Just a few years ago, a
public opinion poll indicated that only 6% of whites in the U.S. 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%–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.
So it was no surprise
to read that once again a poll has been released, indicating that whites by and
large don’t think racialdiscrimination 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," 7 out of 10 whites believe that blacks
are treated equally in their communities: an optimism with which only 40% of
blacks agree. Eight in ten whites say blacks receive equal educational
opportunities, and 83% say blacks receive equal housing opportunities in their
communities. Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police
in their areas.
Despite the fact that
half of all blacks say they have experienced discrimination in the past thirty
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
Lord 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 secondly, the simple truth 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% of whites said that blacks were treated equally in their
communities. In 1962, only 8 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% 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% of whites
live in virtually all-white neighborhoods, and nearly nine in ten white
suburbanites live in communities with less than 1% black populations. What’s
more, only 12% 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. Fact is, if even one-tenth 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.
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 36-44% 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 are paid
at least 10% less 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
non-dominant cultural backgrounds.
Even when black
students show potential that is equal to or above that of whites, they are 40%
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
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. 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 like "defying
authority," or "attitude problems," both of which are perceived as more
threatening when coming from black students than whites.
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% 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
protestations that blacks receive equal treatment from police in their
communities, are 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% of illegal drug users, they are 35% 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, ten, even twenty times higher than the rates for whites, despite roughly
equal rates of drug usage.
Though a slim majority
of whites admit that racial profiling–one clear example of unequal
treatment–does happen, 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
1997-1998, the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit stopped and frisked 135,000 people: 85%
of whom were people of color. Only 4500 persons were ultimately arrested and
prosecuted, meaning that over 95% 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% 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 thirteen
percent they actually represent. We seem to see black people everywhere, and
apparently we see them doing quite well.
We even see them as our
buddies. 75% of whites in one recent poll indicated that they had multiple close
black friends. Sounds great, until you realize that 75% of white Americans
represents about 145 million people. 145 million who say they have multiple
black friends, despite the fact that there are only 35 million black people to
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,
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. Don’t laugh: some people will believe
Tim Wise is a
Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at