that Norma is more competent than her fellow (Ivy League) candidates trump the law school prerequisite? And given the inherently exclusionary nature of this requirement, shouldn’t the fact that she is Hispanic weigh slightly in her favor?

From what I can tell, nearly all white people in America are racist to some degree (and I include myself in this assessment). And the more bigoted one is, the less aware of this fact we tend to be (which is why my friend’s husband vehemently denied being racist when I called him on his remarks). Whatever one’s views about welfare in America, perhaps we ought to regard those less fortunate than ourselves with a measure of compassion, rather than hatred, judgment or blame—regardless of their race. If you have no need of public assistance, take a moment to realize how blessed you are. And whether or not you depend on welfare, recognize what a blessing it is to live in a country that has a social safety net—however imperfect it may be. Without a welfare system, we could easily become a nation where poor people—of all races—are forced to live on the streets and sell their offspring as child labor to the highest bidder. I hope I am correct in assuming none of us wants that.