When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 4

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, November 15, 2014

When I write about racial inequality in America, one common response from whites is eye-rolling and an emphatic: It’s time to move on.

“As whites, are we doomed to an eternity of apology?” Neil tweeted at me. “When does individual responsibility kick in?”

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This is the fourth installment in a series of columns I’ve written this year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” and plenty of white readers have responded with anger and frustration at what they see as the “blame game” on race. They acknowledge a horrific history of racial discrimination but also say that we should look forward, not backward. The Supreme Court seems to share this view as it dismantles civil-rights-era rulings on voting rights.

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Of course, personal responsibility is an issue. Orlando Patterson, the eminent black sociologist, notes in a forthcoming book that 92 percent of black youths agree that it is a “big problem” that black males are “not taking education seriously enough.” And 88 percent agree that it’s a big problem that they are “not being responsible fathers.” That’s why President Obama started “My Brother’s Keeper,” to cultivate more prudent behavior among men and boys of color.

But we in white society should be equally ready to shoulder responsibility. In past articles in this series, I’ve looked at black/white economic inequality that is greater in America today than it was in apartheid South Africa, at ongoing discrimination against African-Americans in the labor market and at systematic bias in law enforcement. But these conversations run into a wall: the presumption on the part of so many well-meaning white Americans that racism is a historical artifact. They don’t appreciate the overwhelming evidence that centuries of racial subjugation still shape inequity in the 21st century.

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The inequality continues, particularly in education. De jure segregated schools have been replaced in some areas by de facto segregation.

Those of us who are white have a remarkable capacity for delusions. A majority of whites have said in opinion polls that blacks earn as much as whites and are as healthy as whites. In fact, black median household income is $34,598, compared with $58,270 for non-Hispanic whites, according to census data. Black life expectancy is four years shorter than that of whites.

Granted, race is just one thread in a tapestry. The daughters of President and Michelle Obama shouldn’t enjoy affirmative action preference (as their dad has acknowledged), while disadvantaged white kids should.

Yet one element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage.

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We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start–a facet of white privilege–and pretend that the competition is now fair?

Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren’t we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?

Can’t we at least acknowledge that in the case of race, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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