See No Evil: Perception and Reality in Black and White

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

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. 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


Finally, white

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

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,

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




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