Just a few years ago, a public opinion poll indicated that only 6 percent of whites in the United States believed racism was still a “very serious” problem facing African-Americans. While larger percentages believed racism to be somewhat of a problem, only this anemic share of the white community saw it as an issue of great importance.
When you consider that twice that number — or as many as 12 percent — have told pollsters they believe Elvis Presley is still alive, it becomes apparent that delusion has taken on a whole new meaning among the dominant racial majority. Apparently, it is easier for whites to believe that a pill-popping, washed-up lounge singer faked his own death and is playing midnight gigs at some tropical resort than to believe what black folks say they experience every day.
It makes me think that if ignorance is indeed bliss, then my fellow whites must be among the happiest folks on the planet.
So it was no surprise to read that once again a poll has been released, indicating that whites by and large don’t think racial discrimination remains a big problem, and that whites and blacks continue to view issues of racial equality far differently.
According to the recent Gallup survey on “Black-White Relations,” seven out of 10 whites believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities: an optimism with which only 40 percent of blacks agree. Eight in 10 whites say blacks receive equal educational opportunities, and 83 percent say blacks receive equal housing opportunities in their communities. Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police in their areas.
Stuff of fiction
Despite half of all blacks saying they have experienced discrimination in the past 30 days, whites persist in believing that we know their realities better than they do, and that black complaints of racism are the rantings of oversensitive racial hypochondriacs. Blacks, we seem to believe, make mountains out of molehills, for God knows we would never make a molehill out of a mountain.
That white perceptions of the extent of racial bias are rooted in a stupendous miasma of ignorance is made clear by a number of salient facts. First, as will be shown below, there is the statistical evidence indicating that equal opportunity is the stuff of fiction, not documentary; and second, that white perceptions of racism’s salience have always been splendidly naive. Indeed, as far back as 1963, before there was a Civil Rights Act to outlaw even the most blatant racial discrimination, 60 percent of whites said that blacks were treated equally in their communities.
In 1962, only eight years after the Brown decision outlawed segregation in the nation’s schools (but well before schools had actually moved to integrate their classrooms), a stunning 84 percent of whites were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity. In other words, white denial of the racism problem is nothing new: it was firmly entrenched even when this nation operated under a formal system of apartheid.
Of course, this ignorance of the lived realities of black people is no surprise. Rather it is in large part the result of our isolation from African-Americans in daily life.
More than 80 percent of whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods, and nearly nine in 10 white suburbanites live in communities with less than 1 percent black populations. What’s more, only 12 percent of whites in law school today — who by historical standards have had more opportunity to mix with people of color than any generation before them — say they had significant interaction with blacks while growing up.
One can only expect this degree of isolation to lead to a skewed perception of what other people experience.
After all, if one doesn’t know many blacks, or personally witness discrimination, it is all the more likely that one will find the notion of widespread mistreatment hard to digest — especially when one has been socialized to give more credence to what members of one’s own group say, than what the racial “other” tells us is true.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that every time a black person says they have been discriminated against that they are, in fact, correct. Individuals, after all, can misperceive certain situations. But the reality of individual misperception should not lead to the widespread white belief in mass black delusion, which is virtually the only way one can read the Gallup figures.
For so many whites to believe that blacks have equal opportunity is not only to discount a few claims of discrimination that may be without merit: rather, it is to reject the broad swath of claims that virtually every African-American can bring forth from their personal mental rolodex. If even 10 percent of the black claims of discrimination were accurate, this would translate into well over 1.75 million instances of anti-black racial bias every single month, based on survey data. Unfortunately, it is doubtful the numbers are this small.
On the job
Though the Gallup survey didn’t address racial discrimination in the labor market, there is little question that when whites say blacks are treated equally, they are also assuming this to be true for the world of work. But what is the reality? According to a recent study by the Russell Sage Foundation, even though blacks search for work longer and often more aggressively than whites, they are between 36 percent and 44 percent less likely to be hired for jobs in mostly white suburbs, even when their experience and qualifications are equal to their white counterparts. White males with a high school diploma are just as likely to have a job, and tend to earn just as much, as black males with college degrees, and on average, even when age, experience, education and other relevant factors are considered, blacks average at least 10 percent less pay than similar whites.
As for education, the picture is much the same. Although formal segregation is illegal, de facto segregation remains a reality thanks to “ability tracking,” which has less to do with actual ability, and more to do with racial and class bias against children of color and those from low-income families. Beginning as early as kindergarten, teachers and counselors separate students based on so-called cognitive skill levels, despite evidence that the tests used to determine these skill levels are inaccurate predictors of ability and terribly biased against students from nondominant cultural backgrounds.
Even when black students show potential that is equal to or above that of whites, they are 40 percent less likely to be placed in advanced or accelerated classes, according to the head of the College Board. Despite evidence of ability, blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be placed in remedial or low-track classes, where they will typically be taught by the least qualified teachers, be given less challenging material to learn and receive on average nearly 40 hours less actual instruction annually.
So too is educational inequity fostered by unequal discipline, meted out in a racially disparate manner. Even though black and white rates of school rule infractions are roughly equal, black students are twice as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled. Blacks are half of all students suspended or expelled for weapons violations, even though self-report surveys indicate whites are just as likely to bring weapons to school, and white males are actually twice as likely as black males to do so, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2000 study. Since blacks are more likely to be suspected — thanks to common stereotypes about violence and delinquency — they are the ones who get searched and caught, but this hardly means they break the rules more often.
According to studies by the Applied Research Center, the disproportionate rate of black suspensions is the result of greater punishment given for subjective infractions such as “defying authority,” or “attitude problems,” both of which are perceived as more threatening when coming from black students than whites.
Housing, credit, cops
As for housing, white confidence in equal opportunity makes for nice wishful thinking, but hardly comports with reality. Virtually every study on housing bias in rental and mortgage markets for the past three decades has found evidence of substantial ongoing discrimination. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there may be as many as 2 million instances of racial housing bias each year, and as many as half of all blacks may face discrimination when trying to rent an apartment or purchase a home.
According to the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, blacks are 56 percent more likely than whites to be rejected for a mortgage loan, even after controlling for 38 factors that could explain higher rejection rates for blacks — including issues of credit history, collateral, and income. Nationwide, mortgage loan rejection rates for the highest-income group of blacks is roughly the same as the rejection rates for the lowest-income whites.
Finally, white protestations that blacks receive equal treatment from police in their communities is nothing short of laughable. A look at police prosecution of the war on drugs alone gives the lie to white claims of equal law enforcement. Though blacks are only 14 percent of illegal drug users, they are 35 percent of those arrested for possession. In many communities, including some of the ones where whites claim there is no bias in policing, blacks face arrest rates for drugs that are five, 10, even 20 times higher than the rates for whites, despite roughly equal rates of drug usage.
Driving while black
Though a slim majority of whites admit that racial profiling — one clear example of unequal treatment — does happen, apparently few believe it happens where they live. Yet in state after state, studies have found a disproportionate rate of highway and surface street stops of vehicles driven by blacks, and searches of cars driven by blacks, above and beyond the rates of black traffic infractions, which otherwise might create reasonable cause.
In New York City, from 1997 to 1998, the New York Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit stopped and frisked 135,000 people, 85 percent of whom were people of color. Only 4,500 persons were ultimately arrested and prosecuted, meaning that over 95 percent of those harassed were innocent. Interestingly, whites who were stopped were significantly more likely to be found with drugs or other contraband, indicating that not only was this policy of racial stops and searches a biased one, but it failed the test as valid crime control on its own merits as well.
Of course, I hardly expect the facts to matter much, as an awful lot of white folks seem impervious to them. When it comes to racial realities, the levels of ignorance are so ingrained as to be almost laughable. Perhaps that’s why 12 percent of whites actually say blacks are a majority of the nation’s population, and why most whites believe blacks are a third of the nation’s population, instead of the 13 percent they actually represent. We seem to see black people everywhere, and apparently we see them doing quite well.
Apparently, we even see them as our buddies. Some 75 percent of whites in one recent poll indicated that they had multiple close black friends. Sounds great, until you realize that 75 percent of white Americans represents about 145 million people. So 145 million say they have multiple black friends, despite the fact that there are only 35 million black people to go around. Which means one of two things: either whites are clueless about black people, friendships, or both; or black folks are mighty damned busy, running from white house to white house to white house, being our friends. In which case, we can put away all that nonsense about blacks “taking our jobs.” After all, how could blacks have time to work at all, what with all the backyard barbecues they’re attending at the houses of their white pals? Hell, maybe Elvis will even invite them all to Graceland when he makes his triumphant return to Memphis.Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org