News & Politics

The Reality of Race: Is the Problem That White People Don't Know or Don't Care?

A recent study exploring white peoples' understanding of the black experience in America reveals that whites still drastically underestimate the cost of being black because they don't want to know or can't face the consequences.
"Study shows that white people are mean and uncaring"

That would have been my headline for a recent story from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, which was reprinted on AlterNet, and reported an Ohio State University study of white people's understanding of the black experience (AlterNet's headline was "Whites Just Don't Understand the Black Experience"). Curiously, the psychologists who conducted the research spun the data in exactly the opposite direction, and the conflicting interpretations tell us much about race relations in the United States.

The researchers found that whites more accurately assessed the burden of discrimination borne by a hypothetical minority group in a fictional country than they did in the specific case of black people's experience in the contemporary United States. In the hypothetical, whites estimated that the minority group members (described in the same terms as black Americans) deserved $1 million in compensation, but when presented with the question in the context of black Americans, the median estimate was $10,000.

That result was not surprising, but I was taken aback by the conclusion one of the researchers drew:

"Our data suggest that such resistance is not because White Americans are mean and uncaring, morally bankrupt or ethically flawed. White Americans suffer from a glaring ignorance about what it means to live as a Black American."

I think the data -- along with all my experience both as a white person and someone who writes about white supremacy -- suggests exactly the opposite:

White Americans are mean and uncaring, morally bankrupt and ethically flawed, because white supremacy has taken a huge toll on white people's capacity to be fully human.

My reasoning is simple: Given all the data and stories available to us about the reality of racism in the United States, if at this point white people (myself included) underestimate the costs of being black it's either because (1) we have made a choice not to know, or (2) we know but can't face the consequences of that knowledge.

On #1: To choose not to know about the reality of a situation in which one is privileged in an unjust system is itself a moral failure. When a system is structured to benefit people who look like me, and I choose not to listen to the evidence of how others suffer in that system, I have effectively decided not to act by deciding not to know.

On #2: If I do know these things but am not willing to take meaningful action to undermine that unjust system, then my knowledge doesn't much matter. Again, I have failed in moral terms.

In either case, white people have incentives to underestimate the costs of white supremacy, to avoid facing our moral failing. Rather than suggesting whites "suffer from a glaring ignorance about what it means to live as a Black American," it's more accurate to point out that we whites typically choose to turn away from (1) the information readily available to us, or (2) the consequences of the information we do possess.

Much the same argument could be made about men's assessment of the cost of being female in a patriarchal culture; or the way in which affluent people view the working class and poor; or how U.S. citizens see the rest of the world. In each case, there's a hierarchical system that allows some to live in privileged positions while consigning others to subordinate status. The systems are unjust, and hence the advantages for the privileged are unjust. There's no shortage of data and stories available to those of us in the privileged positions if we want to struggle to understand the lived experience of those without those privileges. If we willing avoid learning about that experience, or we know about it but fail to organize politically to change those systems, then we are responsible for the systems' continued existence.

So, is it too harsh to say that we white folks are mean? Uncaring? Morally bankrupt? Ethically flawed? What about men, the affluent, and U.S citizens?

My point is not to preach from on high. I happen to be a member of all four of those privileged groups: white and male, affluent relative to the vast majority of the world, and a U.S. citizen in a world dominated (for now) by a hyper-militarized United States. Because I have a job as a teacher that allows me to spend a lot of time acquiring information, I know a fair amount about the reality of all four of those systems of power: white supremacy, patriarchy, predatory corporate capitalism, and imperialism. As a result of that study and the privileges of my job, I spend a fair amount of time writing, speaking, and organizing as part of movements trying to undermine these systems.

But this doesn't leaving me feeling particularly upbeat. The more I study and organize, the more I realize that the system of white supremacy is woven more deeply into this society -- and, hence in some sense, into me -- than I ever imagined. That leads me to a little thought experiment, a twist on the researchers' study.

Imagine that you could line white people up in front of a door and get them to really believe that if they walked into a "race-changing room" they would emerge on the other side with black skin and an accent associated with blacks from the South. Then ask whites to set their price -- the amount of money it would take them to agree to enter that room. Imagine there was an attendant there with stacks of cash, ready to hand money to the white folks. Just for fun, let's say the cash award would be tax free. In that setting, when white people really had to face the possibility of being black -- knowing all they know about the reality of life in white-supremacist America -- what would the price be?

My guess is that a significant percentage of whites would not become black for any amount of money. I also am fairly confident that the median price set by the whites who might be willing to go into the room would be considerably more than $1 million.

In that moment of choice, which would get at the truth about white people think about being black, the problem wouldn't be that we whites don't know enough. We know plenty. The issue would be whether or not we had transcended the deeply rooted white supremacy of the culture. In that moment, we would find out about the depth of white people's commitment to a color-blind society.

I applaud the researchers for devising a study that tries to get at these difficult realities. But we must not fall prey to the temptation to interpret data the way we wish the world were. In this world, we struggle to transcend 500 years of white supremacy. The more we struggle, the more we learn about just how difficult that is.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of, most recently, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights Books).
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