A Brief White Person's Guide to Racism

originally published May 4, 2012 on Open Salon

I recently ended up for the first time at the blog of someone called Chauncey DeVega and read the following post:http://www.open.salon.com/blog/chauncey_devega/2012/05/01/further_p...

Having read the post and the comments, I realized that I had a lot to add to what he had to say, so I decided to post on the topic. I've written about this topic before, though most of the ideas I express here I express for the first time. Though I've read a lot on racism, my biggest and most recent influence in this regard is Tim Wise.

Not the easiest topic. Wish me luck.


Note added after Safe Bet's Amy's comment:

This post is primarily about White on Black racism, though some of what's written here applies to other forms. This is not to minimize other forms, though what I've written about is numerically the most significant and is the most severe in most areas of the country. I'm not qualified to comment on racism involving Native Americans/American Indians because I lack personal experience and familiarity with that area, particularly when adding the dimension of Reservations.

As regards Asian Americans: that group faces more racism than is commonly acknowledged, some of which is masked by a casual reading of statistics. Asians have a higher median income in the US than Whites do but that is because they are geographically concentrated in expensive urban areas - if you control for geography, their median income is actually lower. Also, their educational achievement is relatively higher compared to Whites than their income is, suggesting that they are encountering discrimination in the workplace. If compared directly to Whites in similar positions in similar geographic areas, their income is lower, confirming this.


I'm not exactly sure how to approach this topic, but I've noticed that a lot of people seem to have some form of the following question:

Why does anyone think that my being White means I'm responsible for racism?

Let's start with a distinction: There is a big difference between being racist and being responsible for racism. I know, this distinction is not obvious. I hope it will be more so by the time I finish, so please bear with me. I don't have the space here to make a comprehensive case. That would take books and there have already been many written about this, so I'm going to do what I can to keep the length from getting out of hand, which primarily means I'm not going to talk about a lot of specific cases.

My first assumption: Racism is still extremely prevalent and extremely costly in the US. This doesn't mean we're as bad as we used to be, but we still aren't good. Even without a lot of anecdotal evidence, we know this to be true based on a whole lot of data. Specifically, we know this because strong racial differences still exist after we control for every other factor we can think of, starting with class. This is true in all sorts of areas, not limited to sentencing for crimes (controlling for criminal record), mortgage rates/loan rates (controlling for employment/employment history, income, credit history), employment/promotion (controlling for education and other factors), medical care, etc. There appears to be a prevalent myth out there that significant differences are all due to class, which is among other things how the President approaches the topic, but they aren’t.

Now I’m going to introduce a new concept:  White Privilege.White Privilege consists of advantages that White people can take for granted but that others frequently do not have. White people don’t have to access these advantages intentionally; in fact, most of us aren’t even aware of them most of the time. They take all sorts of forms, such as: preferential hiring, preferential promotions, not having people automatically assume that our hiring or promotions are based on something other than our own merit, the ability to walk into a store without a store detective following us, the ability to be in a wealthy neighborhood without people assuming we don’t belong there, walking into a classroom without a teacher assuming we’re likely to be stupid and/or a discipline problem, being left alone by police when not engaging in a crime or while driving in certain areas, entering an elevator without women reflexively clutching their purses tighter, not being steered away from certain neighborhoods by real estate agents, not being forced to live with the consequences of past racism.

“The consequences of past racism” can be a larger category than most people assume. One of those consequences is a much lower average net worth. Young people starting out often get financial help from their parents but parents’ ability to do this varies significantly by race, the result often being the difference between being able to build equity in a home and renting, meaning that differences in wealth that were originally the direct result of racism can be perpetuated through descendants for generations. That’s one example; another is policies like “last hired, first fired,” which means that people who weren’t hired originally because of racism are now more vulnerable as a direct result of that past racism. Then there are less concrete consequences, like a lack of confidence and a lot of cynicism and bitterness, the direct results of previous racism, that can interfere with current and future advancement.

Does all this mean some of us are at fault for being White? Of course not; I’m not suggesting that any more than I’m suggesting that we should all walk into a store and demand to be followed around by the store detective. Nor am I suggesting that you have to be racist to benefit from White Privilege; in fact, let me be more blatant about that: You don’t have to be racist to benefit from White Privilege.

My problem isn’t with benefitting from White Privilege; my problem is with perpetuating it voluntarily.

There are going to be a lot of people who suggest that we can’t do anything to make up for past racism and that we should simply move on. Even if that were equitable, which it really isn’t, and even if it were good for the country, which it really isn’t, the assumption behind this suggestion is that we are post-racist, which we really aren’t. Not even close.

So, if you want to get rid of racism, the very first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it still exists. If we don’t acknowledge the problem, we can’t fix it. Failing to acknowledge the existence of racism may not make you a racist, but it absolutely makes you responsible for racism.Whether or not you are morally obligated to be part of the solution, you are morally obligated not to be part of the problem.

We have tried to address racism, not only by putting legal obstacles in the way of discrimination but by attempting to give at least a small corrective boost to those who have been artificially held down by racism. That’s what Affirmative Action is (though Affirmative Action also addresses other inequalities, like sexism.) So, if you want to get rid of racism, the second thing you have to do is stop fighting the boosts.

There are various ways to fight the boosts. The big one is claiming that they are so big that they overcorrect for racism. Really? Have you looked at comparative wealth statistics, education statistics, employment statistics, prison population statistics? Who do you know who now believes that Black people are now on average doing better than White people in the United States? If the boosts really overcorrected for racism, that’s what we’d be looking at. Don’t be ridiculous.

There’s another way to fight the boosts – fighting the legitimacy of a phenomenon known as Reverse Discrimination. Reverse Discrimination is the claim that corrective policies are wrong on the grounds that they differentiate. So, if minorities were kept out of certain universities for decades, partially as a result of straight discrimination and partially as a result of those minorities having far more limited primary and secondary educational opportunities, and the result was a severe underrepresentation of those minorities in the university populations relative to the general population, attempting to bring those populations more in line with the general population constitutes discrimination because it involves racial/ethnic distinctions of some kind. This argument might have at least a little credibility if those fighting Reverse Discrimination had a previous history of fighting Traditional Discrimination, indicating that what bothered them really was Discrimination. Unfortunately, that’s not typically the case: Reverse Discrimination isn’t primarily (if at all) about Discrimination; it’s about turf. If you object to Reverse Discrimination but not to White Privilege, you’re responsible for racism.

I’m not saying that to object to Affirmative Action or Reverse Discrimination is to automatically be racist. Affirmative Action is not perfect. However, come up with a better idea, then, as long as it addresses the actual problem – what’s not acceptable is coming up with a solution that’s strictly based on class and ignores race, because the data indicates that racism is a problem in and of itself, class aside.

This leads me to another point: Black/White symmetry is a corrosive myth. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this assumption of symmetry: the color imagery and the fact that both are races. However, the fact that they’re both races isn’t really relevant in the US because the White population is much larger, much more powerful, and much more varied in terms of ethnicity. Black was, for a long time, mainly a single ethnic group here; now it’s really two: American slave descendants and Caribbean immigrants and their descendants. White, however, is so many ethnic groups that the term White is basically useless as an ethnic term; it’s really an umbrella term. A term like “Black Power” is far more analogous to a term like “Irish Power” than to “White Power.” Talking about “White Power” is nearly as silly as giving to a charity called the United Gentile Appeal would be, for basically analogous reasons. In short, at least in America, Black can be used as an ethnic designation (or a designation for a pair of ethnicities), but White can’t.

Being asymmetrical, their needs are not analogous. When Black people do things to promote Black identity, that doesn’t mean it makes sense for us to do things to promote White identity and, more importantly, promoting Black identity is not any more of a threat to us than drinking green beer on St. Patrick Day is. And yet, because of the myth of symmetry, we tend to view it as threatening. Whites don’t need to be safeguarded from Blacks specifically but Blacks do need to be safeguarded from Whites because we’re the majority and we hold the overwhelming balance of wealth and power. Blacks do not have a long history of persecuting Whites in America, but Whites certainly have a long history of persecuting Blacks.

Let me give you an example of an asymmetrical need: You’ve doubtless noted that minority populations, most conspicuously Black kids, tend to hang out together in school, sitting together at lunch, etc. To White kids (and, at that age, I was one of these), it looks like self-segregation, like we’re somehow being rejected. What we fail to realize is that if there’s one Black kid in a group, he or she serves as their (more convenient to write than “his/her”) ethnic group’s unofficial local representative, having a lot of what they say viewed through that lens, fielding cracks, stereotypes, awkward attempts at hipness, etc. Representing all the time can be tiring, particularly when you belong to an ethnic group that has a lot of negative stereotypes attached to it - well, really, particularly when you belong to an ethnic group that has suffered (and continues to suffer) such a profound long-term lack of respect. When you’re with your own, you don’t have to – paradoxically, hanging out with one’s ethnic group takes ethnicity off the table as a variable and you get to just be an individual, a privilege the majority enjoys normally. Even if ethnicity is a frequent subject of discussion among one’s own, in a group that becomes more of a group characteristic and less of an individual characteristic. Self-segregation isn’t so much about rejection as it is about self-preservation. We as Whites aren’t comfortable thinking in terms of minorities needing any kind of protection from us, particularly when we don’t deliberately mean them any harm, but they do.

And so, the third thing is to avoid perpetuating myths. I’ve already listed the most important ones: that racism no longer exists, that Affirmative Action has resulted in a functional overcorrection, that we automatically owe the same things to a traditionally persecuting majority as we do to a traditionally persecuted minority.

I’ll give you another: the fourth thing is to acknowledge racism and its supporting assumptions when you see them and be willing to discuss them. The more racism is allowed to hide, particularly in plain sight, the longer it will survive.

Here's yet another, alluded to earlier: the fifth thing is to show and support respect, which includes eliminating or at least reducing your tolerance for disrespectful behavior in that direction.

There's a question I haven't asked which maybe I need to:

Why bother?

Or, more particularly, Why is this issue your problem?

I can think of two answers. The first one is:

Because racism is wrong.

I'm assuming I don't have to explain to you why it's wrong, but I understand that the fact that it's wrong doesn't intrinsically make it your problem. So, I'll give you an answer that doesn't moralize and shove liberal guilt at you - believe it or not, there is one:

Because racism is expensive, and here I don't mean to its victims.

Really. This is a post in itself (actually, one I've already written), but I'll at least skim through the case here.

Having a permanent underclass is expensive. (This clearly isn't true of the whole Black population but it is true of too much of it.)  Such a population uses a lot of money in social services and provides an insufficient amount of money in tax revenues and business purchases. We'd all be richer if we could make that population more productive.

When a population sees its government as unsupportive and adversarial, and when the most available ways to make a decent living are illegal, the end result is going to be a lot of crime and a huge prison population. Crime is absurdly expensive once you include government expenses associated with it, such as court costs and incarceration. Plus of course the fact that every inmate is someone who can't at that point be either a taxpayer or a legitimate business' good customer and so help to create jobs. In other words, we face huge actual expenses added to huge opportunity costs.

Incidentally, these are some reasons why it makes sense to focus resources on single populations rather than just ignoring ethnicity in policy. Diagnosis of social problems can get somewhat subjective but diagnosis of economic problems is a lot more cut and dried. (Not completely, but a lot more.)

If there's one point I need to get across when talking about economics here, it is that pulling up a permanent underclass is not a zero-sum game - in other words, it's not strictly about "if I allocate money for him, that's money you don't get." Allocating money in that direction will come back to save the rest of us money. 

There is, of course, one enormous advantage to making this economc argument against racism:

Saving money isn't an ideological issue.  


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