derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo
When faced with evidence that racism is still alive and well in our society, many white people will try to avoid responsibility for promoting racial justice and reconciliation by attempting to dismiss or undermine the evidence with derailment techniques.
“But what about Oprah?” Pointing to people of color who have achieved fame, popularity, wealth, or political leadership is a popular derailment tactic. The names vary (Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods), but the argument is basically the same. People who employ this tactic are suggesting that Oprah proves everyone has equal opportunity and the means to attain success, and racism is not (or no longer) a significant obstacle.
History shows time and again that it is fallacious to argue that the success—even great success—of a few is a good indicator of equal opportunity.
Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical Narrative, published in 1845, quickly became a bestseller in the United States and was even translated and published internationally. But Douglass’ great fame was no indicator of equal opportunity. Race-based slavery was still legal in the United States, and fellow abolitionists feared that the book’s popularity might provoke Douglass’ former owner to try to recover his “property.”
Madam C.J. Walker became the first female millionaire by creating a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women. Walker’s financial success did not mean racism was “a thing of the past,” nor could one plausibly argue that it meant women and people of color enjoyed equal opportunity. Walker could not legally vote and racial segregation, both legal and illegal, was the norm in many states, including the one in which she began to build her business. Over 3000 African Americans were lynched between 1880 and 1951—more than one a week in the year Walker became a millionaire.
Ralph Bunche was the first African American, even the first person of color, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Again, his great achievement was no indicator that people of color already enjoyed equal opportunity or that racism was not a very significant obstacle. Years would pass before Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And, of course, a number of entertainers of color enjoyed a measure of fame and popularity in times when no one could reasonably argue that people of color enjoyed equal opportunity. It is easy to name people like Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.
Tim Wise, in discussing this topic, quotes the words of James Baldwin: “A few have always risen—in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free.”
People who appeal to the “But what about Oprah?” excuse believe that her success is an indicator of opportunity. But what happens when we compare not extremes or exceptions, but average folk?
When it comes to wealth, the typical white family has eleven times the net worth of the typical black family, and eight times the net worth of the typical Latino family. More could be elaborated on this point, but I’d like to turn to Asian Americans (who typically have higher incomes than African Americans and Latinos) because many people have an exaggerated idea of their socioeconomic achievements. We hope to address the “model minority” myth at greater length sometime in the future, but here’s a little foretaste.
Native-born Asian Americans earn less money than native-born white Americans, and possibly less than white Americans who are foreign-born. White Americans are paid more than Asian Americans who have equal or even more education. Even when they have the same qualifications, Asian Americans earn less than white Americans in many occupational categories: 10-17% less for men and as much as 40% less for women.
Comparing household incomes might appear to indicate parity between whites and Asian Americans, but it is an illusion. The typical Asian American household includes more people than the average white household, and more members of the Asian household are likely to be working. “It is not an apt comparison,” Frank Wu writes, “to match an Asian American family that earns $50,000 per year by pooling the wages of a husband, a wife, a grandparent, a child, and a cousin with a white family that earns the same amount through the salary of a single breadwinner.” And there are other factors to consider too. Asian Americans are more likely to be self-employed, putting in longer hours with fewer benefits and increased risk of bankruptcy. Asian Americans are more geographically concentrated in states and urban areas with high costs of living. Controlling for other factors shows these inequalities are based on race—or more accurately, racism.
White privilege may be discerned in other areas of life as well. In addition to wealth disparities, there are significant health disparities. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights revealed this year that “racial and ethnic minorities continue to have more disease and related conditions of hypertension, disability, and premature death than non-minorities.” People of color tend to receive a lower quality of health care than white people, even when access-related factors such as patients’ insurance status and income are controlled. Doctors at the Institute of Medicine have argued in a report that these racial disparities are rooted in bias, discrimination, and stereotyping on both individual and institutional levels.
There are also significant racial disparities in education, which Cayce has recently written about.
Oprah’s exceptional success cannot excuse anyone, least of all privileged white people, from promoting racial justice and reconciliation.