What White America Still Doesn’t Understand About Racism

A new survey finds a yawning gap between black and white perceptions about slavery’s lasting impacts.

In 2016, the median white household held roughly ten times the net wealth of the median black household; the average black worker earned 73 cents on the dollar compared to his or her white colleagues; and even among college graduates, blacks earned 20 percent less than their white counterparts. For decades, racial disparities in wealth and wages have been stark and enduring – and frustratingly impervious to change.

To many liberals, these inequities are the obvious legacy of slavery and decades of legalized discrimination, such as under Jim Crow. The substandard education to which black Americans have been relegated has meant fewer students succeed in school and in the workforce. Segregated housing, too, has left many people living in neighborhoods without access to good jobs, reliable public transportation, or quality health care.

These systematic inequalities are among the many destructive by-products of “structural” racism. But too many white Americans simply do not understand this as a phenomenon, argues a new report. Instead, they tend to see racism through the narrow prism of individual—not institutional—behavior.

This failure to grasp the systemic nature of racism today could explain why the nation hasn’t made as much progress as it should—and could—on racial equity.

In a survey of 1,800 adults in the South, a new nonprofit launched by former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu found that 69 percent of whites do not believe that the “legacy of slavery makes it harder for black people in America to get ahead today.” The group, called E Pluribus Unum, also found that only 20 percent of whites “strongly agree” that “the legacy of slavery and systemic racism play a big role in why African Americans do not have the same economic conditions as other Americans today.”

African-Americans, on the other hand, had diametrically opposite views. Sixty-five percent of blacks, for instance, strongly agree that slavery and systemic racism play a major role in limiting their economic opportunities; only 33 percent say slavery has had no impact on black Americans’ ability to get ahead. Other surveys mirror this gap in perceptions between blacks and whites. The Pew Research Center found that while 59 percentof blacks say “slavery affects the position of black people in American society today” by “a great deal,” only 26 percent of whites say the same.

At the heart of these divided views, E Pluribus Unum argues, is a limited perception among whites of what “racism” means today.

“Most white people we spoke to described racism as personal acts of malice,” the group concludes in its report, called Divided by DesignRacism did not include, in the minds of many of the survey’s white participants, the racially disparate impacts of institutions, including those that are, on its face, race-neutral. Blacks, however, see racism as a systemic issue as much as a personal one. “[M]ost people of color spoke of the more harmful impacts that they face within biased systems,” the report says.

Anarrow view of racism has likely blocked racial progress in a couple important ways. For starters, whites who themselves don’t engage in overtly racist behavior themselves or witness it around them feel less of an obligation to rectify the racist impacts of faulty institutions. This view likely explains why an overwhelming majority of whites surveyed by E Pluribus Unum – 68 percent – oppose the idea of “reparations.” “[M]any white people do not feel like they bear the responsibility of addressing an issue they view as obsolete,” finds Divided by Design.

In a recent interview with the Monthly, Landrieu said this was a persistent theme from the survey’s white respondents. “Every white person we talked to about reparations said, ‘No way, I’m not paying a dollar,’ because reparations means to them that you have to give a dollar to somebody who might be your neighbor,” said E Pluribus Unum founder Landrieu. “They say, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with slavery and I shouldn’t have to pay the debt back.’”

What’s more, when white Americans fail to understand systemic racism, they’re more likely to attribute poverty to individual failings rather than to structural disadvantages. As a consequence, they are less inclined to support policy fixes specifically aimed at alleviating racial inequities. Indeed, E Pluribus Unum’s survey found that when respondents were asked whether “lack of opportunity” or “poor life choices” were to blame for poverty, 76 percent of blacks said “lack of opportunity” while only 42 percent of whites said the same.

Nevertheless, Landrieu is optimistic that the right kind of educational interventions can bridge these differences, thereby paving the way for systemic change.

“The way we teach our history and the way we teach our civics don’t tell the whole story,” said Landrieu. “We tell it from a very narrow perspective.” Many Americans are not taught about the impacts of systemic voter suppression, redlining and other discriminatory housing practices, he added, nor are they aware of education funding formulas that have systematically disadvantaged schools in low-income or minority areas.

E Pluribus Unum’s survey does suggest that better education could make a difference.  Among college-educated whites, for instance, a solid majority—54 percent —agreed that “white people in the United States have more economic opportunities than African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Better education could also help Americans understand how creating more opportunities for household success would benefit all Americans, not just blacks. For example, higher wages for African-American workers would translate into greater buying power and investment, boosting the economy as a whole. In fact, according to an August 2019 report from McKinsey & Company, closing the racial gap in earnings and savings could generate between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in additional economic activity over ten years.

“If white people come to realize that institutional barriers are hurting not only African Americans but their own opportunity as well,” said Landrieu, “we can get to a place where both blacks and whites can share equal opportunity and equal responsibility.”

As a first step, however, more white Americans need to understand the systemic obstacles that now stand in the way of black Americans. That, in and of itself, may not cure all of the nation’s ills, but it would at least start the process of healing America’s racial divide.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a writer based in northern Virginia and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020. She was special projects editor at the Washington Monthly in 2013 and senior writer from 2015 to 2018.