The visible differences that underlie the concept of race boil down to a single layer of melanin-tinted skin about a millimeter thick. “That’s all that race is–a sliver of epidermis.” Here on the cusp of the month uniquely devoted to the history of African-Americans, it’s only appropriate to talk about white attitudes, since it has been white people who principally turned the distinction of color into a system of oppression. For this particular Boomer, there is a deep contradiction. On the one hand, I am fully aware of the disparities and injustice produced by America’s history of racial prejudice. On the other, when I summon the optimism to imagine a different, better future, I find with alarm that its human face is white.
How much of American history, a lot of it atrocious, has been driven by the assumption that, contrary to Dr. King’s dream, people’s character is in fact betokened by the color of their skin. In the ongoing struggle to cancel that idea, the latest theory to achieve currency is implicit bias. Despite the controversy that surrounds it, there are plenty of reasons to believe in it. Numerous studies have shown that white subjects, including police, are more likely to perceive as dangerous the bodies of individuals of a different race (or if the officer is black, the same race). Discrimination on the basis of appearance, or traits associated with race, such as stereotypical first names, perpetuates inequality in the workplace. Nor are physicians immune to the influence of ethnic and cultural preconceptions, which contribute to unequal treatment in healthcare.
In contrast, I have no doubt whatever that I gained tremendously from being white, simply by being the child of parents who had enjoyed the same unearned privilege. Tim Wise’s memoir, White Like Me, distilled from his own childhood several pithy lessons about the advantages of “whiteness” whose truth will be understood by most people who grew up white. The ability to trace one’s lineage, to know that your ancestors have always been potentially equal (at least after a period of harsh assimilation decreed for the Irish and Jews), the chance to own property just because you can afford it, and the hope of having a life in high school even if you can’t dunk a basketball–all these are taken for granted.
If not all white Americans still feel the advantages of that “white privilege,” it’s partly because so many of them have been unable to escape a “crisis” of cultural and political dislocation. Journalists and pundits have recently started to reckon with the persistence of poverty in formerly middle-class white populations. Communities as seemingly diverse as central Ohio, the Kansas plains, and rural Oregon appear to be overcome by entrenched social problems; what all these accounts have in common, among other things, is the absence of black people. The relative stagnation of working-class wages is a well-established fact; although the near collapse of industrial unions is acknowledged as the cause, the effects on black families are seldom highlighted. The”opioid epidemic” now looms large in all corners of the country, and images of white teenagers casually combining prescriptions have all but eclipsed scenes of street-corner drug-dealing, as if that left no long-term adverse health impact in the black community.
Memoirs, by definition, will be written by those who succeed. Of course, black authors have also told their stories–e.g., Ta-Nehesi Coates, Charles Blow, Darnell Moore–but two of these books also elevate an issue that is conspicuously missing from the white accounts: sexual identity, a subject of surpassing interest to modern readers. Where is the narrative of black success that will seize the attention of policymakers who have the power to change things? The biographies of Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson–even Michelle Obama, for completely different reasons–are unlikely to sway the political establishment. (Nor does Justice Thomas’ just-released life on the screen look like a cinematic smash in the making.) Once again, the black experience appears outside the “mainstream,” marginalized by demography, history, and (most distressingly) education.
In short, I’m left with the feeling that even the picture of a dystopian United States, never mind a hopeful vision of change, is populated mostly by white people. Now that the media have discovered the country is “in crisis”–declining lifespans (a 5-year trend just reversed today!), rising suicide rates, loss of access to college–some of our political debates reflect these concerns. A very few leaders are expressing dismay about the black predicament in particular. All those who were making it central to their campaigns are gone. But the point is that it’s not their problem–it’s ours. In popular culture, “Empire” and “Atlanta” have certainly made an impression, but are we all black-ish now? In the throes of a national obsession with race that overlooks many ironies–is Patrick Mahomes at last the acceptable face of Colin Kaepernick?–let’s derive one further lesson. Black History Month itself has a 100-year history, and the theme in 2020 is the vote. That’s something you won’t hear about in the State of the Union Address.