The White Fairness Understanding Gap

Paul Street

policy-makers, activists, and academics regularly decry and claim to offer
solutions to the problem that Blacks tend to score significantly lower than
whites on standardized academic achievement tests. It is interesting, then, to
read the results of a survey conducted last Spring by the Washington Post,
the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University. According to this
high-profile research, whites are far behind Blacks when it comes to grasping
elementary facts of American social, economic, and political reality. “Large
numbers of white Americans incorrectly believe,” the Post reports,
“that Blacks are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes,
schools, and health care.”

For some time
now, most white Americans have wrongly believed that blacks enjoy equal
opportunity. Now white false consciousness in racial matters appears to be
escalating into a profoundly distorted image of social and economic outcomes.
African-Americans polled in the survey showed a much stronger grasp of reality
regarding racial inequity. When the test subject is fairness, whites lag
significantly behind blacks in the United States.

Is this a
paradox when whites score higher on academic achievement tests? No, for at
least five interrelated reasons. First, the American educational curriculum
from kindergarten to 12th grade is notoriously conservative on questions of
social, racial, and economic justice. Meaningful ideological controversy is
taboo in history classes and texts that portray America as a virtually
classless land of equal opportunity. Such texts and lessons hardly equip
students to understand the unequal distribution of wealth, income, and power
between Blacks and whites. They shame minority and poor children, encouraging
those kids to disengage from school, thereby contributing to the black-white
test-score gap.

Second, there’s
no substitute for experience when it comes to grasping social reality. White
Americans tend to understand Black experience in exceedingly abstract and
distant terms, on the basis of projected fears and fantasies fed by a
white-owned corporate media that showers them with disproportionately affluent
images of African-Americans. Third, that media has long been feeding Americans
a steady diet of misleading and provocative news bites on affirmative action
for minorities and especially for Blacks. Exaggerating the extent to which
whites have suffered from that policy, this coverage has interacted toxically
with nearly three decades of relative income stagnation and even decline for
masses of white Americans to stoke the fires of white racial illusion.
Confronting economic insecurity in their daily experience and viewing rich
African-Americans and the alleged excesses of affirmative action and
“multiculturalism” on their televisions, millions of whites now think that
Blacks have caught up with the majority race.

Fourth, white
America’s unreal picture of Black reality is reinforced by the persistent
hyper-segregation of American communities by race and class. In Chicago, home
to the nation’s largest contiguous settlement of African-Americans,
researchers estimate that 80 percent of Blacks would have to move if they
wished to live in a neighborhood whose racial composition matched that of the
city as a whole. There, as elsewhere, poverty and such related social
indicators as unemployment, single-parent families, and the possession of
criminal records are very disproportionately concentrated in predominantly
Black neighborhoods. Four out of five U.S. whites live in virtually all-white
neighborhoods and nearly 9 in 10 suburbanites live in communities that are
less than 1 percent black.

fittingly enough, is racial segregation more strikingly evident than in the
schools. Nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Southern
school segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” the Civil
Rights Project at Harvard University has recently reported, school
“re-segregation” has been underway for at least ten years. It is “happening,”
the Civil Rights Project finds, “despite the nation’s growing diversity” and
“is contributing to a growing gap in quality between the schools being
attended by white students and those serving a large proportion of minority
students”—a gap that receives curiously little mention in standard
pronouncements on the black-white test-score gap. “More than 70% of the
nation’s black students,” the Project reports, “now attend predominantly
minority schools,” whereas “whites on average attend schools where less than
20% of the students are from all of the other racial and ethnic groups
combined.” With little substantive connection to the actual daily lives of
African-Americans from childhood on, whites rely excessively on racial myths
encouraged by dominant ideological paradigms positing color-blind equality of
opportunity as an achieved reality and racism as a thing of the past.

A fifth factor
is the tendency of many Americans to take an at- once pragmatic and
self-interested orientation towards truth. By the terms of that perspective,
“the truth of a belief depends less,” wrote the late radical Australian social
psychologist Alex Carey, “on the evidence which leads to its adoption than on
the consequences that follow from that adoption.” Many whites reason that they
have little to gain and much—preferred access to better neighborhoods,
schools, jobs, incomes, and health care—to lose from acknowledging the
pervasive, deep, and deepening structural inequalities that continue to exist
between blacks and whites even as the U.S. moves beyond the explicit racial
bigotry of previous eras.

A sixth factor
is the weakness of the left. White perceptions would be more accurate if the
country possessed significant populist and social-democratic movements that
saw ordinary blacks and whites not as pitted in a zero-sum game of competition
with each other but as partners in common opposition to the disproportionately
(though not exclusively) white upper class—the top 10 percent, say, of
Americans that possess more than two-thirds of U.S. wealth. Such movements
have tended to provide pragmatic and idealistic reasons for whites to
acknowledge and act upon the reality of black experience. Were they to revive,
they would help channel ordinary whites’ sense of social grievance away from
waning affirmative action protections for Blacks and toward the numerous ways
in which the predominantly white upper-class rigs the game for its own; for
example, the legacy system at Harvard, an affirmative action program for
children of the elite.

It will be the
task of citizens and not establishment institutions like the Washington
, the Kaiser Foundation, and (with all due respect to the excellent
work of the Civil Rights Project) Harvard University to expand popular
interracial resistance to the fantastically privileged minority of Americans.
In the meantime and consistent with that project, whites should try to learn
more about the black experience past and present. This will mean going beyond
standard textbooks, questioning mainstream propaganda, visiting outside
lily-white neighborhoods, and engaging in real conversation and relationships
with African-Americans. Through these and other methods, it is hoped, whites
can work to overcome their fairness understanding gap.                 Z

Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League. His articles have
appeared in
Z, Monthly Review, and the Journal
of American Ethnic History