No, I don’t mean car blinkers. I’m referring to the kind of blinkers that are used to keep race horses looking straight ahead at the jockey’s goal while blinding them to the distractions on either side.
Racism blinkers us. It imposes a kind of tunnel vision, causing social problems to appear to be related to differences in race and culture (and not racism), while blinding us to the common roots of many of our problems.
The study conducted by the Pew Research Center on Asian Americans that I wrote about in my last post is a good example. In it, Pew reports that 49% of Asian American adults have college degrees compared with 28% of adults in general. In addition, Asian Americans are reported to have substantially higher median household incomes and wealth than the general population, and then describes the relatively high levels of education and financial success of Asian Americans as distinctive racial characteristics.
There are significant problems with Pew’s number crunching you can read about in an excellent article in COLORLINES. But even if we put those problems aside, there’s still the issue of how ascribing relative Asian American success to race blinds us to the real social and economic realities dictating these outcomes, and how those realities affect everyone.
Here’s what I mean. In surveys measuring the educational levels of the most highly industrialized nations, the U.S. is scored at about average. That’s pretty bad news for the nation that is the richest by far, and the former world leader in education. It is for this reason that visas must be fast tracked for certain highly skilled workers, resulting in skewed educational attainment statistics among some immigrant groups, including some of the most educationally privileged of Asian immigrants.
And on that question of higher incomes and household wealth among Asians. Is it more useful to study these indices of success as racial characteristics, or to ask ourselves why the median income for Americans in general is so low?
According to Peter Edelman, 20 million Americans earned incomes less than $9,000 a year. Six million Americans have only food stamps as income. Half of U.S. jobs pay less than $34,000 a year. A fourth pay less than the poverty rate for a family of four. These statistics bring down the median income of Americans, even as that median obscures the reality for those on the bottom of the U.S. economy.
The poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately people of color, and that’s all about racism. Racism is also at work when we allow negative racial stereotypes to lead us to blame people of color for the problem of persistent poverty. But looking for solutions to poverty in racial or cultural characteristics, as the model minority myth that is tacitly promoted by the Pew report leads us to do, takes us nowhere.
Whites in the U.S. have the highest per capita incomes. With the blinkers on, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that white privilege translates into direct financial benefits for all white people. But then, how do we explain the fact that whites also constitute the majority of those who are poor?
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO of major companies in the U.S. earns in 10 hours what a typical worker earns in an entire year. So maybe the explanation is that income and wealth is not evenly distributed among whites – that the real driver of poverty is how the rich value the labor of the rest of us, regardless of race.
But it’s tough to know the nature of things we refuse to see. Among those things we’re blinded to by racism are our common humanity, our shared problems, and our linked destinies. Time to take off the blinkers. If we don’t, we might find that we’re racing to nowhere while the answers to where we ought to be heading lie in joining forces with our perceived opponents on either side.