Mychal Denzel Smith recently posted an article on The Nation that’s a worthy read. In it, he argues,
…White people have to let go of racism. From the avowed racist, to the anti-racist activists, to the “I’m not a racist, I have two black friends” folks, to the “I don’t see color” people and everyone else between or on the margins…
I loved the article. It raised points we rarely see in print, even in places like The Nation. But, as I’m sure Smith would agree, white people aren’t really going to just give up racism. Why? Here goes.
Smith provides part of the answer when he says,
…the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards.
He’s right. Even the most liberal whites have benefited from racism, including the most grotesque forms of it. Think about it, you didn’t need to belong to the KKK in 1950s America to enjoy almost exclusive rights to better schools and the best jobs, not to mention a housekeeper who earned next to nothing while laboring without ordinary worker protections. And I don’t just mean in the South. Racial terrorism under Jim Crow pushed millions of blacks to migrate to Northern cities where they faced lower wages, segregation, and overt, often violent, racism.
Today, whites still passively benefit. For instance, whites aren’t individually responsible for racist drug laws. But white users drive the most lucrative parts of the illegal drug trade. Whites and Blacks use drugs at about the same rate, but whites use more expensive drugs, and blacks constitute a much smaller percentage of the population, making the volume of their illegal drug consumption decidedly smaller.
Yet blacks, not whites, are profiled as drug users and dealers. Because racial profiling causes law enforcement to concentrate their efforts in black communities, more black people are caught. Once caught, blacks are more likely to go from arrest to prosecution to prison, where they suffer, on average, longer sentences.
The protective quality of white skin makes it unlikely whites will give it up until blackness ceases to be so dangerous to one’s health. But white resistance to racial equity is about more than protection. Whiteness is worth cash money. Throughout the world, darker skinned people invest money into skin bleaches and cosmetics to lighten our skin at the risk of illness. We pay the price, and companies reap huge profits, because there’s a real advantage to whiteness.
Historically, the value of white skin is demonstrated by the fact that one could successfully sue for damages related to being wrongly labeled black, but there was no financial value placed on being wrongly labeled white. We live in this history and all that we’ve inherited from it, including our parents estates (or debts) and, for some, companies like Wachovia Corporation, R.J. Reynolds, J.P. Morgan, and Aetna that were created with capital generated from slavery. Just ask the heirs of these companies if racism pays.
Many argue that it’s unfair to put the burden of guilt on ordinary, wage earning whites. It’s true that the capital accumulated through genocide, the slave trade, and slave and coolie labor has been distributed extremely unevenly. But while white people constitute the largest group living in poverty in America, they aren’t the poorest by race, nor is the incidence of poverty nearly as high for whites as for Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and the least advantaged Asian ethnic minorities. And per capital income remains higher for whites than any other group by race, including Asian Americans.
When significant redistribution of wealth has occurred, whites have benefited more. For instance, the government redistributed some wealth via the G.I. Bill last century. That Bill provided, among other things, home ownership opportunities to white veterans that many black veterans, particularly in the South, were denied. Massive infrastructure development in the mid-twentieth century produced jobs for many, but these too were often denied to people of color. Because this happened at a time when the U.S. economy was recovering from a devastating depression, these exclusions have an enduring legacy revealed in the racial wealth gap between black and white people. And this gap has worsened since the crash of the housing market, an event precipitated in part by irresponsible lending practices originally invented by banks in order to prey upon people of color.
Most whites may experience the material benefits of racism in the form of crumbs, but they are held in thrall by the tantalizing promise of more, often voting against their own interests, specifically because that promise is more likely to be honored if you have white skin. This promise is fundamental to the mythos of American exceptionalism. For most of U.S. history, social mobility was impossible for non-whites. But until the end of the Civil War, coming to America was a near guarantee of social mobility for European migrants who were given the incentive of Indian land and slave labor to help settle the continent.
Today, that promise still pays off in advantages beyond greater wealth and significantly lower unemployment rates for whites. For instance, in this TedTalk, model Cameron Russell argues that she’s the beneficiary of a cultural legacy that advantages white people. One way she measures that advantage is by pointing out that a 2002 study of models showed that of 677 top models in that year, 27 were non-white, or less than 4%. The industry that defines “pretty” seems to believe that consumers are 25 times more likely to relate to beauty in a white woman as opposed to in a woman of color.
These advantages are everywhere. They are, in fact, so ubiquitous that most of us who are victimized by them, including white women who don’t look like Cameron Russell, don’t even notice. The evidence adds up to big a no to the question, will whites give up racism? Nope, there’s too much at stake. The end of racism, unfair though this reality may be, is up to us.