The Little Tolls and Pitfalls of Modern American Racism

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Abigail Fisher, a 22-year old white girl, a graduate of LSU, just pleaded to the Supreme court that the University of Texas rejected her four years ago because of affirmative action.

UT says they’d have rejected her no matter her race; regardless, her suit might lead the Supreme Court to forbid the practice. She’s asking for a change in the rules we play by, and she wants the rules changed in favor of white people.

This reminds me of Occupy. Conservatives claimed to hate government rules, but embraced bans on collective bargaining or tax breaks for leveraged buy-outs or treating corporations as legally people. The rules benefit somebody, always. America’s rules, both written and unspoken, benefit white people. We call this privilege. To complain, like Fisher, is to stand on a ladder and demand a level playing field. Privilege is not butlers and nannys. It manifests in little things at the heart of the American dream. It might be about the luxury of earnestness.

I’m not cool. I fight ferociously for what I want, but rarely elegantly. As a white male, I’ve had the privilege of believing that my efforts will pay off. “You can be anything you want if you work hard enough,” a kid like me learns, and it doesn’t feel like a lie.

Not all people have that luxury. America is far from a true meritocracy. For many Americans, the odds of success are so long, the obstacles so numerous, and the guidance so weak that hard work only guarantees sweat. Wanting it more is not enough. Anyone who’s hunted for a job knows a full day’s work can yield exhaustion and little else. Privilege is enjoying a position from which hard work and discipline are all that stand between you and your goals. In America, people of color, women, the disabled, and other marginalized groups face tougher obstacles to success than do white men. Duh.

Privilege is easier to explain these days, when “Get a job” is stockbroker for “let them eat cake.” I met a college-educated white girl who sells appliances retail. “Not everyone can afford to work there,” she said, and at first I didn’t understand. She lives with her parents, lawyers. She explained that her appliance chain hires an enormous number of part-time workers. “They trade one full-time worker with benefits for four part-time high school kids,” she said. Living with her parents allows her to afford the job. As work becomes scarcer, entry-level jobs travel higher up the chain of advantages.

The old saying is that racial minorities are last hired and first fired. 15.8 percent of black people are unemployed, and that’s just the official count of work-seekers, which count excludes “natural unemployment,” those who have quit mustering enough hope to march their resumes down to Kinko’s. They expect rejection for a reason: a recent study mailed out job applications, changing only the names. They found that resumes with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than identical resumes with black sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal).

It extends beyond hiring managers. Countrywide Financial Corporation recently settled with the Justice Department for charging, in the words of the New York Times, “higher fees to more than 200,000 minority borrowers than to white borrowers who posed the same credit risk.”

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Racism costs money. It’s not just the 50 percent lower chance of a resume callback. Blacks and Latinos get quoted more expensive prices for homes, cars, and other investments. A recent Pew Study shows that whites own 20 percent more wealth than African Americans, and 18 percent more than most Latinos. Meanwhile, a home owned by a black family is worth 35 percent less than a similar white home, for obvious reasons; if racists avoid a black neighborhood, fewer buyers compete for the house at a given price. Note: school district funding is tied to property tax.

Meanwhile, whiteness gets discounts that white people consider normal. Whiteness also means job introductions. A shophand at my old oil job liked to say, “Everybody here is swinging from a dick,” meaning we all owed our employment to someone higher up, and likely a male. Job whispers travel an old boy’s network, which network absorbs white guys more easily.

Allison Bland’s essay, “Free the Network” describes the awkwardness of grafting oneself to that network over one excruciating weekend at a startup pitch conference. What’s striking is her sympathy for her white co-workers. “A white male explained a technical concept to me in the language of basketball, because I was ‘so tall,’” she writes. “… Our discomfort was completely mutual.”

A white networker might endure one awkward racial interaction a week, but depending on company, a non-white person can grin politely and forgive a dozen racial slips and tightened purse grips a day.

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Part of whiteness is that when people size you up, they see a person before they see a white person. Your humanity is less invisible. Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges is a classic summary of the stresses this phenomenon eliminates. If I lose a promotion, I don’t have to wonder if my whiteness befuddled someone’s judgment. In our culture, whiteness is the absence of race.

Obese, latino, disabled, gay. The more layers of difference a person carries, the longer we take to see the human underneath. What we are can outspeak who we are. Perhaps because of this shortcut to personhood, whiteness means a little extra forgiveness at every step. Modern racism works by applying rules more strictly to those who project a degree of otherness. (Ask your local homeless dude how many jaywalking tickets he has.)

When a teenage Hunter S. Thompson was caught with a friend who had stolen a wallet, his small town offered him the chance to join the military rather than enter prison for accessory to robbery. I believe that this second chance, military service instead of criminal record, still exists for certain young men in America.

Likewise, when an undercover cop caught me drunk at a high school dance, I served a two-week suspension, not an indelible criminal charge. A recent study of race in education suggests it could have been worse. Besides the part about “mechanical restraints, like being strapped down,” the most disturbing part of the article was, “referrals to law enforcement, an area of increasing concern to civil rights advocates who see the emergence of a school-to-prison pipeline.”

Modern racism functions not by applying malice, but withholding forgiveness. We write so many rules that compliance is impossible, then enforce them selectively.

In New York, police friskings are a regular part of life for some kids, as Nicholas Pert describes in his article, Young, Black, and Frisked by the NYPD. The rules permit these searches against all of us. If you don’t kiss the concrete every so often, it’s because you carry some kind of free pass. In fact, the NYPD’s statistics show that they’ve frisked more black males than live in New York—that’s consistent with middle school students claiming to have been frisked many times each, or an informal survey of eight black college students who collectively were frisked 92 times.

The first twenty minutes of This American Life episode # 362 is a hilarious account of an NYPD police stop, for those intrigued by the dynamic. (The cops notice a black guy biking home with his white stepson.) Of course, Trayvon Martin’s case suggests worse dangers to suspicious skin.

Police harassment is more than an inconvenience. On any given day, 1 in 8 African Americans stagnate in the US prison system, especially for drug offenses. However, as Michelle Alexander explains, whites use and sell drugs at equal rates. Whatever its intent, the war on drugs has very successfully funneled African-Americans into prison. (For more on the prison system, I suggest Mother Jones’s suite of articles.)

 

NYCLU

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White privilege isn’t the only form of privilege in America. The brilliant Sady Doyle wrote “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon,” which begins with her thoughts on sexism: acknowledging one form of inequality should open your eyes to other inequalities. (I like Doyle because she wants us all to be square-jawed adults and doesn’t think it’s too much to ask.) In her essay on class she writes,

If you were like my father, or my first boyfriend — you spoke racism, angrily, and you spoke most virulently about Affirmative Action “stealing” educations, or immigrants “stealing” jobs…. You saw the advancement of people of color as a hostile force, taking away money you already didn’t have enough of.

As a white guy, it’s hard to see racism because you’re busting your ass, too. By senior year of high school I stayed up later than my parents and woke at 5:50am for school, and I still went to my safety school. Privilege doesn’t make things easy. It just makes them possible. Consider my competition. Wesley Yang notes in his essay Paper Tigers, “The Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has calculated that an Asian applicant must, in practice, score 140 points higher on the SAT than a comparable white applicant to have the same chance of admission.”

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Racism, then, manifests in a series of little tolls and pitfalls, obstructions to the American dream. Often, it costs money, and poverty entangles people in its own insidious snare of red tape. Poverty’s small indignities are murderous in aggregate. They are daily, small skin taxes of time and willpower.

Jesus said to judge things by the fruits of their labors. By this measure, our system is racist. No law explicitly requires minorities to serve longer prison sentences than white people, or that home-sellers should demand a little extra from minority customers, or that employers should reject black applicants so persistently. But the current system bears a strange fruit. Racism persists without ever mentioning race.

Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes, “The beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards. It allows a president to state such things as, ‘I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,’ yet, at the same time, to characterize the University of Michigan’s affirmation action program as ‘flawed’ and ‘discriminatory’ against whites. Thus whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding ‘racist.’”

It’s a mirror of Wall Street economic rhetoric. The current system siphons money to the already powerful (whether they see themselves a powerful or not). Then it characterizes any change to that siphon as unfair. Guys making $100,000 a year cry like victims. Once the system is entrenched, they need only block change, and the siphon keeps sucking.

Our system siphons opportunity to whites. No doubt Ms. Fisher believes herself a product of an enlightened age, and holds little ill will towards people of color. She no longer needs to. Our institutions have divvied up the hard work of subjugation, extracting a minimal fee of racism. They need just enough indifference that we do not demand change.

On an individual scale, racism befuddles one’s ability to recognize humans. On a societal scale, racism preserves inequality while excusing its beneficiaries from committing small acts of inhumanity themselves. We can protect our privilege in the privacy of the voting booth, and smile at our neighbors on the way out, self-satisfied, and proud to succeed by our hard work alone.


Christopher Benz writes. More from this author →