Racism and “Preferential Treatment” by the Numbers

By Tim Wise

Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE)

Anyone who does political analysis, advocacy or organizing knows that folks on all

sides of an issue have "numbers." Trotting out statistics to prove one’s point

about something is a well-accepted practice, and yet rarely do we stop to think about what

certain numbers mean: be they used by "our side," or by political adversaries.

As someone who works full-time doing antiracism work, I constantly run across those

whose "numbers" are thrown at me in an attempt to prove two things in

particular: 1) that racist attitudes among whites are virtually nonexistent nowadays; and,

2) that the only real discrimination still in evidence is that dreaded "reverse"

kind, as in so-called affirmative action "preferences." Herein, I would like to

address both claims, with reference to numbers, and what they do (and don’t) mean.

With regards to the first issue-white racial attitudes-my general response has always

been that no matter how much improved are the views expressed to pollsters, the real issue

is institutional inequity; and that is something that requires no overt bigotry for its

perpetuation. While I still believe this is an important point, I’ve also come to realize

that in some ways it’s a cop out: after all, there are real people behind those

institutions, making real decisions, and others who don’t make decisions themselves but

nonetheless collaborate with the system as it is. It is with that in mind that I decided

to look a bit more deeply at the numbers used by folks like D’Souza, Abigail and Stephan

Thernstrom, and others to "prove" how much more tolerant are today’s white


Although there have been many polls in recent years indicating that between 30-70% of

all whites believe blacks are generally lazy, less determined to succeed, and more violent

and aggressive, those who deny the persistence of racism tend to ignore these numbers,

focusing instead on the one or two surveys which bolster their position. So, for example,

I have heard it said with great pride by many race commentators on the right, that only a

very small percentage-perhaps 5% -of whites now say that blacks and other people of color

are "inferior races" in the biological sense.

This is of course an improvement since the 1940′s, at which time a clear plurality, or

even the majority of whites would have responded positively to this Bell Curve-ish

proposition. However, a few things should be remembered: first, there are still obviously

enough people willing to entertain the notion of biological determinism so as to make The

Bell Curve a best seller (not in the 1940′s after all, but in 1995), and secondly, even if

we accept the 5% figure as an accurate reflection of what people think, we should be clear

on just how many folks that represents. We’re so used to hearing percentages, that often

if we hear that "only" 5% think something, we think it to be a fringe viewpoint,

hardly worthy of concern. But when we look deeper-or simply pull out the 1998 Statistical

Abstracts of the United States-it becomes clear that 5% of the white population holding

essentially Hitlerian views about racial inferiority/superiority is more of a big deal

than previously believed.


Even if we subtract from the white population totals all whom the Census Bureau dubs

"Hispanic whites," leaving only those whom folks like David Duke might consider

sufficiently Caucasian, there are nearly 200 million whites in the U.S. today. Thus, 5% of

the white population is approximately 10 million persons; in this instance ten million

persons who adhere to the purest racism imaginable, and would be considered racist under

pretty much anyone’s definition.

Well just how many people is that? Is it really such a small group that we shouldn’t

concern ourselves with it? Is it so small that people of color who concern themselves with

ongoing discrimination and unequal treatment must be paranoid or overreacting? Hardly.

Compare these 10 million with a number of other population cohorts, many or most of which

the right (and others) are worried about, and in some cases about which they are

apoplectic. Consider that 10 million overt white racists is:

twice the number of "illegal immigrants" (approximately 5 million) currently

residing in the U.S;

at least five times the estimated size of the so-called "hardcore

underclass," (between 1.5-2 million) about which the right is constantly in an


more than three times the number of black single-moms with children (about 3 million),

who, according to contemporary political discourse are responsible for many of the

nation’s worst problems;

40% more than the total number of persons who will commit a violent crime this year

(roughly 7 million);

1000 times more than all the drunk drivers who will be involved in a fatal crash this

year (less than 11,000);

one-third more than all the babies born to teenagers in the last twenty years (about

6.5 million);

10 times more than the number of persons who will be reported for abusing or neglecting

a child this year;

more than five times the number of persons currently in jail or prison nationwide;

3.5 times more than the total number of federal government employees put together (and

you know what a problem people think those "bureaucrats" are);

four times the number of single-moms receiving cash "welfare" payments, even

before recent "reforms" bumped tens of thousands off the rolls;

And for a few final points of comparison, 10 million overt white racists is:

twice the number of whites who are officially unemployed, and equal to the number who

are actually out of work or underemployed in today’s economy; and,


more than all the cashiers, secretaries, police officers, waiters, waitresses and cooks

in the U.S. combined;

and it is more than all the farmers, lawyers, telephone operators, child care workers,

cops and classroom teachers combined.

In short, "only" 5% of the white population is a lot of people, so that even

by the most optimistic assessment of white racial attitudes, there are literally millions

holding overtly racist views. When combined with those whose views are less vicious, but

nonetheless hostile, and those who aren’t hostile at all, but who simply refuse to speak

up against those who are, it becomes clear just how real a problem racism-even on the

purely attitudinal level-remains today.

As for the second issue-so-called preferential treatment-numbers again are important.

Although opponents of affirmative action typically shy away from numbers here-choosing

instead to focus on individual (often inaccurate) anecdotes about victims of reverse

discrimination-those of us who fight for racial equity tend to offer up a bevy of

statistics indicating the real nature of preferential treatment which has worked to the

benefit of whites.

And make no mistake, showing the degree of preferential treatment afforded whites-both

historically and today-is exactly what we need to be doing. The problem about which I have

become acutely aware, however, is that numbers alone are not enough: mainly because we

often don’t explain them in a way which makes sense to people.

For years I have lectured to students and community groups about the multitude of

preference programs available to whites throughout the years which have been largely off

limits to people of color. My hope was that by doing so, I could place in context the

discussion of "preferential treatment," being offered up by the right, and thus

undermine some of its ability to persuade. Although my efforts were sometimes successful,

it was only when I began to " break down" some of the numbers I was using, that

clear majorities of the often hostile white audiences would begin to get that puzzled look

which lets you know they are having to think about something for the first time.

For example, for years now I have used the government’s FHA (Federal Housing

Administration) loan guarantee program as an example of preference for whites which still

has effects in the here-and-now. As most of you know, from 1934-1962, the FHA guaranteed

and underwrote over $120 billion worth of home equity for over 35 million white families.

Due to racially-restrictive underwriting policies, this font of public largesse was

virtually off limits to families of color, who generally couldn’t receive FHA loans for

homes in white suburbs. This process entrenched residential segregation which then

contributed to educational and employment inequity for persons of color.

This much is known, and irrefutable, as is the fact that the value of that home

equity-which is in the process of being handed down to today’s white baby-boomers or their

children-is now approximately $10 trillion. But when I would talk in these

terms-"millions" of white families, and "hundreds of billions" or

"trillions" of dollars-it was obvious that many a person’s eyes were glazing.

Fact is, folks simply don’t have a reference point for numbers that big, and so they tend

to go in one ear and out the other. So about a year ago, I turned again to the Statistical

Abstracts, and was able to cobble together the following comparisons, which help to put

the magnitude of this one program’s preferences in clear perspective:

$10 trillion dollars (the current value of the housing equity loaned preferentially to

whites throughout the middle of this century) is:

More than all the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings

account assets, all the money in IRA’s and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits

for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.

Now read that again. The first time I ever shared this information with an audience

(and I’m not talking about a left audience, I mean just typical not-all-that-political

students, and their professors), the sound of disbelief emanating from their lungs was

more than a little noticeable-and in a way that it had never been when I had shared the

numbers in an abstract, purely intellectual way. Now the face of preference had a context;

one that they could understand; and one which makes the claims of the opponents of racial

equity seem petty and disingenuous even to many of the most skeptical listeners.

The lessons of this already too lengthy commentary are simple: make sure to deconstruct

(for lack of a better term) the statistics offered by political commentators, to find

what’s really underneath the surface; and learn to break down the statistics you use in

your own work, so as to give them real meaning for people. Given the appropriately cynical

attitude many have towards what any political commentator or activist has to say, it is

not enough to try and win debating points about whose percentages are better. Rather, it

is necessary to make folks understand the faces behind the numbers, and the real-life

impact of political decisions. The Statistical Abstracts can’t do that. Only we can.



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