A few months ago I was drinking some beers with a white friend of mine and we got to talking about racism & white privilege. It was a long and lively night of great conversation. She’s a fellow beginner in anti-racism and a non-Latina who lives and teaches in a predominantly Latino area of a city that is nearly half Latino, so I gave her a copy of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She found it immensely helpful, and we’ve continued our dialogue long-distance. Through our conversations, we’ve become more aware of the privileges we experience and discussed various ways to help other fellow white people become more conscious of the problems of racism and white privilege in our society.
Last week, during one of our sporadic phone calls, the topic of racism & white privilege came up again. Does it change the white privilege dynamic when a white person is a minority and occasionally feels marginalized within the local community? Can my white friend experience racism in her neighborhood similar to the way people of color do elsewhere? It was another great conversation.
Any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. We probably all do these things at some time or another, even when we do not intend to. My white friend has experienced some real prejudice and marginalization in her Latino community. But can we really call it racism?
We came to the conclusion that even though my white friend is in the minority locally and does, on occasion, experience some marginalization, she is not really experiencing racism in the sense that people of color experience it in the broader context of American culture. At most, she has had a very small taste of what people of color experience, and this is a lesson in compassion, encouraging her in the continuing struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.
We recognized that privilege and marginalization are complex. A person can be privileged in one way (e.g. as a white person) and marginalized in another (e.g. as a woman, a poor person, and/or a member of a marginalized ethnic or religious group). A person of color may be marginalized by whites yet receive more privilege than another person of color.
In the case of my friend, there are times when she may feel marginalized as a white person in her local community, but in the broader context of American society she receives far more privilege as a white person than Latinos do. In America, non-Latino white people still have greater access to and control of social, cultural, political, and economic resources than Latinos. It is still the racial attitudes and prejudices of white people (both conscious and unconscious) that receive dominant expression and systematization in common language, cultural messages, social mores, institutional practices and policies, cultural artifacts, etc. White people continue to have greater access to good schools, jobs, housing, and so forth. If my friend is feeling alone and marginalized, she can “escape” simply by turning on the TV or visiting the next town. She has not reached the point where one of her first thoughts of the day is “I’m white” (as many people of color report thinking about their own race) and she probably never will.
And what about the Latinos in the city where my friend lives? In their local community, their experiences may be positive in many ways. They are not a minority locally. They are represented in local business and politics. They are not as marginalized on the basis of ethnicity to the same extent that they might be elsewhere, and may even experience some privileges. But this is not so in the broader context of American culture.
Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show a 40% rise in reported anti-Latino hate crimes between 2003 and 2007, the most recent numbers available. In California, the state with the largest Latino population and a state with better hate crime reporting than most, the number of reported anti-Latino hate crimes rose by 54% between 2003 and 2006. And the real national numbers are probably much higher, because many hate crimes are never reported, especially by undocumented immigrants, and police departments and states are reluctant to report hate crimes as such. A 2005 study by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on more detailed and accurate national surveys, found that the annual level of hate crime in America was about 20 to 30 times higher than the numbers reported by the FBI. (The same DOJ study showed that 84% of hate crimes included violence like rape or assault, while only 23% of non-hate crimes did.)
There was also a 48% increase in the number of American hate groups between 2000 and 2007, growth which the Southern Poverty Law Center reports is almost entirely based on the supposed “threat” of Latino immigrants. The SPLC reports that the number of specifically anti-immigrant “nativist extremist” groups in the United States increased by 20% in just one year (2007-2008). These “nativist extremist” groups “go after people, not policy.”
Rather than limiting themselves to advocating within the mainstream political process for tighter border security, stricter immigration controls or tougher enforcement of immigration laws already on the books, these fringe outfits target and confront immigrants [or suspected immigrants] as individuals.
(I add “suspected immigrants” because the FBI stats show an upswing in racially motivated violence against all Latinos, regardless of immigration status. Some of the victims are native citizens of the United States, some are naturalized citizens, some are legal immigrants, and some are undocumented. The great majority of Latinos in the U.S. are citizens and legal residents.)
In other words, whatever safety, community, and success Latinos may enjoy in the city where my friend lives is truly and increasingly threatened in the larger American culture in which we all live.
No, my friend and I are convinced, white Americans are not experiencing racism.