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Posts Tagged ‘colorblindness’

Almost ten years ago, I was a new teacher in a mostly-white, private Christian school. Most of my courses were American literature, but in my youth and zeal, I decided to take on a number of electives. One of the new courses I taught was Speech and Debate. It had been but a year since 9-11 and many of my students wanted to give speeches on issues related to terrorism or war. Knowing this, I decided to have them read an essay that pertained to racial profiling, hoping to round out their understanding of current events. The essay was written by an Arab man, but it was written in the 1980’s at the height of American hijacking fears. All of my students wrestled with the author’s point-of-view, struggling to balance their limited sound-bite-fed knowledge of national security issues against his account of being profiled, an obvious act of injustice. The kids were starting to break down some of their preconceptions about race and privilege and were genuinely open to confronting the derailments that traditionally held them captive in conversations about race.

I was excited and wanted to see more of this. In one of my English courses, I had students read an essay written by a black man on the same topic. He spoke of having to cross the street to avoid walking directly behind a white woman. But, unlike my debate students, these students immediately balked at the author’s account. They called him “paranoid” and insisted that he was making too much of things. One of my students, one of the only black members of his class, turned around and addressed his white classmates. He told them about how his mom encouraged him not to wear hats or hooded jackets in a store. He had been educated to keep a low profile and to maintain a respectful tone in the face of authority figures who would not do him the same courtesy. My students listened and empathized, but there were several who remained skeptical that racial profiling was a persistent problem in America, or even an injustice at all.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought about those two classroom situations. Like many of us, I had a visceral response to the news. The anti-racist in me felt helpless and hopeless in the days that followed. Tope’s post on the subject slayed me. As did Jim Vance’s honest and heartfelt editorial commentary on “The Talk” on our local news. I was reminded of my student’s courage in informing his white peers and I began to hope that perhaps we had arrived at a moment where white folks could “get it” when it came to racial profiling, gun violence, or being a perpetual target.

Call it slacktivism if you will, but I started posting everything I could find on the subject on Facebook. I deliberately chose articles that were well-researched or editorials that provided a clear, truthful, but winsome perspective, hoping that my white friends would join the call for justice in Trayvon’s killing. I even sought out faith-based commentary from a pastor, thinking that would appeal to my white Christian friends who remain ignorant of their privilege. A few friends at church told me that the things I was posting “made me think.” I got a couple compliments from unexpected people about the articles I’d posted. Still, I was doubtful that these ideas were taking root. In the anti-racist fight, even in my own prejudiced heart and mind, it’s often one step forward, two steps back.

It’s been a couple months now, and most of the talk on this topic has slowed in my Facebook news feed. Occasionally, a friend will post something as the case against George Zimmerman moves forward, but there is no longer a frantic flurry of commentary on the case as there was in those early weeks. Just recently, I began to see a new conversation on these topics emerge among some of my friends. Unfortunately, the discussion about race, injustice, vigilantism, etc. has been derailed by two common white complaints:

1) White people are killed and no one makes this big a fuss about it.

I saw this sentiment expressed in conjunction with a blog post about the shooting death of UNC student Eve Carson.  The blogger writes:

Was she profiled? You bet she was. Eve was profiled as a Rich, Blue -Eyed, Blond Haired, White Girl. Were there protests, marches and outraged politicians speaking out for her? Did Barack call her family?  Why is it about race only if the victim is black? Why aren’t we outraged when ANY kid is murdered? As a nation, have we been silenced by a politically correct whip? Lets’ be outraged about all murders, all racism, every injustice.

Let’s just ignore the mistaken timeline for a minute (Obama took office in 2009 and Eve was killed in March 2008) and focus on the thrust of this post.  Eve Carson’s murder garnered national attention. Her killers were brought to justice. At no point has there been any implication that race was a motivating factor in her killing.  In fact, her assailants claim they planned to rob her but killed her when she got a good look at them.

Anyone who watches daytime television can tell you that the media and our politicians make a huge fuss about it when a white person is murdered. Even more so if the person is young, female, and attractive by society’s measures. (In that case, the victim is likely to become the center of a Lifetime channel biopic.)

In fact, I’ve rarely seen an Amber alert for a child of color. That’s why organizations like the Black & Missing Foundation even exist: to publicize missing and endangered persons of color because most of the time, the media won’t do it. There is a racial disparity in the way criminals and victims are portrayed in the media.

Eve Carson’s case got the attention of morning shows and talk shows far beyond the scope of local news coverage. Her campus and her town rallied and held vigils. Her killers were apprehended and convicted.  There really is no fair comparison to be made between that case and Trayvon’s. If anything, Eve’s story illustrates by contrast how little we collectively care about a murder like Trayvon’s.

That leads me to the other derailment I’ve seen floating around on social networks:

2) White people are now the target of violence because of the case. We are threatened and should be afraid of retaliation.

Richard Land, prominent spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention made me glad I’ve left that assembly when he said recently on his radio show of black leaders, “They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965.”  Land offered a pseudo-apology for his comments in a public letter written to the current SBC president:

Richard Land, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to SBC president Bryant Wright to express his “deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding” his comments may have caused.

“It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life,” Land wrote, according to a letter released by Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news agency.

This, as the convention prepares to elect a new president, likely Rev. Fred Luter, who would be the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fearful white folks first point to the New Black Panthers’ offer of a bounty for the capture or death of George Zimmerman as evidence that whites are collectively in danger.  (The New Black Panther Party is unaffiliated with the Black Panthers). They will mention Spike Lee’s attempt to tweet Zimmerman’s address.  Lee apologized for the tweet, having inadvertently tweeted the wrong address, and legally settled the matter with the affected family.

I saw this derailment employed alongside the story of a white Orlando man who was severely beaten by a group of young black men.  The family of the victim claims that Matthew Owens was beaten as part of a retaliation for Trayvon Martin’s death.  Police investigating the crime reported that the dispute between Owens and his chief assailant has been ongoing, and while racial slurs are hurled by both sides, the beating was in no way related to the Trayvon Martin case.

This derailment is one of many historically used to create fear in white people.  Time and again in our history, we have learned about the threat that black men pose.  This derailment says, for black folks to see justice, white people will have to pay: reparations, loss of status, even loss of life.  As white folks, we cannot acknowledge the wrong in Trayvon’s case, much less right it, because to do so endangers us all.

It also diverts the attention from what was clearly a race-based crime onto other crimes in which white people are the victims.  We’re more comfortable with that narrative than we are with a story that allows us to see ourselves in a man holding a gun to a young boy’s head.

As white people, we can continue spinning tales about how people of color are out to get us, coming for our stuff, eager to disrupt our way of life.  Or, we can do better, we can do good, and choose to see the injustices that still exist in our country: including the one perpetrated against young Trayvon Martin.  We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color, confess the truth about societal structures of sin, and call for justice.

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It’s been quite a while since I regularly wrote here and there is a reason for that. For many months, I have been challenged in my real life to actually live out (!) some of the things I’ve written about in my blogging life, and as usual, I’ve come up short of my own talk.

Let me begin by saying that I love my church. I believe my family is meant to be a part of this particular local body of Christians. Like any church, we have our issues. One of those issues is that while we have a diverse congregation, our church is seated in an area that is predominantly composed of people of color (African-Americans and Latinos, to be specific). I was a part of the church launch and proud to be part of a community aiming to connect with people of all backgrounds. When we launched, our core leadership consisted of several Asian-Americans, a black music director fluent in Spanish, and several white people.

Over the last few years, for reason one or another, we lost several of that initial group. Almost every person of color was [albeit unintentionally] replaced by a white person. When we lost our music director last year, I worried we were losing ground and may be putting our multi-ethnic, fledgling congregation at risk of looking like other churches that had been planted by our home church: white from the top down. Just as I thought we’d hit real trouble, God brought along a young man who was black and Puerto Rican. He was fluent in Spanish and a gifted leader. Our congregation actually got even more diverse, as members of the community saw someone they could connect with at the helm every Sunday morning.

We had some rough business happen last fall where for financial reasons, that young man was asked to leave. He was replaced by a white woman; and, while I was pleased about that to some degree (yay! a woman again!), I struggled with that age-old dichotomy of whose rights/acceptance/ascension come first: [likely white] women or people of color. These two groups are historically pitted against one another and as they say, history often repeats itself. In the days that followed that church decision, I wrote to our pastoral staff, our church elders, and maybe even to Santa Claus, to express my concern that we were backing away from an important tenet of our faith and a vital characteristic of our church in surrendering to homogeneity.

While many in leadership, especially my local pastor, took my concerns to heart, it remained an insignificant factor in finalizing their decision. At an open forum on the topic of our music minister’s dismissal, I voiced my concerns to the highest authorities in person, citing Scripture and asking them to consider the ramifications of such a decision. Several black women shared about the importance of having a role model and leader who “looks like them,” but their gentle attempts at explaining racial identity to our white pastors consistently fell on deaf ears. An Asian woman spoke up in support of our music minister, reflecting on a similar theme, but putting it in entirely different terms and drawing attention to the fact that our church leadership had, by default, whitened over the last two years. Again, a “we understand and that IS important, but…” was handed to us.

I was like a dog with a bone in that meeting. At one point, I asserted to the pastor leading the thing, “I’m just going to have to be the thorn in your side here because I find your answers unsatisfying. This is important to me, as a white person. It should be important to you, too.” Many times I was worried that I was coming off like a nut job. Even the people that wanted our music minister to stay were looking at like I was a bossy lunatic. After I spoke, one of the white pastors told us, in his defense, that he was married to an Asian woman, so he got it. They get funny looks sometimes, so he knew what I was talking about. He said, “I’m not colorblind, I know how important this is, but I won’t be color-bound in my decision.” What he didn’t realize is that he was. He is. We all are.

As the meeting ended, other issues were raised and the pastors demonstrated a stauncher commitment to the decision to let our music minister go. Several of the women of color who spoke during the proceedings came up to me afterward and thanked me for being so aggressive. One woman openly praised God while talking to me about it, thanking Him that a person like me would even know this stuff. I suppose compared to what she had just seen of white people (and perhaps what she knows of us generally), I did come off a little better. I was intensely discouraged by that meeting and despite the warm words of a few women, I felt unheard and more than a little homeless. My husband and I had many conversations about whether to stay or go in light of those events.

Following those days, in the early winter, I had lunch with another white woman in a position of leadership. She asked me about my opinion of those events and I told her what transpired in the public forum. I was careful to guard myself against gossip because she wasn’t there herself, but since it was an open meeting, I relayed some of the back and forth as close to the facts as I could recall. She was comfortable with the pastors’ decision, but what I’d said sparked a conversation on race and soon, we were in it even deeper than I had gone in that meeting.

I tried to talk to her about some of the things I’ve learned and show her my own shortcomings in this area. I told her of incidents where my privilege had blinded me to what others were going through and how reconciliation required both repentance and humility. I got a lot of “well, I don’t see them reaching out to us. Their congregations aren’t integrated. It won’t be like that in Heaven, but maybe that’s just how it is here.” It was acceptance bordering on endorsement. As we talked, she kept eying a black couple to my left to see if they were listening. They were, at times, but that didn’t seem to inhibit her commentary. She went on to say that thankfully, racism seemed to be dying out and that our children probably wouldn’t have these problems. She told me that she often teases her daughter, who is so open-minded in her social circles, “Don’t you have any friends with normal names?”

Normal names. I couldn’t even speak. How do you even respond to that?! I had an answer for everything she had said, but this seemed to cross some invisible gall line that I couldn’t follow her over. Did anyone other than the people of color in my church, I mean any one white person, even care? Did any one of them even know they should care? At what point do you hang on and hope people will understand and at what point do you let go of the rope? I had reached that point. My hands were off. I could do no more. Me, a white person, needed some white allies if I was going to have the confidence to remain in this community.

Then I began thinking about why I felt I needed allies. Why was I looking to other white people for courage? Shouldn’t God be giving me that? Shouldn’t the rightness of my cause be giving me that? The three women of color at that meeting endured flagrant dismissal in their attempt to be a legitimate part of our church community. I thought about how many times they must have wondered, “Should we just go to an all-black church?” I considered that the homelessness and the alienation I felt as a white weirdo had to be just a drop in the bucket of what those women had borne. Sure, I was formidable at that meeting, but much of my indignation was fueled by the fact that I wasn’t getting my way. I wasn’t being heard. I was pissed that the system that always works for me wasn’t working for me. And in my pride and privilege, I was surprised by my ineffectiveness. Here I was doing that white person, “But, I’m a good white person! Where’s my cookie!?!” thing.

It was during this short season of contemplation that one of those women (the Praise lady) and I had a talk that empowered me to stay. She and I were talking about how my husband and I are preparing to become foster parents and the subject of race, etc. came up again. She told me that she and her husband came from an all-black church and intentionally left to pursue an integrated community. She said that they weren’t turning back, even in the face of the great disappointments our leadership was handing down. She reminded me that change is slow and it takes people of goodwill staying and insisting (or in my case, agitating and irritating) for things to get better.

I was, what we evangelical-types call “convicted.” I was told to be patient and endure by a woman who exuded patience and graciousness. I have such a low tolerance for personal injustice. Thanks, again white privilege. And who was I kidding, it wasn’t even fully personal for me. I wasn’t being dismissed and ignored. The people of color involved were being dismissed and ignored. Sure, I got a taste of it for standing in solidarity with them, and I’m proud of that. But that was little league stuff, and in light of the greater struggle against prejudice, racism, and privilege, any injury I sustained was even smaller. I was in a huff and ready to leave before the thing even really got started.

About a month ago, a white woman I’m just getting to know had a conversation with me about fostering. She’d been raised by white parents (her birth parents) and was part of a large family of fostered and adopted children. Her parents had moved into a low-income, predominantly black community when she was a child. Everyone at their church balked at the move (and initially, their ever-growing family), cautioning her parents that their children would be imperiled by that decision. They didn’t care. They trusted God. Over time, the church folks came around. The church became multicultural, with interracial couples and various blends of families from different backgrounds. Families of color joining and becoming leaders in the church. One family’s decision to be different and pursue God’s direction made a difference in their intimidated, ignorant, white church community. But the change was slow. She told me that “these things have a tendency to catch on.” I’m still skeptical that any of this can happen for my church, but still there’s a glint of hope.

Yet, even last week, I got another glimpse at the possibilities. We go to dinner with an assigned group of people once a month over a three-month stint. It’s an activity designed to acquaint every family in our particular church group. Saturday, we had dinner with a young white couple and an Ethiopian family. As it seems to do these days, the topic of race, missions, and ministry, came up. The white couple were educated at a Christian college in Ohio where they learned about white privilege and how Christians can be involved in racial justice. I was kind of shocked, to be honest, at what they had learned at their relatively conservative evangelical school. The couple is planning to lead a team of missionaries to Haiti where they will be establishing a relationship between our church and a local church there. They wanted counsel on how to do missions in light of all they understood about colonialism, imperialism, white savior-ism and the lot. The Ethiopian couple talked at length about what their perceptions were of missionaries back home: how it had been done badly, how it had been done well. They spoke of how trust is cultivated, how one can learn from the other, and how open, strong, healthy partnerships and peer relationships can develop.

The husband talked a bit about his experience with racial profiling, being light-skinned and mistaken for an Arabic person and searched at security stations in airports. He said he always made sure to go to the bathroom before the flight because he knew just standing up during the flight might frighten the passengers. I was appalled and said he shouldn’t do that, nor should he feel he has to do that. He agreed that it was a sacrifice, but said in those situations he still aims to make [white] people comfortable. I knew that many people in our church would not be bothered by such a situation. They may be uncomfortable knowing someone it had actually happened to, but in theory, they have no qualms with profiling, etc. Again, I was reminded that any loneliness I feel in my church because of my convictions is a small offering compared to what is happening right now to my Christian brothers and sisters of color.

When we left dinner, I had a renewed sense of passion for racial justice and reconciliation. The injustices against my new Ethiopian friends, the righteous indignation and humility of my new white friends. It was a lot to take in over one meal. I’m not sure where all of this is leading, but I know there is a great and difficult conversation emerging in our church about race. More than anything else, I am thankful that God is faithful to keep putting me in it. Even when I look crazy or devolve into a total whiner over it.

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Last fall, I bought Dr. Tony Evans’ new book, Oneness Embraced: Through the Eyes of Tony Evans.  Personally, I’m a fan of this pastor and his radio show, The Alternative.  A few years ago, I also had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of his daughter, Priscilla Shirer, at a women’s conference held by my church.  Seeing Dr. Evans was taking up the topic of race and racism in the evangelical church, I immediately got a copy.  Unfortunately, it took me several months to get around to reading it.  I can say that this book, written primarily to white and black audiences in particular, is a confident yet diplomatic invitation to those interested in building unity amid diversity and division in the church.

Dr. Evans begins by identifying white evangelical culture’s call to return to the good old days for what it is: an intensely problematic romanticism that overlooks the theological error and human cruelty committed by revered historical figures.  Evans is gentle, generous and gracious in explaining this to his likely resistant and privileged audience:

For far too long Anglo Christians have wrapped the Christian faith in the American flag, often creating a civil religion that is foreign to the way God intended His church to function.  Our nation’s founding fathers are frequently elevated to the level of church fathers in the arguments for the U.S. being founded as a Christian nation…Our founding fathers’ failure to apply the principles of freedom that they were espousing to the area of race is a prominent reason why many minority individuals are less than enthusiastic to join in with those in our nation who want to exalt or restore America’s history and heritage…what is often missing in our appeal to the return of the heritage and faith of our founding fathers is an acknowledgment and reversal of a major theological contradiction that many held–that of proclaiming justice for all while denying it for many…[We] have often appealed to that heritage while simultaneously ignoring the moral inconsistencies that were prevalent in its application. (19-20)

Evans dedicates a large section of his book to educate his audiences about the evolution of the black church in America.  This is perhaps the most valuable component.  While this abridged history may seem like an oversimplification for students of the subject, Evans’ presentation of the material piques one’s interest and would be engaging to any relatively uneducated audience (like me).  Unlike many of his white peers, Evans, himself a mainline evangelical, acknowledges the contributions of black liberation theologian James Cone, while making clear his own points of contention with that dogma.  He encourages his readers to engage in a discerning exploration of Cone’s theology:

While evangelicals would do well to listen to James Cone in the areas where he has argued correctly, we must also recognize the areas of disagreement.  Primarily, Cone’s black theology greatly overemphasized the black situation of oppression to the point of compromising biblical truth.  It also focused heavily on racism to such an extent that no real basis for reconciliation was afforded.  Likewise, Cone’s interpretation of the relationship of Jesus Christ to liberation failed to integrate it into the whole of God’s salvific purposes for mankind. (193)

Evans goes on to address how Cone’s theology affected earlier emphases of the black church and how those shifts interacted with the social and political realm.  Evans’ discussion of these historical topics is scholarly and thoughtful, inviting conversation and accepting that there are differing opinions on these topics within the black church.

Following this section, Evans lays out a proposal for establishing a multi-cultural church that addresses the reality of the racialized context of black-white relationships.  Evans’ hope for unity and reconciliation in the church is not a naïve one.  He confronts the situation honestly saying, “Both sides must be willing to experience the potential rejection of friends and relatives, whether Christians or non-Christians, who are not willing to accept that spiritual family relationships transcend physical, cultural, and racial relationships.  He even cites Ephesians 4 and one of our favorite verses here on the blog.  Evans describes the “kingdom-minded church” both metaphorically and practically (each paired with Scripture references that I’m omitting for the sake of brevity):

Someday a big show is coming to town and it’s called the kingdom of God…God has left His church here to provide clips of the major production that is to come.  Unfortunately, most of our clips have been so weak in demonstrating the power and wonder of a feature film that few people show interest in picking up a ticket.  Instead of previewing an epic, we often merely reflect the sitcoms and soap operas around us…While there is war in the world, there ought to be the existence of peace in the church, and prayer for peace by the church.  While there is oppression in society, there ought to be liberation and justice in the church.  While there is poverty in the world, there ought to be voluntary sharing with the goal of meeting existing needs in the church.  While there is racism, classism, and sexism in the world, there ought to be authentic oneness in the church.  Thus the world is presented with the option of Christ by being what the church is supposed to be in the world–an alternative model for the world–a community functioning under the rule of God in the mediatory kingdom on earth. (247-248)

While much of what Evans presents in the book is done so in reduced, dualistic terms (black v. white, social action v. personal transformation, etc.), there are times when this works in his favor, adding weight to his arguments in favor of a deeper commitment to social justice (something white evangelicals often eschew as a priority for “liberal” churches).  The dualism also gives his point-of-view poignancy, as in his conversation with famed evangelist Billy Graham (who himself struggled for years to integrate his crusades and rectify his the mistakes he made early in his career when he kowtowed to segregationists):

While we spent the afternoon together, [Graham] expressed the concern weighing heavy on his heart.  He told me how individuals would work together across racial lines to both plan and implement his crusades; however, after the event was over, these same individuals had no relationship with each other at all…In response, I told him that this happened because the event was only tied to evangelism and not to community transformation as well.  When invited, black pastors joined with white pastors to put together an evangelistic outreach.  But the heart of African-American Christianity hinged on a broader perspective of the scope of the gospel rather than solely on the gospel’s content.  When asked to participate in the community-impact initiatives by their fellow African-American pastors, the Anglo church has, as a general rule, often not shown the same enthusiasm of partnership that they receive in their outreach requests.  Without a comprehensive understanding of the gospel, we lack the common goal necessary to bring us together to evoke real and lasting change in our nation. (270-271)

Evans ends his book with a short description of how his church has integrated some of these principles in an effort to reflect the wider kingdom of God.  This section is short, but offers a practical template for conducting ministry in light of and with an aim toward unity and diversity.

I’m glad to see such popular preachers taking up these issues and I’m hopeful that my next read, John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, will also prove edifying.

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From June 18, 2011, through January 1, 2012, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, will be hosting an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?

The exhibition RACE: Are we so different? brings together the everyday experience of living with race, its history as an idea, the role of science in that history, and the findings of contemporary science that are challenging its foundations.

Interactive exhibit components, historical artifacts, iconic objects, compelling photographs, multimedia presentations, and attractive graphic displays offer visitors to RACE an eye-opening look at its important subject matter.

Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, RACE is the first nationally traveling exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States.

Other museums have been and will be hosting this exhibit as well. Current and upcoming locations include Boston, Charlotte, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Houston, and Durham. Please visit the official website for a virtual tour and the tour schedule.

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An interview with Nancy DiTomaso:

What inspired your study of white attitudes towards race and racial inequality?

In order for me to understand the issues of race in the U.S. –particularly racial inequality– I decided that I needed to understand a puzzling phenomenon: Why is it that the issues of race and racial inequality are so prevalent in public discussion, in news media, in scholarly work, yet when you talk to people about race, no one seems to think there’s a problem? This is particularly true among whites….

In general, whites in the U.S. articulate a value system that says that color blindness is a good thing– that noticing race, mentioning race, calling attention to race is a bad thing. And so people would like to think of themselves as colorblind. Most people claim that it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, green, purple or blue. What really matters is the best person for the job, the best student for the school, etc. Now, they don’t necessarily act that way in their own lives. They in fact do notice race– we have lots of studies that indicate that that is one of the first things that you notice about someone. But the etiology is that it isn’t something one should notice, and therefore we aren’t going to mention it, we aren’t going to talk about it. In fact, whites get very uncomfortable if people call attention to it….

Whites may talk about race, racism and race relations in terms of a collective process, or a community will, but they never applied it to themselves. When people do think about issues of racial inequality, they attribute it to “those racists over there.” It never applies to them. They hold onto the notion that racial inequality is created primarily by racism, and if they don’t feel that they’re racist, then they don’t have to participate in a solution.

I learned some unexpected things from these interviews– namely that inequality gets reproduced through advantages to whites, as much or more so than it does through discrimination against minorities. While some people make the argument that these are just different sides of the same coin, I will argue that there are very important differences. While discrimination against blacks or other minorities is illegal, favoritism or advantage towards white is not….

How are whites advantaged in the job market when discriminatory policies have been banned?

Essentially I found that everybody got every job, throughout their entire lives, because somebody helped them. They know someone or they know someone who knows someone, etc. This is so pervasive that I came to understand that almost every job is wired– meaning that there isn’t an equal opportunity for people to go out there and compete for a job. Almost every job, in one way or another, is reserved for someone’s friend, or someone’s colleague, or someone who knows someone, or someone like me.

Most of the people that I talked to are subject to what psychologists call “attribution error.” Attribution error has to do with how you attribute the outcomes of certain things. Most people understand what happened in their lives as the result of their own individual efforts, their own personal characteristics, because they were honest, hardworking, tried hard, motivated, able to change, etc. And the situational context– the help they got, the resources available to them, the advantages that they had– are not particularly noticeable to them. In fact, in most cases they didn’t offer that information. If they did offer it upon further probing, they would usually minimize it or discount it.

The extra help and advantages were essentially invisible. These advantages would not immediately come to mind when I asked them, “How did you get that job?” Many times in the interviews I would have to say, “Did you know anyone there? Did anyone help you? How did this come about?” Then people would say, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I just happened to run into this fellow that I used to go to high school with that worked there. He came over and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You should hire this guy. He’s a good guy.’”

When I asked people what the most important factor was in getting to where they are in life, they would say things like hard work, honesty, motivation, ability to change, persistence. These were all things that they identified as their personal characteristics. It wasn’t attributed to someone helping me, my family having resources, someone helping with school tuition or the down payment on a house or car. These facts would be revealed when I asked specific questions, but they didn’t see those as important factors.

Furthermore, having this kind of help or advantage in terms of getting jobs was not just true of the people in fact who had tried hard, worked hard and persisted. It was also true of the people who had screwed up, who had flunked out of school, who had gotten fired from jobs, who had gotten in trouble with the law, who had gotten into drugs and alcohol. Even those people knew someone who could get them back on track, find them a job or at least get them in the door. When I asked them about their particular circumstances, people defined said, “You know, I got myself together.” Or they would say “Yes, that just got me in the door, but then I had to prove myself.” So even people who objectively didn’t necessarily have the qualifications or the capabilities were still able to attain those jobs because somebody helped them.

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Larry Adelman writes:

Many middle-class white people, especially those of us who grew up in the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit– hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t “they”? After all, it’s been almost 40 years now since the Civil Rights Act was passed.

What we don’t readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country– a white history.

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The Wall Street Journal had a story last week about a study that shows disparities between white and black perceptions of bias (emphasis mine):

White Americans saw an even steeper decline in anti-black bias: from 9.1, in the ’50s, to 3.6, in the ’00s. But more striking, according to the researchers, was the sharp increase in perceived anti-white bias: Among whites, it shot up from 1.8 to 4.7.

White Americans, in short, thought that anti-white bias was a greater societal problem by the ’00s than anti-black bias.

The researchers described the pattern—which did not vary markedly with regard to age or education levels—as evidence that white Americans see race relations as a zero-sum game, in which one group’s gains must be offset by another’s loss.

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