“What? My part in racism? I’m not racist.”
You probably said that to yourself when you saw the title of this blog post.
Good! That’s why I wrote it! I want you to defend yourself and read on. You will learn something that probably you don’t want to know.
No matter what your racial or ethnic background, racism affects you.
And you need to know about it. Racism is built in to European American societies, and if you are an American, a Canadian, a Briton, an Australian, a New Zealander, or a European, or live in any of these places for a while, then you are affected by it.
This article will deal with specifically American racism. So we’ll look at American racism and your part in it.
First, let’s confront the issue of white privilege.
What is “white privilege”?
“White privilege” is the idea that if you are white, you never have to think about the advantages that you have because of your skin color.
If you are or appear white (Caucasian), then you have white privilege. Yes, even if you didn’t know it, you have it. If you are or appear to be one of the other rainbow colors — black, brown, red, yellow — you are treated differently from white people. People of other colors in the U.S. don’t have white privilege, but you’ve certainly seen it in action.
We all know there is no such thing as “white” people. But that’s the fictional color that the dominant European-American descendants have adopted as their own.
Here’s how white privilege works — read on. This is the first step in understanding American racism and your part in it.
Think about this description of white privilege created by students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:
White privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.
The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.
White privilege is about not having to worry about being followed in a department store while shopping. It’s about thinking that your clothes, manner of speech, and behavior in general, are racially neutral, when, in fact, they are white. It’s seeing your image on television daily and knowing that you’re being represented. It’s people assuming that you lead a constructive life free from crime and off welfare. It’s about not having to assume your daily interactions with people have racial overtones.
White privilege is having the freedom and luxury to fight racism one day and ignore it the next. White privilege exists on an individual, cultural, and institutional level.
“Being white means never having to think about it.”
That description written by students forms the introduction to one of their university courses, and was published in 2003.
One of the earliest published discussions of white privilege in the U.S. was written by Peggy McIntosh and published in 1989: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh, who taught Women’s Studies, wrote of her awakened consciousness:
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable…. Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it? …. [emphasis added]
… I began to understand why we [white women] are justly seen as oppressive [by black Americans], even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
McIntosh lists 26 ways that she benefited in her life due to her white privilege. Here are five of them:
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would be willing to live.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of people of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
People who identify as black, brown, red, or yellow most likely would not see those five examples as true for themselves.
Are you getting the idea about what white privilege is? I encourage you to go to McIntosh’s article and read the rest of the list. Click here.
Even if you never thought about the concept of white privilege before, I want you to think about it now. Take it in. If you are white, you have it. You have benefited from it, due to the disadvantages for people of color that American society has perpetuated.
The next section will discuss those disadvantages and their effects on the American economy.
In summary, white privilege is the set of often unacknowledged benefits that a white person has in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, the UK, and New Zealand, just by virtue of possessing a white skin and the cultural background of these places.
Once you acknowledge that you benefit from white privilege, you have to give up the idea that you live in a free country that rewards people based solely on merit. You’re not alone. Most white people in the world think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color. But it affects everyone. Everyone is responsible for American racism and your part in it.
McIntosh writes: “In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
Now that you know what white privilege is and how you got it, if you are white, let’s move on to see how white privilege and systemic American racism and your part in it affect the American economy.
How white privilege affects the economy
White privilege pervades all aspects of American life. By contrast, racism and discrimination based on skin color pervade all aspects of the lives of people of color. Whether immigrants or U.S.-born, people of color are treated differently from whites in America in hiring, pay, educational opportunities, housing, lending, policing, and dispensing of justice.
Those differences in treatment are illegal. They directly violate the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees everyone “the equal protection of the laws”:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv
Differences in hiring, pay, housing, educational opportunities, lending, policing, and dispensing of justice are what lead to and perpetuate the enormous economic inequality that exists in the U.S. between whites and people of color.
Let’s look at a few examples of how differential treatment affects the economic standing of individuals.
- Two people –one white, one black–with equal educational background and years of experience apply for the same job. The white person gets the job. The black person does not. The white person begins work and earns income. The black person keeps on looking for work, not earning yet. The black person has fallen behind the white person in career and earnings.
- Two people–one white, one black–are hired for positions with the same title and responsibilities. But the white person receives a higher rate of pay than the black person. The white person earns more and can afford to pay for housing, food, transportation, insurance, medical care, and education more easily than the black person who earns less pay for the same work.
- Two people–one white, one black–apply for acceptance to a college. They have equal high school grade averages and SAT scores. Both have participated in extracurricular activities and have won awards. The white person is accepted and receives a scholarship. The black person is put on a waiting list.
- Two people–one white, one black–apply for mortgages to purchase a home. Both have good credit histories. Both receive approval to receive mortgages, but the black person is charged a higher rate of interest than the white person, and will have to pay more each month for housing as a result.
- Two people–one white, one black–drive their Hondas through a white neighborhood on their way to work. Both have one tail light out. Both are
pulled over by white police officers. Both tell the police officers that they didn’t know about the tail light. The white person is given a written warning to get the tail light fixed. The black person is asked why he is in the neighborhood. He is arrested, his car is searched, he is taken to jail and charged with reckless driving, resisting arrest, and obstructing justice. The black person now has a criminal record which affects his future prospects for education, jobs, and housing–even if the bogus charges are dismissed by a judge.
- Two people–one white, one black–are arrested for possession of illegal drugs. The white person is charged with misdemeanor drug possession, found guilty, and given a one-year suspended sentence and fine, plus court costs. The black person is charged with possession with intent to sell, found guilty, and given a one-year sentence and fine, plus court costs. The black person has to serve the time, loses his or her job, loses his or her apartment, loses his or her credit rating because he or she can’t pay the fine (now that he or she has no income). He or she completes the sentence and is released, homeless and unemployed.
These examples are typical of events that happen every day all over the U.S. You can ask any person of color whether he or she has experienced discrimination in hiring, pay, housing, educational opportunity, lending, policing, and dispensing of justice and you will hear similar stories.
Universities have confirmed these kinds of discrimination in study after study. Northwestern University researchers found in 2017 that employers are still discriminating against African-American job applicants as badly as they did in 1989:
- “The researchers arrived at that conclusion after examining the results from every available field experiment on racial discrimination in American hiring that was conducted between 1989 and 2015. To measure the effect of racial prejudice in the hiring process, these experiments deployed either resume tests or in-person audits. In the first case, hiring managers are presented with resumes from applicants who have nearly identical qualifications, but a diverse array of stereotypically white, black, or Latino names. In the second case, similarly qualified white and nonwhite applicants go in person to apply for a job.”
“In 24 such studies–together representing more than 54,000 applications submitted for more than 25,000 job openings–white applicants received, on average, 36 percent more callbacks than equally qualified African-Americans. Critically, this average held relatively steady throughout the 26-year period when the studies were done.” Eric Levitz, “The American Economy Isn’t Getting Any Less Racist,” in New York, Sept 2017).
The research of Roland G. Fryer Jr., Devah Pager and Jörg L. Spenkuch found that the wage gap between white and black workers is 30 to 35%.
Are you comfortable knowing that an African American who has your same educational achievement and work experience is earning 30 to 35% less wages than you are? I’m not.
A study of educational opportunity published in 2014 “found that black, Latino and Native American students have less access to advanced math and science courses and are more likely to be taught by first-year instructors than white students. Black and Native American students are also suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.” Another of the study’s findings was that “Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.” The study examined all 97,000 public schools in the U.S. covering 49 million students. That’s 100% of all schools, not a sample.
A 2013 study by the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found significant discrimination in housing still exists. The study findings included a large sample:
More than 8,000 tests were conducted in a nationally representative sample of 28 metropolitan areas. In each test, two trained individuals—one white and the other black, Hispanic, or Asian—contacted a housing provider to inquire about a housing unit randomly selected from recently advertised homes and apartments. The two testers in each pair were matched on gender and age, and both presented themselves as equally and unambiguously well-qualified to rent or buy the advertised unit.
When renters meet in person with housing providers, they are almost always told about at least one available unit. However, Hispanic renters are slightly more likely than equally qualified whites to be told that no homes or apartments are available (1.8 percentage points). Moreover, in about half of allin-person visits, one tester is told about more available units than the other, with whites significantly more likely to be favored than minorities…. Black, Hispanic, and Asian renters are all told about fewer housing units than equally qualified white renters. Blacks and Hispanics are told about one fewer unit for every five in-person visits; Asians are told about one fewer unit for everysix in-person visits. (pp 3-4)
Slate published an article about racial discrimination in the U.S. justice system that offered eight findings:
- Black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched.
- Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for drug use.
- Black Americans are more likely to be jailed while awaiting trial.
- Black Americans are more likely to be offered a plea deal that includes prison time.
- Black Americans may be excluded from juries because of their race.
- Black Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense.
- Black Americans are more likely to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
- Black Americans are more likely to have their probation revoked.
These examples of discrimination in hiring, pay, education, housing, policing, and criminal justice, when taken together, create a system that prevents people of color from achieving at the same rate at which whites achieve. Discrimination has consequences.
The American economy loses the contributions of millions of people when racial discrimination is as pervasive as it is. A 2013 study by the W.K.Kellogg Foundation discovered the magnitude of the economic losses:
We found that, if the average incomes of minorities
were raised to the average incomes of whites, total
U.S. earnings would increase by 12%, representing
nearly $1 trillion today. By closing the earnings gap
through higher productivity, gross domestic product
(GDP) would increase by a comparable percentage, for
an increase of $1.9 trillion today. The earnings gain
would translate into $180 billion in additional corporate
profits, $290 billion in additional federal tax revenues,
and a potential reduction in the federal deficit of $350
billion, or 2.3% of GDP.
[Analysts found that] by 2030,
closing the minority earnings gap would increase
federal tax revenues by over $1 trillion and that even a
10% reduction in federal Medicaid and income support
would reduce these safety net expenditures by nearly
$100 billion. The increase in tax revenues and decrease
in outlays would combine to produce over $1.1 trillion
dollars annually that could be used to reduce the debt,
lower taxes, or shift spending to other priorities.
The study pointed out the financial effects of housing discrimination as well:
In 2012, 74% of white families owned homes. In
contrast, 44% of African American families, 46% of
Hispanic families, 51% of American Indian/Aleut/Eskimo
families, and 57% of Asian American and Pacific Islander
families owned their own home.12 The black/white
wealth gap increased from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500
in 2009, driven primarily by the racial difference in the
number of years of homeownership.
In addition to the effects of prison time on a person’s lifetime earnings and job prospects, we have to realize the costs of operating state prisons: $57 billion annually. Imagine the effects of adding that kind of money to school budgets instead of spending it on housing inmates who are disproportionately members of nonwhite racial groups.
What you can do as an individual
White privilege and the disadvantages it places on people of color are serious problems. As I’ve explained in the previous sections, racism and discrimination cause trouble in every aspect of life for people of color. White people have benefited from American racism and your part in it.
Most (92%) African Americans experience discrimination and racism. That discrimination is based mostly on individual prejudice (49%) compared to laws and policies (25%) or a combination of both (25%). These are among the key findings of a recent survey conducted by National Public Radio, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which asked African Americans about their personal experience of discrimination.
I hope you’re no longer saying to yourself, “Racism has nothing to do with ME.” You can see now that racism DOES affect you, even though you may have been unaware of it before reading this far.
So what can you do about it, now that you are aware?
Here are suggestions for those who want to help end American racism, drawn from online articles written by African Americans:
“Become an ally. Allies—those who offer their support even though they derive no direct advantage and may even run risks by doing so—are important to any movement for justice and equality.” (Times-Union blog)
“The first thing any ally needs to realize is you can act as an ally, but you can’t be an ally by your own designation alone. It is up to members of the group with whom you are seeking to stand in solidarity to call you an ally.” (Ben and Jerry blog)
“Examine your own biases. We must take a look at what makes us uncomfortable. Do you have kneejerk reactions to LGBTQ issues, to media reports of “riots” (that are actually just protests)? Everyone is biased in some way: it’s unavoidable. The key is to be honest about it so that we can begin to try to see each other for who we are.” (Ben and Jerry blog)
STOP participating in discriminatory practices. If you’re a rental agent or real estate professional, then don’t make decisions about clients based on the clients’ race or ethnic identity. If you have the power to hire and fire people, then start recruiting and hiring more people of color for your business or profession.
If you’re a teacher, school administrator, or school board member, then become active in seeing that information about the history of people of color is taught at your school, that teachers of color are hired, that music and art created by people of color are brought to your school in amounts equal to music and art created by white people.
If you are shopping in a store, then make it a point to smile and say hello to shoppers of color. If you attend a meeting, then go and sit down by people of color and greet them as you would your white friends. Be sure that you ask candidates for office how they will help end racial discrimination in their constituents’ neighborhoods and businesses. You can help end American racism.
“Diversify your media. Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on television, on radio, online and in print to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues.” (the root.com)
“Don’t be afraid to be unpopular. If you start calling out all the racism you witness (and it will be a lot, once you know what you’re seeing), some people might not want to hang out with you as much. But think about it like this: Staying silent when you witness oppression is the same as supporting oppression. So you can be the popular person who stands with oppression, or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people. Which person would you prefer to be?” (the root.com) You can help end American racism.
Be proactive in your own community. “As a white ally, you are not limited to reacting only when black people are subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst. …Some ideas for action: Organize a community conversation about the state of police-community relations in your neighborhood; support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes; ask the local library to host a showing of, and discussion group about, the documentary Race—the Power of an Illusion; attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue.” (the root.com)
“Learn about our country’s history with slavery and racism—a history that is far from ‘in the past.’ No one’s asking you to be an expert. But the more you know, the better able you’ll be to help fight white supremacy, homophobia, sexism, and so much else that’s eating away at our culture.”(Ben and Jerry blog)
“Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the civil rights movement and the charge of his “final marching orders.'” (the root.com)
Most important: Don’t give up. Knowledge is power. Now you know more about American racism and your part in it. You know there are many parts to it, and that it is built into many systems. And you know that you can do something about it.
If you have an experience with American racism to share, please tell me in the Comments section.
Thanks for reading this article!