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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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