Uprooting Racism

Paul Kivel offers a framework for understanding institutional racism. It provides practical suggestions, tools, examples and advice on how white people can intervene in interpersonal and organizational situations to promote social justice.
By Paul Kivel
April 2013

How White People Can Work for Racial Justice
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers


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Uprooting Racism (New Society Publishers, 2011) offers a framework for understanding institutional racism. It provides practical suggestions, tools, examples and advice on how white people can intervene in interpersonal and organizational situations to work as allies for racial justice. Author, Paul Kivel, also includes a wealth of information about specific cultural groups such as Muslims, people with mixed-heritage, Native Americans, Jews, recent immigrants, Asian Americans, and Latino/as.  

What Is Whiteness? 

Racism is based on the concept of whiteness — a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to certain benefits from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.

Racism itself is a long-standing characteristic of many human societies. For example, justifying exploitation and violence against other peoples because they are inferior or different has a long history within Greek, Roman and European Christian traditions. The beginnings of biological racism go back to the Spanish Inquisition. Trying to root out false Muslim and Jewish converts to Christianity but unable to reliably do so, the courts ruled that anyone with a Jewish or Muslim parent or grandparent was not a Christian. Soon, the courts were ruling that any person with any Muslim or Jewish blood was incapable of being a righteous Christian because they did not have clean blood (limpieza de sangre).1

In more recent historical times in Western Europe, those with English heritage were perceived to be pure white. The Irish, Russians and Spanish were considered darker races, sometimes black and certainly non-white. The white category was slowly extended to include northern and middle European people, but still, less than a century ago, it definitely excluded eastern or southern European peoples such as Italians, Poles, Russians and Greeks. In the last few decades, although there is still prejudice against people from these geographical backgrounds, they have become generally accepted as white in the United States.2

The important distinction in the United States has always been binary — first between those who counted as Christians and those who were pagans. As historian Winthrop Jordan has written:

Protestant Christianity was an important element in English patriotism …. Christianity was interwoven into [an Englishman’s] conception of his own nationality, and he was therefore inclined to regard the Negroes’ lack of true religion as part of theirs. Being a Christian was not merely a matter of subscribing to certain doctrines; it was a quality inherent in oneself and in one’s society. It was interconnected with all the other attributes of normal and proper men.3 

As Africans and Native Americans began to be converted to Christianity, such a simple distinction was no longer useful, at least as a legal and political difference. In addition, because Europeans, Native Americans and Africans often worked and lived together in similar circumstances of servitude, and resisted and rebelled together against the way they were treated, the landowning class began to implement policies to separate European workers from African and Native American workers. Even in this early colonial period, racism was used to divide workers and make it easier for those in power to control working conditions. Drawing on already established popular classifications, whiteness, now somewhat separate from Christianity, was delineated more clearly as a legal category in the United States in the 17th century, and the concept of lifelong servitude (slavery) was introduced from the West Indies and distinguished from various forms of shorter-term servitude (indenture). In response to Bacon’s Rebellion and other uprisings, the ruling class, especially in the populous and dominant territory of Virginia, began to establish a clear racial hierarchy in the1660s and 70s.4 By the 1730s racial divisions were firmly in place legally and socially. Most blacks were enslaved, and even free blacks had lost the right to vote, the right to bear arms and the right to bear witness. Blacks were also barred from participating in many trades during this period.

Meanwhile, whites had gained the right to corn, money, a gun, clothing and 50 acres of land at the end of indentureship; they could no longer be beaten naked and had the poll tax reduced. In other words, poor whites “gained legal, political, emotional, social, and financial status that was directly related to the concomitant degradation of Indians and Negroes.”5 Typically, although poor whites gained some benefits vis-・vis blacks and Indians, because of the increased productivity from slavery, the gap between wealthy whites and those who were poor widened considerably.

Although racism was legally, socially and economically long established in US society, it was only defined “scientifically” as a biological/genetic characteristic about 150 years ago with the publication of Darwin’s theory of species modification. People combined Darwin’s ideas with systems of human classification developed by Linnaeus, Blumenbach and others into a pseudoscientific theory, eventually called Social Darwinism, which attempted to classify the human population into distinct categories or races and put them on an evolutionary scale with whites on top.

The original classifications consisted of 3, 5, up to as many as 63 categories, but a standard became one based on Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid races. These were not based on genetic differences, but on differences that Europeans and European Americans perceived to be important. They were in fact based on stereotypes of cultural differences and (mis)measures of physiological characteristics such as brain size.6

From the beginning, the attempt to classify people by race was fraught with contradictions. Latin Americans, Native Americans and Jewish people did not fit easily into these categories so the categories were variously stretched, redefined or adapted to meet the agenda of the people in Europe and the US who were promoting them.

For example, in the 19th century Finns were doing most of the lowest-paid, unsafe mining and lumbering work in the upper Midwestern US. Although logically, having light skin, they were white, in terms of political, cultural and economic “common sense” they were considered black because they were the poorest and least respected group in the area besides Native Americans. The courts consistently ruled that they were not white, despite their skin color, because of their cultural and economic standing.7 In another case, the courts ruled that a Syrian was not white, even though he looked white and had the same skin color as Caucasians, because “common sense” dictated that a Syrian was not white.

On the West Coast during the constitutional debates in California in 1848–49, there was discussion about the status of Mexicans and Chinese. There were still Mexicans who were wealthy landowners and business partners with whites, while the Chinese were almost exclusively heavily exploited railroad and agricultural workers. It was eventually decided that Mexicans would be considered white and Chinese would be considered the same as blacks and Indians. This decision established which group could become citizens, own land, marry whites and have other basic rights.8

There was a complex and dynamic interplay between the popular conception of race and the scientific categories, neither of which was grounded in physiological or biological reality, but both of which carried great emotional import to white people and devastating consequences to people of color, regardless of how they were being defined.

Although a few scientists still try to prove the existence of races, most scientists have long ago abandoned the use of race as a valid category to distinguish between humans. There is such tremendous genetic difference between these arbitrary groupings and such huge overlap between them that no particular racial groupings or distinctions based on skin color or other physical characteristics are useful or justified.9 The Human Genome Project has found that all humans share 99.9% of the same genes and has confirmed there are no human “races.” Of the .1% of the human genome that varies from person to person, only 3 to 10% is associated with geographic ancestry or “race” as classically defined.10

Yet despite the conclusions of the Human Genome Project, some are reasserting that there are important racial differences. These assertions are driven by political and economic motivations, not scientific research. For example, the first racially marketed drug, BiDil, was about to lose its patent protection as a drug for the treatment of heart disease. Even though the drug had failed to perform better than other products in tests and works with patients of all ethnic backgrounds, the company claimed that the drug was effective for African Americans and was able to extend its lucrative patent monopoly on the basis of the claim. It is now marketed extensively on that basis, which reinforces the common misperception that there are significant biological differences based on race.11

Genomic research has demonstrated that people have what has been labeled “ancestry groups.” These are the genetic markers indicating geographic root areas or origin areas. Most individuals have mixed ancestry groups, and certainly, “knowing a person’s geographical origin[s] does not give us enough information to predict his or her genotype” because the majority of genomic variation occurs within, not across, ancestry groups.12 For example, a person perceived as, or self-identified as, African American in the United States would have anywhere between 1 and 90% ancestry in either Europe or Africa.13

There is likewise no scientific (i.e., biological or genetic) basis to the concept of whiteness. There is nothing scientifically distinctive about it except  skin color, and that is highly variable. All common wisdom notwithstanding, the skin color of a person tells you nothing about that person’s culture, country of origin, character or personal habits. Because there is nothing biological about whiteness, it ends up being defined in contrast to other labels, becoming confused with ideas of nationality, religion and ethnicity.

For example, Jews are not a racial group. People who are Jewish share some cultural and religious beliefs and practices but come from every continent and many different cultural backgrounds. Jews range in skin color from white to dark brown. Because race was falsely assumed to be a scientific category, being Jewish has often been falsely assumed to mean that a Jew is genetically different from non-Jewish people.14

I grew up learning that racial categories were scientifically valid and gave us useful information about ourselves and other people. In other words, racism had a scientific stamp of approval. It is difficult for me to let go of the certainty I thought I had gained about what racial difference meant. And, of course, there are always new attempts to prove to us that race means something.15

• What residual doubts do you have that there may be something genetic or biological about racial differences? (“But, what about ...?”)

• How can you respond to people who say that there are specific differences between races?

I began to understand the artificial nature of racial categories more clearly when I examined how moral qualities were attached to racial differences. This confirmed my suspicion that there was a political, not a scientific agenda at work in these distinctions.

These moral qualities have, in turn, been used to justify various forms of exploitation.

From the old phrases referring to a good deed — “That’s white of you” or “That’s the Christian thing to do” to the new-age practice of visualizing oneself surrounded by white light — white has signified honor, purity, cleanliness and godliness in white western European, mainstream US and Canadian culture. Because concepts of whiteness and race were developed in Christian Europe, references to whiteness are imbued with Christian values. We have ended up with a set of opposing qualities or attributes that are said to define people either as white or as not white.

Qualities not associated with whiteness have been given negative meanings. They have become associated not only with people of color, but also with children, workers, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, Jews and heterosexual white women — just those groups excluded from the political and scientific institutions that define what normal should be.

Not all white people had an equal voice in defining racial differences. Those with most power — who had the most to gain or preserve — set the terms. White landowners, church leaders — the educated and successful — systematically defined whiteness in ways that extolled and legitimized their own actions and sanctioned the actions of others.

It is difficult for any of us to dissociate positive qualities from white people and negative ones from people of color, no matter how colorblind we would like to be because the emotional resonances of these dichotomies are passed on to us by parents, schools and the media. As sociologists Picca and Feagin observe, “when given a test of unconscious stereotyping, nearly 90 percent of whites quickly and implicitly associate black faces with negative words and traits (for example, evil character or failure). They have more difficulty linking black faces to pleasant words and positive traits than they do white faces.”16

White people who have challenged racism and the false dichotomies upon which it is based have been labeled to show that they don’t really belong to the white group. Labels such as “nigger lover,” “race traitor,” “un-American,” “feminist,” “liberal,” “Communist,” “unchristian,” “Jew,” “fag,” “lesbian,” “crazy,” “illegal alien,” “terrorist” and “thought police” have all been used to isolate and discredit people, to imply that they are somehow outside the territory of whiteness and therefore justifiably attacked. We can see from the moral virtues attached to whiteness that only those who are white are able to speak with authority. A powerful way to discredit any critique of whiteness or racism is to discredit the speaker by showing that they are not really white. This is a neat, circular convention that stifles any serious discussion of what whiteness means and what effect it has on people.

This leaves most of us who are white on pretty shaky ground. If we bring attention to whiteness and racism, we risk being labeled not really white or a “traitor to our race.” These accusations discredit our testimony and potentially lose us some of the benefits of being white such as better jobs and police protection from violence. Behind the names lies the threat of physical and sexual violence such as ostracism, firing, silencing, condemnation to hell, institutionalization, incarceration, deportation, rape, lynching and other forms of mob violence that have been used to protect white power and privilege.

We could usefully spend some time exploring the history and meaning of any particular pair of words on the list above. I encourage you to do so. Each one reveals some vital aspect of whiteness and racism. Here I want to point out three concepts that many of these words cluster around: Christian, American and male.

One cluster of concepts and practices of whiteness grows out of dominant Western Christianity. Whiteness has often been equated with being a Christian in opposition to being a pagan, infidel, witch, heathen, Jew, Muslim, Native American, Buddhist or atheist. Racial violence has been justified by a stated need to protect Christian families and homes. Pogroms, crusades, holy wars and colonial conquests have been justified by the need to save the souls of uncivilized and godless peoples (often at the cost of their lives).

Jewish people have lived within Christian-dominated societies (when permitted to) for nearly 1,700 years since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. There is substantial history of Christian teaching and belief that Jewish people are dangerous and evil. These beliefs have been sustained even during periods of hundreds of years when Jews were not living near Christians.17 Jews, along with Muslims, have become symbols to many Christians of the infidel. This anti-Jewish oppression, originally based on religious and cultural differences, has become racialized as Christian values were combined with racial exploitation and an ideology of white superiority. It has exposed Jews to the same harsh reality of violence that pagans, Roma,18 witches and Muslims have experienced.

In addition, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred has been passed on to Christians of color. Religious leaders of both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christianity, as well as most Protestant denominations, have accused the Jews of killing Jesus, using the blood of Christian children for Passover ritual, refusing to recognize the divinity of Jesus and consorting with the devil. Muslims were accused of colonizing the Holy Land, attacking Europe and being mortal foes of Christendom. As Christianity was spread by Western colonialism and missionary practice, these teachings were incorporated into the beliefs of many Christians of color.

At the same time, there are core Christian values of love, caring, justice and fellowship that have inspired some Christians to work against racism. For example, many white abolitionists were Christians inspired by religious teachings and values.

Yet another cluster of meanings centers on the concept of American.19 In the United States the idea of who is an American is often conflated with who is white. In fact, all-American is often used as a thinly disguised code word for white. A third-generation Swedish or German American child is considered an all-American kid in a way that a third-generation Japanese or Chinese American child is not.

In the same way, the patriotism of anyone with darker skin color is routinely questioned. During World War II, US citizens of Japanese heritage were interned in concentration camps and US citizens of Italian or German heritage were not.20 Even when they fought in the armed services in wartime, the loyalty of Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, Arab American and African American soldiers was challenged.

As the definition of who was white was broadened over time to include virtually all people of European descent, the boundaries keeping people of color out were firmly maintained. Immigration policies and quotas consistently favored Europeans and much of the time completely excluded people who were not considered white. Today, even when they have legally arrived here, non-Native American people of color are routinely asked where they came from and told to go back home. For example, even though many Spanish-speaking citizens have roots in the Southeast, Southwest and California going back more than three centuries, native-born Latino/as in these areas are often stopped by police and immigration officials and asked to show proof of citizenship. The passage of an Arizona law in April, 2010 that mandates police to stop anyone who looks like they could be in the country illegally — in other words racial profiling anyone who looks Latino/a — is just the most recent manifestation of racist targeting of the entire Latino/a community.21 The reluctance of many white people to fully accept people of color as patriotic Americans has meant that many feel forever foreign and wonder what it would take for them to be accepted as “all-American.”

Finally, whiteness strongly leans toward male virtues and male values. While terms of whiteness apply to men and women, there are also significant differences in which qualities are associated with each.

White women are held to higher standards of chasteness, cleanliness and restraint than white men. The basis of their rationality, righteousness and authority is supposed to lie with the white men they are related to. For example, white women are presumed to carry white authority over women and men of color. White women hold onto whiteness by the authority and protection of white men or by their willingness to adapt to male roles and exert authority in traditionally male spheres to protect their white privilege as employers, supervisors or teachers. They can also be cast out of the circle of white male protection by being rebellious or by violating racial or gender norms. White women have both colluded with and resisted their role and the violence it has justified.22

In most discussions of masculinity, we underestimate the role that racism plays. Training in white male violence against people of color starts early. White male bonding at work, at school or in the extended family includes significant levels of racism toward men of color ranging from sitting around joking about men of color (or lesbians or gays of all colors), to bonding as a team against an opposing team of color, to participating in an attack upon a specific person of color, to joining an explicit white supremacist group. Not participating in such “rites of passage” makes white men vulnerable to physical and sexual aggression from their white peers.

White men also bond with others and “prove” their heterosexuality by verbally and sexually assaulting women of color, Muslim and Jewish women. The ability to have sex with, but not to be undermined or entrapped by, exotic and dangerous women is a sign of sexual prowess and reaffirms that a man is in control, is one of the (white Christian) boys and that he knows the sexual and racial order.

When a young man is pushed by white male peers to assault or harass women or men of color, a lot is riding on the line — and he knows it. It is hard for most young men to avoid responding to such pressure because the threat of violence from other white men is real and immediate. We can help young men refuse to participate in white male violence by giving them tools for resisting white male socialization and that would make the entire community safer.23

Racism is a many-faceted phenomenon, slowly and constantly shifting its structures, dynamics and justifications. But at its core, it is a system that maintains a racial hierarchy and protects white power and wealth. It is a powerful construct with wide-ranging effects on our lives and on the lives of people of color. It is our challenge to let go of the construct and work to end such a destructive system.

 Words and Pictures 

Since whiteness has been a defining part of our culture for hundreds of years, we have embedded the ideas that white people are good and people of color are bad and dangerous into our everyday language. Most phrases containing black have negative meanings, while those containing white have positive meanings. Looking more deeply at our words and their current meanings, we can find hundreds that imply people of color and people of different cultures and ethnicities are dangerous, threatening, manipulative, dishonest or immoral. In fact, anything foreign or alien has connotations of being not white, not pure, not American and not Christian. We reinforce racism every time we use such language.

My goal in the following exercise is not to enforce some kind of political correctness. We are trying to understand how racism becomes embedded in our culture, our language, the way we see the world. And we are trying to develop ways of talking with each other that are respectful and counter historical patterns of exploitation and domination.

We also need to challenge racially demeaning usage in visual images. Advertisements, movies and TV images develop images of darkness to convey danger and to provoke white fear. Disney movies provide many examples of color-coding in popular culture. Throughout The Lion King, lightness is associated with good, darkness with evil. Everything from the coloring of the manes of the lions, the color of different animals to the sunshine in the lions’ kingdom versus the murky land of the hyenas reflects the racial and moral hierarchy of the film. This is reinforced by the language of the characters: the lions talk in middle-class “white” English and the hyenas in a more colloquial street dialect. Aladdin is also racially coded: Jafar, Kazim and the bazaar merchants each have exaggerated stereotypical “Arab” features and speak in heavy accents while Aladdin, Jasmine and the Sultan have “European” features and no trace of an accent.1 These racial, color-coded values can be found consistently in Disney movies going back to Sleeping Beauty and Dumbo (remember the crows).

Pictures, movies and video games also convey images of the ideal white body against which everyone in our society is judged. The white male body, whether upper-class or working-class, is handsome — fit, tall, with hair, blue eyes, fair skin and strong features. It speaks with authority, dominates others and is muscular/athletic and competitive. It stands or sits in postures of strength that command respect and attention. It is a body that is under control and controls others. It is also a body that can be roused to anger and violence to protect the innocent (usually white women) and pursue the guilty. The ideal white female body is portrayed as the standard of beauty. Blond, blue-eyed, thin, sexually inviting and even fairer than her male counterpart, this female body is portrayed in postures and roles that convey submission, availability and seductiveness.

Whiteness represents pure, Christian goodness. White people are almost always central characters, hero or heroine, consistently juxtaposed to images of darker-skinned men and women representing, dirt, animality, danger and moral corruption.2 The marketing of the normalness, naturalness and essential goodness of idealized whiteness prompts millions of women and men, both white and people of color, to spend endless amounts of time and money bleaching, dyeing or straightening their hair, lightening their skin color, losing weight, using cosmetics or having cosmetic surgery.

If we pay attention to the images around us, we will notice the pervasive influence that racism has on our everyday lives. Racial difference and racial hierarchy, like gender hierarchy, are built into our language, our visual imagery and our sense of who we are.

White Benefits, Middle-class Privilege 

It is not necessarily a privilege to be white, but it certainly has its benefits. That’s why so many of our families gave up their unique histories, primary languages, accents, distinctive dress, family names and cultural expressions. It seemed like a small price to pay for acceptance in the circle of whiteness. Even with these sacrifices, it wasn’t easy to pass as white if we were Italian, Greek, Irish, Jewish, Spanish, Hungarian or Polish. Sometimes it took generations before our families were fully accepted, and then it was usually because white society had an even greater fear of darker-skinned people.

Privileges are the economic extras that those of us who are middle-class and wealthy gain at the expense of poor and working-class people of all races. Benefits, on the other hand, are the advantages that all white people gain at the expense of people of color regardless of economic position.1 Talk about racial benefits can ring false to many of us who don’t have the economic privileges that we see others in this society enjoying. But though we don’t have substantial economic privileges, we do enjoy many of the benefits of being white.

We can generally count on police protection rather than harassment. Depending on our financial situation, we can choose where we want to live and choose safer neighborhoods with better schools. We are given more attention respect and status in conversations than people of color. Nothing that we do is qualified, limited, discredited or acclaimed simply because of our racial background. We don’t have to represent our race, and nothing we do is judged as a credit to our race or as confirmation of its shortcomings or inferiority.

These benefits start early. Others will have higher expectations for us as children, both at home and at school. We will have more money spent on our education, we will be called on more in school and given more opportunity and resources to learn. We will see people like us in textbooks. If we get into trouble, adults will expect us to be able to change and improve and therefore will discipline or penalize us less harshly than children of color.

These benefits accrue and work to the direct economic advantage of every white person in the United States. First of all, we will earn more in our lifetime than a person of color of similar qualifications. We will be paid $1.00 for every $.60 that a person of color makes.2 We will advance faster and more reliably and, on average, accumulate eight times as much wealth. A white family will, on average accumulate $170,000 in assets, a black family $17,000, and a Latino/a family $21,000.3 The gap for single women-headed households is even more stark — in 2007 a white female-headed household had on average $41,000 in assets, a black female-headed household $100, and a Latina-headed household $120.4

There are historically derived economic benefits too. All the land in the US was taken from Native Americans. Much of the infrastructure of this country was built by slave labor, incredibly low-paid labor or by prison labor performed by men and women of color. Much of the housecleaning, childcare, cooking and maintenance of our society has been done by low-wage-earning women of color. Today men and women and children of color still do the hardest, lowest-paid, most dangerous work throughout the US. And white people enjoy plentiful and inexpensive food, clothing and consumer goods because of that exploitation.

We have been taught history through a white-tinted lens that has minimized our exploitation of people of color and extolled the hardworking, courageous qualities of white people. For example, many of our foreparents gained a foothold in the US by finding work in such trades as railroads, streetcars, construction, shipbuilding, wagon and coach driving, house painting, tailoring, longshore work, bricklaying, table waiting, working in the mills or dressmaking. These were all occupations that blacks, who had begun entering many such skilled and unskilled jobs, were either excluded from or pushed out of in the 19th century. Exclusion and discrimination, coupled with immigrant mob violence against blacks in many northern cities (such as the anti-black draft riots of 1863), meant that recent immigrants had economic opportunities that blacks did not. These gains were consolidated by explicitly racist trade union practices and policies that kept blacks in the most unskilled labor and lowest-paid work.5

It is not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much. We have. But we did not start out from scratch. We went to segregated schools and universities built with public money. We received school loans, Veterans Administration (VA) loans, housing and auto loans unavailable to people of color. We received federal jobs, apprenticeships and training when only whites were allowed.

Much of the rhetoric against more active policies for racial justice stem from the misconception that all people are given equal opportunities and start from a level playing field. We often don’t even see the benefits we have received from racism. We claim that they are not there.

When I began to take careful stock of my family’s history, I began to see the numerous ways that my father and I, and indirectly the women in my family, have benefited from policies that either favored white men, or explicitly excluded people of color and white women from consideration altogether. Of course, the fact that my foreparents were considered white enough to immigrate to the United States during a period that most people of color could not was a monumental white benefit and provided the foundation for all the future ones.

My father had an overseas desk job in the military during World War II. When he returned he was greeted by many government programs specifically designed to reintegrate him into society and help him overcome the disadvantage of having given his time to defend the country.

The benefits from these programs were primarily available to white men. As one study explained, “Available data illustrate clearly that throughout the post-WWII era the benefits provided by each and every component of the MWS [militarized welfare state] disproportionately accrued to whites. Jim Crow and related overt exclusionary policies ensured that African Americans’ proportion of WWII veterans [benefits] was significantly less than their portion of the total population. In the Korean War veterans population, they were nearly as underrepresented.”1

During most of World War II, the armed services had been strictly segregated. After the war, many people of color were denied veterans’ benefits because they had served in jobs that were not considered eligible for such benefits. Many more were deliberately not informed about the benefits, were discouraged from applying when they inquired about them or simply had their applications for benefits denied. The report cited above concluded, “Thus, not only were far fewer blacks than whites able to participate in these programs, but those blacks who could participate received fewer benefits than their white counterparts.”2

My father was able to continue his education on the GI Bill (attending the nearly all-white and largely male University of Southern California). He was not unique; 2.2 million men received higher education benefits from the GI Bill. In fact, by 1947, half of all college students were veterans.3

My father applied for a training program to become a stockbroker — just one of many lucrative professions reserved for white men. When my father completed his training and joined the firm, he was on the road to economic success with all the resources of a national financial corporation behind him. Besides the immediate income from his wages and commissions as a stockbroker, there were other financial benefits he had privileged access to. The company had a generous pension plan. That had a significant effect later on in our family’s life, but at the time it meant that my parents could save money for a car and for their children’s college education because they knew their retirement was secure.

My father was also able to contribute to Social Security, which had been set up primarily to benefit white male workers during the Depression. My father (and mother and, indirectly, their children) benefited from the program when he retired. Although many people with jobs were eligible to contribute to Social Security, millions more were not. US President Franklin Roosevelt knew he could not pass the Social Security bill without the votes of southern agricultural and western mining interests that controlled key Congressional committees. These interests were unwilling to support the bill if people of color, particularly agricultural workers, were included.4 Their compromise was to create a system in which the benefits were specifically set up to exclude large numbers of people of color (and, incidentally, white women) by excluding job categories such as agricultural and domestic work. Many hundreds of thousands more people of color were in job occupations that qualified for Social Security, but earned too little to be able to participate.5

My father had secured a good job and was eligible for a housing loan because of affirmative action. Of course, he still had to find a house that could be both a shelter for his family and an investment. Like most white people of the period, he wanted to live in a white suburban neighborhood with good schools, no crime and rising property values. Many people, however, were excluded from buying houses in precisely those areas because they were not white males.

For example, the FHA specifically channeled loans away from the central city and to the suburbs, and its official handbook even provided a model restrictive covenant (an agreement not to sell to people of color or, sometimes, Jews) to prospective white homebuyers and realtors.6 The FHA and the VA financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing between 1934 and 1962, but less than 2% of this real estate was available to non-white families.7

In addition, the federal home-mortgage interest tax deduction meant that the government subsidized my father’s purchase of a house at the direct expense of people who did not have affirmative action programs or other means to help them buy a house and therefore were renters. This provided my father additional tens of thousands of dollars of support from the government over his adult lifetime. Researchers estimate that these affirmative action housing programs for white men have cost the current generation of African Americans alone approximately $82 billion.8

The results of all of this affirmative action provided my family with more than just financial benefits. For me, specifically, I was able to go to a public school with many advantages. These included heavy investments in science programs, sports programs, college preparatory classes and leadership programs. There were no students or teachers of color at my school, so these advantages were only for white people. And most of these programs were designed for the boys; girls were discouraged from participating or straightforwardly refused the opportunity.

Meanwhile the government was subsidizing suburban development, and my family enjoyed parks, sports facilities, new roads — an entire infrastructure that was mostly directed to the benefit of white men and their families, even though the entire population paid taxes to support it.

Of course my mother and my sister enjoyed substantial benefits as long as they stayed attached to my father. They did not receive these benefits on their own behalf or because they were felt to deserve them. They received them because they supported and were dependent on a white man. Even though my father was verbally and emotionally abusive towards my mother, she did not contemplate leaving him, partly because she did not have the independent financial means to do so nor did she have access to the kinds of affirmative action that he did.

Growing up as the son of a white male who had access to so much, I viewed these benefits as natural and inevitable. I came to believe that because I lived in a democracy where equal opportunity was the law of the land, white men must be successful because they were superior to all others. They must be smarter and work harder; my father must be a much superior person. No one ever qualified his success to me by describing all the advantages he had been given or labeled him an affirmative action baby.

My father made good, sound decisions in his life. He worked hard enough and was smart enough to take advantage of the social support, encouragement and direct financial benefits that were available to him. Many white women, and men and women of color, were just as smart and worked just as hard and ended up with far, far less than my father.

As a result of all of these white benefits, my father retired as a fairly wealthy and successful man at the age of 50. By that time, I was already enjoying my own round of affirmative action programs.

My parents could afford private college tuition, but just in case they could not, my father’s company offered scholarships for white males, the sons of employees. There was a more specific affirmative action program offered at many of these schools — legacy admissions. Children of alumni were given special preferences. I was told that if I wanted to go to my father’s alma mater, USC, I had an excellent chance of getting in regardless of my qualifications because my father had gone there.9

I attended Reed College in the mid 1960s, a school that had no faculty of color, only one white woman faculty member and barely a handful of students of color until my senior year. During my college years, I was strongly encouraged in my studies and urged to go on to graduate school, which I could see was even more clearly a white male preserve.

By the late 1960s the United States was fully engaged in the Vietnam War. The US government reinstated the draft and developed yet another affirmative action program for white males — especially white males from affluent families — the college draft deferment. Proportionately few students of color were attending college in those years, and large numbers of white males were. This deferment naturally resulted in fewer young men being eligible for the draft, so the armed forces lowered its standards in order to recruit more men of color who had previously been rejected. The results of these policies were that, in 1964, 18.8% of eligible whites were drafted, compared to 30.2% of eligible blacks. By 1967, when there was larger-scale recruitment, still only 31% of eligible whites were inducted into the military compared to 67% of eligible blacks. I was able to avoid the draft entirely because of affirmative action for white men and what Michael Eric Dyson has called the affirmative retroaction policies of the military, which targeted men of color for recruitment.10

If I had wanted to serve in the armed forces, I could have used my education to get a non-combat job, or I could have applied to West Point or Annapolis and been assured that, as a white man, I wouldn’t have to compete with women or with most men of color for a position as an officer.

When I graduated from college, I was presented with a wide variety of affirmative action options. In fact, corporate recruiters were constantly at my predominantly white college offering us job opportunities. Many of my working- class friends had to take any job they could get to support themselves or their parents or younger siblings. Since I had no one else to support, I could pursue the career or profession of my choice.

When I eventually became involved in a long-term relationship and my partner and I wanted to buy a house, we were given preferred treatment by banks when we applied for loans in the form of less paperwork, less extensive credit checks and the benefit of the doubt about our financial capacity to maintain a house. Our real estate agent let us know that we were preferred neighbors in desirable communities and steered us away from less desirable areas (neighborhoods with higher concentrations of people of color). In addition, because of my parents’ secure financial position, they could loan us money for a down payment and cosign our loan with us.11

Most of the government programs and institutional policies described above were not called affirmative action programs. Programs that benefit white men never are. They are seen as race and gender neutral, even though most or all of the benefits accrue to white men. These programs were not contested as special preferences nor were the beneficiaries stigmatized as not deserving or not qualified.

Your parents probably did not own slaves. Mine did not even arrive in the US until after slavery. Nor were my parents mean bosses, exploiting workers in factories or otherwise discriminating against people of color. Nevertheless, they and I benefited directly and specifically from public and private policies— various forms of white male affirmative action at the expense of people of color. And these benefits continue to accrue to me and my family.

The purpose of this checklist is not to discount what we, our families and foreparents have achieved. But we do need to question any assumptions we retain that everyone started out with equal opportunity.

You may be thinking at this point, “If I’m doing so well, how come I’m barely making it?” Some of the benefits listed above are money in the bank for each and every one of us. Some of us have bigger bank accounts — much bigger. According to 2007 figures, 1% of the population controls about 43% of the net financial wealth of the US, and the top 20% own 93%.13 In 2009, women generally made about 80 cents for every dollar that men made in an average week of full-time work. African American women made 69 cents and Latinas 60 cents.14 In studies looking at a 15-year period, women’s income averages just 35-40% of men’s.15

Benefits from racism are amplified or diminished by our relative privilege. People with disabilities, people with less formal education and people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are generally discriminated against in major ways. All of us benefit in some ways from whiteness, but some of us have cornered the market on significant benefits to the exclusion of others.

Reprinted with permission by Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.


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