“Special Favors”

Jamelle Bouie bums himself out today by evaluating a YouGuv survey that tells you, he says, “everything you need to know about contemporary race relations.”

On the first disturbing question, 66% of white people (and only 15% of blacks) agree with the statement: “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

I can perhaps rationalize that one as being less alarming than it might at first appear to be, since the question is very loaded, inviting many white people to identify with former minority groups, and also leaving open how one defines “special favors.”

But then there’s a second question that shows only 30% of white folks (compared to 64% of blacks) agreeing that “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” Since this is basically a statement of uncontroverted historical fact, it’s unpleasant to find a majority of whites–and even a minority of blacks–having issues with it, though again, the definition of “lower class” and its relevance to general questions of social mobility could confuse people.

And then there’s the clincher: 51% of whites (and 18% of blacks) agree that: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Yeah, that’s a bummer on multiple grounds. It is a peculiarly American belief that economic success and hard work are directly and inflexibly related, which always in my mind raises the question of whether people who are suddenly unemployed and/or impoverished in economic depressions have just lost their work ethic overnight. This belief, moreover, seems to disregard the empirically observable reality that a system where people are denied opportunities commensurate with their efforts does not exactly encourage a strong work ethic.

But I do suspect the wording of these questions and their comparative nature strongly influence the answers. I doubt seriously that middle-class white people think rich white people work harder than they do or even necessarily deserve success more than they do. But when the premise of a question suggests that their own relative success is unearned, well, that’s another matter.

It’s probably a hopeless and even counter-productive exercise to convince white folks of relatively modest means that they are beneficiaries of some sort of “white skin privilege”–or, to use the pollster’s terms, “special favors.” That’s particularly true if they are not old enough or southern enough to remember, as I do, Jim Crow laws that gave me, a resolutely hard-working southern middle-class white kid, huge “special favors” as compared to virtually every single African-American in my environment.

But we can teach better history so that people who didn’t experience Jim Crow (or for that matter, slavery) can have a basic grasp of American history, and understand that while the Italians and the Irish and the Jews did indeed suffer from discrimination, no one ever sold them at auction, barred them from public areas, made them attend separate schools (if any were even available), or denied them the right to vote (well, white women did suffer that indignity, but that’s another story!).

In the meantime, all we can do is to overcome the abstractions of race and class and ask Americans to look at each other as presumptive equals in worth and merit, particularly at a moment in our history when the rewards of hard work are being so abundantly harvested by a very small group of people who indeed enjoy “special favors.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.