Politics

05.07.14

Eight Things Every White Person Should Know About White Privilege

Some pointers for the Princeton kid and others who deny that racial bias exists in America today.

White folks went to great lengths in the last weeks to denounce the overt racism of figures like Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. At the same time, a lot of white folks—especially conservatives—continue to deny there is implicit or structural racial bias in America. One example surfaced just days later on Time magazine’s website, an essay by a young white male college student who not only denies racial bias, and thus white privilege in America, but also basically accuses those pointing out such bias of being racist.

According to my experience (and my Twitter feed), this young man’s perspective is not unique. It’s also not correct. So I offer some (hopefully helpful) clarifying thoughts for my fellow white folks, especially those struggling to come to terms with the idea of persistent, implicit racial bias in America today. 

1.  There is more than one kind of racial bias.

Suggesting that, except for a few overt racists like Cliven Bundy, prejudice is a thing of the past in America is, if you’ll forgive the pun, too black and white.  In an interview with Salon about his book Dog Whistle Politics, Professor Ian Haney Lopez said: “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.”

We can’t have a thoughtful discussion about the modern reality of racial bias in America if we can’t even acknowledge these nuances. When Gov. Mike Huckabee used the phrase “Uncle Sugar” as a stand-in for a federal government that gives people things, I called it an “obviously offensive dog-whistle-esque racialized characterization.” The conservative Blaze said I called Huckabee racist. I did not. I wrote a clarification, saying there’s a difference between accusing someone of overt and deliberate racism versus saying that a phrase someone used “consciously or unconsciously reflects and reinforces implicit racial bias.” 

I purposefully try not to use the word “racism” since it indeed conjures up that very explicit and overt racism that we hope is a thing of the past. When folks like myself say that phrases like “welfare queen” and “takers in society” are racially loaded or that criticism of President Obama is more irrational and ugly than for other Democratic presidents *in part* because of racial bias, that isn’t accusing anyone of wearing a pointy sheet and carrying a noose. You can agree or disagree with our perspective, but at least acknowledge that vital nuance.   

2.  Racial bias is baked into America’s past. 

Until 1865—less than 150 years ago—it was legal under the United States Constitution to own black people as chattel. Until 1964—just 50 years ago—racial segregation in schools and housing and public accommodations was legal in the United States. As recently as the 1980s—just a few decades ago—journalists documented that banks were lending to low-income white Americans but not middle or upper-income blacks. It’s not just that we had individual racists with ugly slurs and violent hands—though there was far too much of that throughout our history as well—but that racial hierarchy and unequal treatment was systematically incorporated into and reinforced by our country’s laws and rules. 

3.  Implicit racial bias persists in America’s present. 

For every dollar of wealth owned by white folks in the United States today, black folks on average own less than a nickel. The unemployment rate for African Americans is around 13.2 percent, almost twice the rate for white Americans. Per pupil spending in public schools with 90 percent or more students of color is 18 percent less, or $733 less per student on average, than for schools with 90 percent or more white students. There are five white people using drugs in America for every one African American using drugs, and yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. And for convictions of the same crime, black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men. 

There are only two ways to account for these discrepancies in society. You can believe that black folks and people of color in general are inherently inferior—a sort of soft but nonetheless dangerous endorsement of racial bias often coded as “cultural” differences. Or you can believe that there are still patterns of racial inequity and bias playing out in our society and leading to unfairly disparate outcomes. 

Conservatives have taken to accusing those of us who point out racial bias as being racist or racially biased.

For those still on the fence, social science has repeatedly documented the reality of implicit racial bias. In one study, the same resumes were sent to employers but when they had white-seeming names at the top, job seekers were 50 percent more likely to get callbacks for interviews. In another study, subjects playing a simulated video game were more likely to mistakenly pull the trigger on unarmed black men than on unarmed white suspects. Another study found that Americans who (incorrectly) believe that most welfare recipients are black also think that “lack of effort on their own part” is to blame for their economic conditions. But those respondents who (correctly) believe most people on welfare are white also said that people are on welfare because of “circumstances beyond their control.” These discrepancies (and more) can only be explained by implicit racial bias.

4.  It is inherently, statistically harder to succeed in America if you’re black or brown.

Researchers have found that it is statistically harder for people to move up the ladder of economic opportunity if they come from parts of the United States with large black populations. (Even poor whites in parts of the country with more black people are less likely to succeed and achieve because of the systematic disinvestment in such regions.) African Americans are less likely to go to college than their white counterparts and less likely to graduate. Black and Latino folks in the same jobs earn less money than white folks. 

I’m not saying it is impossible for people of color in America to succeed. Of course it’s not. From Obama to Oprah and other people whose names don't start with “O,” there are plenty of examples of African Americans and other people of color rising to the highest heights of achievement in our country just as there are examples of millions of poor and working class white Americans struggling to get by.  But those examples don’t define the societal norm.  As Forbes contributor Gene Marks once wrote, the simple fact is that it “is much harder for a black kid from West Philadelphia than a white kid from the suburbs.” That doesn’t mean it’s impossible—just inherently, structurally, statistically harder.  

5.  Pointing out racial bias doesn’t make the pointer-outer racist.

This one drives me nuts!  In an effort to avoid acknowledging racial bias in America, conservatives have taken to accusing those of us who point out racial bias as being racist or racially biased. So, for instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee says that comments about our “inner cities” having a “real culture problem” amounts to a “thinly veiled racial attack” instead of Lee’s analysis being taken seriously, addressed or even dismissed on its merits, Bill O’Reilly accused Lee of being a “race hustler.” By the same token, some of the conservative response to Cliven Bundy’s clearly biased rants involved accusing liberals of being the real racists.

This is the same play conservatives try on economic injustice—that pointing out inequality makes liberals the class warriors. This type of response strikes me as not only incredibly sad and defensive but purposefully evasive, trying to avoid addressing hard truths by resorting to nasty name-calling. If you don't think something is evidence of racial bias, say so. But do go all Orwellian and insult the folks who are earnestly trying to root out racial injustice by calling them racists. Come on! 

6.  Admitting racial bias in America doesn’t mean it’s your fault.

Racial bias is like the proverbial water in the fish tank—it’s there all around us, always, whether we realize it or not. Apart from the Donald Sterlings among us, most people are about as guilty of deliberately harboring prejudice as we are talking. It’s just something we all learn to do. For those like the young man who wrote about “white privilege” and feeling expected to apologize, no, that’s actually not correct. By and large, no one is asking us white people to apologize for the total history of American racism nor the events and structures that got us to this place. What we are being asked is to take responsibility for the future—by simply acknowledging that America is not a level playing field when it comes to race (and gender and class and more) and actively doing whatever we can and supporting public policies to make America more fair and just. 

Acknowledging structural racial bias in America isn’t about blame or guilt or punishment—it’s simply a means to an end of identifying the real obstacles some communities disproportionately, unfairly face and addressing those obstacles to make the American Dream a reality for all of us. 

7.  Racial bias is also not the fault of people of color.

That’s the implied message of the “race hustler” and “liberal racists” labels, that people of color and white progressives are not only fanning but exploiting the conversation around racial bias. That’s like blaming Jews for anti-Semitism or blaming women for sexism. You wouldn’t do that, would you?

Moreover, whatever complaints you want to make about the economic or social plight of average white folks in America, “racism” and “racial bias” are about the mistreatment and disadvantage of people of color, not the other way around. Claiming that there is “racial bias” against white people—in other words, that there are historical and deeply ingrained structures of bias in our politics, society and economy against white people—is not only inaccurate but insulting. That would be like saying anti-Semitism mainly hurts Christians and Muslims, and you wouldn’t say that either, would you? 

8.  Your (false) sense of solidarity in denying racial bias isn’t serving you well at all.

What I’m most vexed by is what any whites, except those at the very top 1 percent of power and privilege, think they get from denying that racial bias and discrimination exist. Presumably, it comes from a very manufactured and misleading sense that policies and programs to redress racial inequality will somehow unfairly disadvantage average white folks. We know this isn’t true. Affirmative action in college admissions has helped white women even more than people of color. Public benefits programs like food stamps and Medicaid, although mistakenly seen as mostly helping black folks, actually disproportionately help white folks in need. Fixing inequities in public school financing would help poor white students in the South as much as poor black students. Closing the wage gap and addressing yawning economic inequality in America would help people of all races.

At key moments in American history, especially in the Jim Crow South, poor whites were persuaded to vote along racial lines to disenfranchise African Americans. It didn’t work then—despite all the false promises to the contrary, wealthy white landowners used their power to disadvantage African Americans and poor white folks alike. What makes white people think it could work now? Wages are stagnating for white Americans and people of color too, savings are shrinking, our houses are all under water, everyone’s credit is exploited and shot, college is getting too expensive, good jobs and training are out of reach. Acknowledging that people of color have it extra hard in America today isn’t the same as saying all or even most white people have it easy. That’s simply not the case. Most everyone is struggling today in a nation that is rigged to help the very few at the expense of the many. Rather than divisively fighting to deny racial bias, uniting in solidarity across race is the key to creating an America that works for all of us.  

I hope all of the above is the beginning of a dialogue, since we desperately need an honest and open conversation about race and racial bias in America that includes people of all viewpoints and political persuasions. I welcome your challenges, objections, questions and more to any or all of the above—as I also welcome suggestions for what might be added to this list.