The Oprah Effect: Black Success, White Denial and the Reality of Racism

“What about Oprah?”

So came the question from the middle of the crowded lecture hall, spat out from a contorted face whose owner had just sat through an hour-long talk, the substance of which I can only imagine he had found excruciating.

Needing a bit more information before I could confidently respond, I replied the only way I could, up to that point: “What about her?”

And then came the predictable soliloquy to which I have grown accustomed in the eleven or so years I’ve been speaking about racism around the country. It’s the one that goes roughly like this:

“If racism is really so bad, and blacks face so much discrimination, how come Oprah is one of the most loved people in America? How come she’s been so successful, and has become so wealthy, and so powerful?”

Before I could respond, the questioner continued by throwing in a few other folks of color whose success he believed trumped any evidence of racism as a real and persistent problem: to wit, Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby, and Colin Powell.

I paused for a second, half expecting him to persist, perhaps by noting the professional accomplishments of Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Russell Simmons and J-Lo as ironclad confirmation that racism had been eliminated, but at this point he fell silent, convinced that he had made his case well enough, I suppose. The statistical evidence I had presented throughout my talk, not to mention the findings of several studies that have directly tested for racism in the job market, housing and elsewhere (and found it to be a substantial impediment to equal opportunity) were all irrelevant to him; they meant nothing in the face of individual success stories (1). Anecdote, in his mind, was not only proof; it was even better proof than social science research and quantitative data. That such thinking can survive a college education suggests that David Horowitz’s concern about leftist professors brainwashing college students is more than a bit misplaced. Apparently, this guy’s professors hadn’t even convinced him of the most basic strictures of research design and accepted scholarly interpretation, let alone turned him into a mouth-foaming revolutionary.

And speaking of Horowitz, the “What about Oprah?” trope was one he too had used in response to my work, when an AP reporter had asked him about me in 2005. According to Horowitz, I adhere to a “Marxist framework” when it comes to race, because I believe in a “collective effort by white people to keep black people down” (not sure where Marx ever said that, nor I for that matter, but I digress), and that such thinking can’t explain the success of someone like Oprah. When the AP reporter asked for my response to this statement, I remember being speechless for several seconds, stunned that such a rejoinder was all this leading light of the nation’s far-right had been able to muster–in fact, a little embarrassed for him that it was so. It’s one thing to ask that kind of question when you’re twelve, or even a college student. It’s quite another to continue asking it while posing as a deep thinking conservative intellectual (no joke intended here, by the way).

When Exceptions Prove the Rule

So, what about Oprah?

Well, here’s an even better question, and one that pretty well answers the first: What about Madame C.J. Walker?

When I asked the agitated audience member this question, he looked puzzled, naturally never having heard of Walker before, and not understanding why I would have offered this reply to his original query about Winfrey. I quickly explained the point: namely, that Madame C.J. Walker had become one of the very first African American millionaires, by way of tapping into a largely ignored market for black beauty products. She had worked hard, persevered against the odds and triumphed brilliantly: a real American success story!

“Exactly!” interjected the man from the audience. How do you explain someone like her, he wanted to know, if racism is really that bad?

Of course, what I hadn’t shared up to that point was that Walker had become a millionaire in 1911: a year in which sixty-three black folks had been lynched in this country (more than one a week), and at a time when obviously all would agree overt racial oppression of African Americans was the norm.

In other words, of course it’s true that some black folks have done extraordinarily well in this society. No one ever suggested the impossibility of such a thing, even amidst crushing bigotry. But surely no one would suggest that Madame C.J. Walker’s success, even at a time of legally-codified terrorism against black folks, should stand as evidence that anyone in the black community could have made it, and that those fighting against racism at the time were misguided; let alone that there was something wrong with all the other black folks, for having failed to replicate Walker’s singular achievements.

Yet the logic of a David Horowitz, or the young man questioning me that day, leads precisely in this direction, as if the fact of individuals having triumphed against great obstacles, ends all debate about a society’s degree of fairness. As if the success of a few, who have risen from the bottom, serves as the final proof of equal opportunity, despite the evidence of all the other millions who have labored equally as hard, and yet, remained in roughly the same station as that into which they were born. As if we should conclude from the success of an Oprah that opportunity is equal, as opposed to wondering how many more Oprahs might there be, figuratively speaking, and how much more quickly might they have emerged, had the remaining obstacles been eliminated from their paths?

As James Baldwin so presciently put it, some forty-five years ago, responding even then to the same “anyone can make it if they try” mantra commonly heard today:

“…the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen–in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free.”

Which point brings to mind the obvious question: if whites were so willing, even in 1961, at which time Baldwin wrote these words, to insist upon the meritocratic nature of what was, after all, an apartheid system, what orgiastic irrationality would lead us to ever believe that this was a particularly persuasive argument, or that those putting it forth had even the faintest inkling as to what they were talking about?

Whites, as it turns out, have always said that racism wasn’t that big a deal, and that the “determined will,” as Baldwin put it, was sufficient to make all obstacles vanish in their wake, even when the evidence to the contrary was incontestable. You need only go back and read the Gallup polls of white racial attitudes even before the passage of civil rights legislation, to see this fantastical vision of America on full display. Therein you can find most whites, even in the early ’60s, insisting that blacks had fully equal opportunity in education, employment, housing and the like–a position that all would recognize as borderline delusional now, but which prompted no concerns for the mental health of the white masses at the time (2).

And then as now, those who sought to downplay or flatly ignore the reality of racism would point to the success stories–perhaps Sammy Davis Jr., or Sidney Poitier–as confirmation that all was right with the world, and that those crusading to end segregation were wasting their time. After all, with a little effort, all black folks could have an act at the Copa, or star in motion pictures, just as today, presumably, they can all have a talk-show empire, a clothing line, or become Secretary of State.

But just as such argumentation was the textbook definition of foolishness in Baldwin’s era (and before, seeing as how it reaches back well before his lifetime), so too does it fail the laugh test today, despite what progress really has been achieved. Until such successes become so common that we can no longer name all the power brokers with dark skin, their triumphs will stand as a stark reminder that exceptions can indeed prove the very rules against which they have been deployed.

The Superstar Fallacy: Or Why Entertainers Aren’t a Good Gauge of Social Fairness

Of course, there’s an even more basic flaw in the thinking of the “What about Oprah?” crowd. The simple fact is, very few people, of any color, ever become superstar celebrities, or high-ranking political officials. Very few people become millionaires, let alone billionaires. So to think that any person who has attained these heights of fame and fortune, by dint of their existence, says something about the larger society and its openness to talent, is by definition absurd. If these statistical outliers teach us anything about the larger society, it would be that their relative infrequency indicates their exceptionality, rather than suggesting how hard work and effort were all that really mattered. I mean, do we really think that Bill Gates worked that much harder than everyone else? And if others have also worked incredibly hard, why is it that almost no one approaches his level of wealth (indeed, many nations fail to do so)?

To judge the openness of a society by examining the outcomes obtained by the elite is tautological in the extreme. It is to say, we know we live in a meritocracy because of the existence of superstars, and we have superstars because we live in a meritocracy–the ultimate in circular logic. Rather, to determine the larger social reality, we must examine the relative outcomes for the typical white person or family, compared to the typical person or family of color. Averages and medians tell us far more about the norm than the extremes at either end. To judge a nation by only looking at those at the top (or, for that matter, the bottom) is ignorance on stilts. Surely, conservatives would balk (and rightly so) if someone were to visit an Appalachian coal town, and then declare that what they’d seen had proven the U.S. to be a nation where opportunity was altogether lacking. Yet, they seem comfortable proclaiming opportunity to be as open as the top of Mt. St. Helen’s after examining only those at the society’s pinnacle.

But what is more telling about the extent of equal opportunity: the fact that Oprah could buy and sell the land out from under most all of us, or the fact that the typical white family has eleven times the net worth of the typical black family, and eight times the net worth of the typical Latino family, thanks to past and present barriers to wealth accumulation, income and equal housing (3)? To ask the question is to answer it.

Not to mention, the powerful persons of color my questioner had rattled off–or that others do when this issue is raised–are almost entirely from the worlds of entertainment or sports, which, important and culturally influential though they may be, are hardly like the industries in which most people find themselves. After all, when it comes to athletic ability, or musical aptitude, or any kind of performing art, one either “has it,” so to speak, or one doesn’t. Such areas of life are among the most meritocratic in any society, by necessity, as the standards used to judge ability in those areas are relatively objective.

But in the regular private sector workforce, this is far from the case. Old boy’s networks still skew opportunity to those with the best connections (found by several studies to be overwhelmingly white and male), and the criteria used to determine ability are inherently subjective: Will this person “fit in” with the company? Do they have “enough” experience? Will they be able to relate to the customer base? All of these evaluations are judgment calls, and, according to the evidence, the kind of judgment calls that are often susceptible to internalized race, class and gender biases (4). Whether or not a person can hit a three-pointer, carry a tune, or make you laugh, is not nearly as subjective, though of course, even there, success still depends on getting certain breaks, and occasionally, being in the right networks to be discovered. Not to mention, whites have always been willing to let black people entertain us, even at the height of segregation. The question is, how have we felt about blacks being our bankers, doctors, bosses, colleagues, neighbors, or in-laws for that matter?

Only Certain Blacks Need Apply: The Importance of Making Whites Comfortable

And there is something else too. With very few exceptions, those black and brown folks who have made it to the top of the nation’s political or economic elite, have been those who have done one of two things: either parroted the line of whites, especially those in power, or avoided controversy altogether, taking few political stances on anything, such that they can be seen as having “transcended” their race. In other words, black folks will do just fine, so long as they don’t remind us about the issue of racism, don’t remind us of their blackness too often (or in the case of some, like Tiger Woods, deny it altogether in favor of some made up category, like “Cablinasian”*), don’t wear their hair in an identifiable “ethnic” hairstyle, or “sound too black,” whatever that’s taken to mean.

So Oprah is OK, because although she occasionally tackles racism on her show, and certainly never tries to run from her heritage, she is careful about not seeming to overdo it–and with good reason from a professional perspective. In fact, the one time she recently claimed to have been the victim of racism–alleging that she was kept out of a Paris boutique because of racial profiling by the staff–public reaction was swift and furious. Even those who had always liked Oprah were blasting her on chat room boards and talk radio, accusing her of “playing the race card,” and alleging victim status, which they insisted she had no right to do (irrespective of what had happened), since, after all, she was so rich. And when Oprah decided to then tape an episode about racism, in part because of her experience in Paris, and in part because of having seen the movie, “Crash,” she spent a significant amount of time talking not about racism, but challenging one of the film’s stars, rapper Ludacris, about bad language in rap music–no doubt a more comfortable topic for her white viewers.

Bill Cosby is fine too, so long as he’s selling Jell-O, playing a nice, safe, affluent father figure on TV,** or even more so if he’s criticizing other black folks for their shortcomings–his current trip, going on two-plus years now. But back in the early 90s, when he ruminated about the possibility that the government had created AIDS in a lab to get rid of folks deemed “undesirable,” most never heard the statement at all (the media didn’t think it newsworthy to spend much time on, apparently), and whites who did catch wind of his comments were outraged. Likewise, when Camille Cosby wrote a widely-circulated column after their son was killed, in which she blamed America for teaching his Russian-born murderer to hate (a column with which her husband showed no signs of disagreement), white folks blasted the Cosby duo for not appreciating all they’d been “given” in this country. And one can only imagine the storms of shit that would come down upon Cosby’s head–irrespective of how much white folks loved Cliff Huxtable–were he to openly and publicly express the views he put forward in his doctoral dissertation, wherein he explained:

“The ‘American Dream’ of upward mobility is just another myth…Far from being prepared to move along an established career ladder, black children are trained to occupy those same positions held by their parents in a society economically dominated and maintained by a white status quo (5).”

Moving on, Condoleezza Rice is OK, because she does the bidding of white men in power, without seeming to ever question them (and even better, came from a family which saw no need for Dr. King’s protest activities in Birmingham in 1963). Clarence Thomas is better than OK, because not only does he not question white folks about racism, he denies that it’s an issue at all, and blames blacks openly for whatever problems they may have. So too Larry Elder, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell and a gaggle of black conservatives whose acceptance by whites is inversely proportional to their support from others in the black community. In other words, the less you’re identified with the black freedom struggle, historically or today, the better from the perspective of white America.

Colin Powell is a textbook example here: so long as he was seen as a team player–especially on a white-led team–folks were touting him as a hero, and someone who might make a great Presidential candidate one day. After all, he had never been involved in any civil rights activism to speak of. Even better, when others were leading that fight–getting beaten in the streets of Alabama or murdered in Mississippi–he was killing brown-skinned folks on the other side of the world, “for America”–the same nation that wouldn’t even guarantee federal protection for civil rights workers in the South, and in which the human rights of black people were being violated daily, while most white folks couldn’t have cared less. Such is the stuff that white folks’ heroes are made out of, apparently.

But then let that black soldier suggest that he actually supports affirmative action, and let his wife suggest that the reason she doesn’t want her husband to run for President is because of a fear he might be shot by some white racist, and let him show insufficient enthusiasm for his boss’s war plans (even as he was willing to go and prevaricate about them to the UN) and watch how fast he gets kicked to the curb, first by the public–notice, no more talk of Presidential runs–and then by the Administration for which he worked, from which perch he unceremoniously retires, to be replaced by a black person who won’t make waves.

That the success of people of color has been so highly correlated with the pleasing of whites actually proves the ongoing salience of white power and the relative lack of its black and brown counterpart. After all, if people of color really had equal opportunity with white folks, there would be no logical reason to expect any significant differences in achievement between blacks with more liberal views as opposed to conservative views; no reason for the ideological one-sidedness of black conservative success (or merely apolitical success, a la Oprah, or Tiger, or Michael Jordan). If whites didn’t have the ultimate power in this society, black folks who refused to play to the tastes of white audiences, and who indeed ignored such audiences altogether could prove every bit as successful as the Oprahs of the world. Certainly there are plenty of white politicians, advertisers and companies that routinely ignore the black demographic, either because it isn’t necessary for their success, or they are simply too disconnected from it to know how to attract its members; yet they suffer no penalty as a result. But if blacks ignore what white folks want, need, and respond to (either as voters or consumers), they’ll generally go nowhere, Madame C.J. Walker notwithstanding.

Thus, hip-hop execs, black or white, pander to white youth who purchase the vast majority of hip-hop merchandise and rap CDs, so that even in one of the industries where African Americans probably have the most strength (albeit not as much as many think), the ultimate power still resides in the hands of whites. As a result, there is never a shortage of songs about black folks killing other black folks, slingin’ drugs, or partying in the club–what better way to make young white boys in the suburbs feel “street?”–but political and revolutionary MCs, who are often far more skilled, stay mostly in the underground, without major label support, radio play or distribution deals. After all, very few white folks are looking to buy CDs talking about overthrowing their dads.

Electoral politics are no different. Whites will vote for blacks on occasion, but only those blacks who make them comfortable. To this, many would say, so what? After all, no one can be expected to vote for a candidate with whom they disagree. And that’s true, so far as it goes; but note the larger point. Black folks cannot stop white politicians from being elected if those politicians take stances with which the overwhelming majority of blacks disagree. On the other hand, to be elected anywhere other than the ‘hood, black and brown candidates do have to please white voters or else they will lose and lose badly. If whites can control the outcome of elections in this way, but blacks can’t, then the former has power and the latter doesn’t. No better evidence of this fact exists than in the case of black voters in the South, who, frankly, might as well not have the right to vote at all, at least in Presidential contests. After all, given the way in which the Electoral College operates, the votes of black Southerners–who, let’s remember represent roughly half of all blacks in the entire nation–don’t count: they will always be outvoted by white conservatives, leading to Electoral College outcomes that are fundamentally no different than they would be if Jim Crow laws were reinstituted tomorrow.

Green Isn’t the Only Color That Matters: Racism and the Black Middle & Upper Class

Of course, the underlying premise of the “what about Oprah?” line of questioning is itself false: namely, that people of color who are successful are somehow immune to racism. According to this line of reasoning, not only does the success of such individuals, or of the much larger black middle class, indicate that racism is pretty much a thing of the past, generally; but so too, it indicates that those who are members of the black and brown middle-class and above have become insulated from racism themselves. Yet, not only is racism a problem for those who haven’t “made it,” in the common parlance; indeed, it remains a problem, even for those who have: an important point to understand, given the tendency for even well-meaning people to insist that in the U.S., “the only color that matters is green.” As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, racism might actually be more of a unique burden for the black middle class and affluent, than for the black poor. After all, African Americans at the bottom of the class structure face economic obstacles that are related to racism–especially historically–but which now also operate as part of the class system, with or without the presence of racial bias. On the other hand, black middle class and affluent professionals, who have largely navigated the class structure successfully, regularly find themselves–despite that success, or even because of it–wondering if perhaps they might be racially profiled or stereotyped, assumed to be a bad credit risk, a criminal, or less capable, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary (6).

Black professionals live with the knowledge that historically it has been precisely when persons like them began to “make it,” that they were most vulnerable to attack. Lynching and mob violence by whites was often rooted in jealousy towards successful African Americans and black communities. The poor were “in their place” already, but the middle class and professional class of blacks were seen as having apparently forgotten theirs.

Additional research confirms the damage that racism can do to the black middle-class. Specifically, research on black student performance–especially but not exclusively on standardized tests–has found that it is precisely those black children from upwardly mobile families, who place an extraordinarily high premium on education, who so often underperform, relative to their previously demonstrated ability. And why? Because, according to the available evidence, such youth are so desperate to disprove the negative stereotypes held about their group, that they experience additional anxiety in testing situations, thereby causing their scores to suffer (7).

The pressure felt by the black middle and upper classes to achieve, above and against commonly held stereotypes about blacks as a group, may also explain, at least in part, the persistent health disparities between whites and blacks. Indeed, although poor folks of color receive even worse care than poor whites–hard to imagine, given the lousy care received by low-income persons generally–it is among those with more money and access where we see the largest racial disparities in health outcomes emerge. So, according to a study at Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, hypertension differences between whites and blacks virtually disappear when you exclude upper income whites and blacks from the sample. But when those who are doing quite well, economically, are included in the analysis, the racial gaps become stark (8). This suggests that for blacks who are middle class and above, even though they are likely to have decent health care coverage, they will typically fare worse than their white counterparts. Among the logical explanations for such disparities between white and black affluent folks, one might consider the stress experienced by African American professionals, striving to overcome negative stereotypes and prove themselves against a backdrop of racism and inequality about which they are acutely aware.

So while the emergence of the black middle class may indeed signify progress on many levels, it nonetheless remains true that members of that middle class are in a far more precarious position than their white counterparts, not only with regard to educational and health outcomes, but also in regard to income, occupation, and net worth.

Consider the position of the black business class, for example. For blacks seeking to start their own businesses, or who already operate their own firms, opportunity is far from truly equal. Studies have found that African Americans are less likely than whites to have their business loan applications approved, even when their collateral and credit records, as well as other factors, are comparable with their white counterparts (9). Likewise, even with affirmative action requiring good faith efforts to include so-called minority contractors in government-funded initiatives, folks of color receive a miniscule proportion of said work: about six percent of federal contract dollars, despite owning fifteen percent of all businesses in the U.S. (10). Unequal access to the most lucrative markets explains in part why black middle class businesspersons remain so much more vulnerable than their white counterparts. So, for example, the average white business takes in forty-five times the annual receipts of the average black-owned business, and eighteen times the average for Latino-owned businesses. (11).

As for black workers generally, even those who are college educated and part of the middle class, typically earn less and are in less lucrative occupational positions than their white counterparts. According to Census data, black college graduates are only two-thirds as likely as whites to be employed in a professional or managerial position, while Latino college grads are only 44 percent as likely to be employed in such jobs (12). Black men with college degrees earn, on average, about $20,000 less annually than their white counterparts–a difference of almost fifty percent; whites with masters degrees earn about ten percent more than comparable blacks, on average, and whites with professional degrees (like medical or law degrees), earn, on average, about $30,000 more than their black counterparts, each year (13). These gaps persist, despite the fact that whites and blacks receive college degrees in the same disciplines at roughly the same rates (14), and even when their ages, experience levels, and prior academic performance records are similar (15).

Most telling, on those occasions when black families have achieved middle class status, it is typically only after having worked far harder than whites in the same position. Indeed, the average black middle class family has to work twelve more weeks, per year, than their white counterparts, simply to earn the same as the average white middle class family. This generally means that black middle class families will be dependent on having two wage earners, to make the same as white families with only one (16). And sadly, when black folks do attain middle class status or above, they have a much harder time transmitting that status to their children intergenerationally. Research suggests that the children of black middle class professionals are more likely to move downward on the class ladder than to move up, and far more likely to move downward than similarly-situated whites (17).

As if these disparities were not bad enough, income gaps are only one part–and typically the smallest part–of the overall picture when it comes to racial disparity, even amongst the white and black middle classes. When income disparities are relatively small, wealth gaps remain massive, in large measure because of accumulated advantages among whites going back several generations. Today’s young black couples, even if professionally successful, are starting out well behind their typical white counterparts, because of the legacy of unequal access to wealth, going back many decades and centuries, and which has now provided inherited head starts to the latter, and headwinds to the former. So, for example, even white families with incomes below the poverty line are more likely to own their own home than black households with incomes that are 2-3 times higher (18). Likewise, white households with incomes below $15,000 annually (and as low as $7500), actually have a greater average net worth than black households with incomes as high as $60,000 per year (19). Various explanations exist for such disparities, not least of which is the way that the government itself subsidized white homeownership in the middle of the 1900s, via FHA and VA loans that were almost entirely off limits to blacks, and which created billions of dollars in equity for the new white middle class: wealth that is today being handed down to a new generation of white Americans (20).

As noted before, the typical white family has nearly eleven times greater net worth than the typical black family, and eight times greater net worth than the typical Latino family. But even more tellingly, if we exclude home equity from the calculation of assets and net worth–since, after all, home equity is not as easily liquidated as stocks, bonds, commercial real estate, or other financial instruments–the median white household has almost twenty times the net worth of the median black household and twelve times that of the typical Latino household. And these gaps exist at every income level, including among those whose incomes suggest they are “making it.” So, for example, in the middle class, whites have 5.2 times more net worth, on average, than blacks (nearly $60,000 as opposed to less than $12,000), and among the wealthiest fifth of income earners, whites average 3.2 times the net worth, of blacks ($208,000 compared to $65,000). In other words, typical members of the white middle class have almost the same net worth as typical members of the black upper-class, irrespective of the latter group’s higher income and occupational status (21).***

Conclusion: So, What About White Denial?

Taken together, the conclusion to which all of this leads is simple: the real question is not what individual black and brown successes mean in terms of the existence or non-existence of racism–they mean almost nothing with regard to that larger issue. Rather, the question is why whites are so quick to point to these anecdotal examples of achievement, as a way to deny what all of the quantitative data suggests is true, and which study after study for years has found to be the case: namely, that racism is a real problem, even for successful folks of color, and that the ability of some to achieve despite it, hardly negates that larger structural truth.

Since there is no reason to assume that whites are incapable of separating truth from fiction in this regard, there must be some other factor motivating the phenomenon of white denial. There must be some need that is met by that denial, which makes it largely impervious to fact. Perhaps it is the psychological need to believe in meritocracy so as justify one’s own successes and the social dominance of those from one’s own group. Perhaps it is the related need to believe in meritocracy, even if one hasn’t “made it,” so as to allow oneself to hold on to the hope that with just a little more effort, things will all work out. Perhaps white denial stems from the very real material advantages that have come from the system of white privilege and racial subordination of folks of color, and which whites fear either consciously or subconsciously would be threatened in a more equitable system. After all, acknowledging unfairness then calls decent people forth to correct those injustices. And since most persons are, at their core, decent folks, the need to ignore evidence of injustice is powerful: to do otherwise would force whites to either push for change (which they would perceive as against their interests), or live consciously as hypocrites who speak of freedom and opportunity, but perpetuate a system of inequality.

Of course, the sad fact is that by holding on to the faith in meritocracy–in this case as a way to justify racial inequities that have pretty well worked to our benefit–whites also commit ourselves to the perpetuation of an economic order that is disempowering and harmful for most everyone, including, ironically, most of us. After all, if you believe that anyone can make it if they try, but then notice that you’re constantly struggling to make your bills, save for your kids education, or retirement, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month (which is the case for millions of whites in this country), you have no way to explain your seeming inadequacies except by way of internalized self-blame and self-doubt. Oh sure, outwardly you can blame affirmative action for a while, or immigrants, or taxes, the benefits of which you’re convinced go only to “those people,” whose skin tone is several shades darker than your own. But in the back of your head the voice keeps reminding you that people who aren’t living up to their expectations need only to buckle down, pull themselves up, and stop complaining.

In other words, belief in meritocracy becomes over time a psychological dagger pointed at the very heart of all but the elite in a society. For everyone else, it becomes a way to keep them in line, encourage them to blame only themselves when their job is unfulfilling, their wages inadequate, their benefits pathetic, their lives an overscheduled, hypertense mess. In short, meritocracy is a fraud, belief in which fraud is not only tailor-made for justifying the maintenance of racial inequality, but economic inequality as well. In the long run, the vast majority of whites–as with folks of color–would be far better off facing the facts, and losing their faith in this utterly stultifying system to which they have pledged allegiance.

It’s one thing, after all, for Oprah to believe in meritocracy. It’s quite another for a young white man in a cash-strapped community college, who uses her as proof of society’s fairness, to do so.

*While one can certainly respect Woods’ desire to honor all parts of his heritage, on both sides of his family tree (which includes Irish, American Indian, Thai, and African American), his decision to call himself “Cablinasian” ignores a fundamental racial reality in the U.S.: namely, that whatever one chooses to call oneself, or whatever it is that one thinks one is, racially speaking, one is still most likely to be perceived as (and treated as) whatever others think you are. And in this country, no one sees someone who is part black as a complex multiplicity of ethnicities and heritages. Rather, those who can be seen as black are black, in every functional sense. If one is black and anything else, one tends to be seen as black. In fact, racism operates in such a way as to more or less ensure that one will be viewed as a member of whichever group is least “desirable” in one’s particular mix, in the eyes of the dominant culture. So if Tiger Woods goes on the wrong side of New York City, at the wrong time of night, and fails to wear his Nike cap, or forgets to bring along his caddy, and then fails to flash that trademark smile of his when confronted by the Street Crimes Unit…well, let’s just say, he could easily end up like Amadou Diallo in the morning, “Cablinasian” notwithstanding.

**None of my comments about Cosby are intended to detract from his true comedic genius. But he himself has long acknowledged that the reason he was so readily accepted was because he was “not controversial.” Most people, he once happily told critic, Rex Reed, “don’t even think of me as a Negro” (see, Michael Eric Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right, Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind? Basic Books, 2005: 46). It is also worth noting that Cosby’s original concept for the show that would become “The Cosby Show,” and which would become one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time–featuring an upper-income family, in which the parents were a doctor and lawyer–was originally not to have the couple be affluent professionals. It was only after concerns were raised to the effect that a working class black family wouldn’t resonate sufficiently with white audiences, that the concept was changed.

***In response to those who would claim that the differences in wealth and net worth between whites and blacks are due to whites saving more, and blacks engaging in too much conspicuous consumption–an argument that has been made by white and black conservatives alike, with some regularity–note that, in fact, black families have equal or higher savings rates than whites, at each level of income. The only reason that net savings is higher for whites is because, in the aggregate, whites are better off, and more affluent folks tend to be able to save more, by definition. But when income levels are controlled, so that we are comparing only similar white and black families, blacks actually have the same or slightly higher savings rates (see, Edward Wolff, Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership, 1983-1998. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Working Paper No. 300, April 2000: 9; also, Francine D. Blau and John W. Graham, “Black-White Differences in Wealth and Asset Composition,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1990, 321-339; also, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge: 1995).


(1) For references to these studies, confirming the existence of racism in the modern era, see my book, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005), and also below, note 4.

(2) For information on the way in which whites denied racism’s salience even in the early 60s, see my previous article: “What Kind of Card is Race?” (April 24, 2006), available at:

(3) Shawna Orzechowski and Peter Sepielli. 2003. Net Worth and Asset Ownership of Households: 1998 and 2000. Current Population Reports, P70-88. May. United States Census Bureau, Washington D.C.: 2, 13, 14.

(4) Barbara Bergmann, In Defense of Affirmative Action. Basic Books, 1996: 72-74, 79; Stephanie A. Goodwin, “Situational Power and Interpersonal Dominance Facilitate Bias and Inequality,” Journal of Social Issues. (Winter, 1998); Alice O’Connor, et al., The Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999; Gertrude Ezorsky, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action. Cornell University Press: 1991; Edward W. Jones, Jr., “Black Managers: The Dream Deferred,” in Differences That Work: Organizational Excellence Through Diversity, ed. Mary C. Gentile. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, January 1994: 65, 74-75; Marc Bendick, Charles W. Jackson, and Victor Reinoso, “Measuring Employment Discrimination Through Controlled Experiments,” Review of Black Political Economy. 25, (Summer 1994); LeAnn Loder, et al., Racial Preference and Suburban Employment Opportunities. Chicago: Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Urban League, April 2003; Philip Moss and Chris Tilly, Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skills and Hiring in America. NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001; Stephen Steinberg, “Occupational Apartheid in America,” in Without Justice for All, ed. Adolph Reed Jr. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999: 224; M. Bertrand and S. Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.”, November 18, 2002; Alan B. Krueger, “What’s in a Name? Plenty if You’re a Job Seeker,” New York Times. December 12, 2002; Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology. 108, 5 (March 2003): 937-75.

(5) Michael Eric Dyson, 2005: 68, see reference in double asterisk, above.

(6) For the ultimate examination of the ways in which the black middle-class experiences and deals with racism, see Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes, Living With Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience. Beacon Press, 1994.

(7) For information on the operation of stereotype threat, see, Claude Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance,” in Confronting Racism: The Problem and the Response, ed. Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Susan T. Fiske. London: Sage, 1998: 219; also, Claude Steele, “Race and the Schooling of Black Americans,” Atlantic Monthly. 69 (April 1992): 68-78; also, Claude Steele, “Stereotype Threat and African American Student Achievement,” in Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students, ed., Theresa Perry, Claude Steele and Asa Hilliard III. Beacon Press: 2003: 109-130; also, Douglas Massey, et al., The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. Princeton University: 2003; also, Shana Levin, “Social Psychological Evidence on Race and Racism,” in Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities, ed. Mitchell J. Chang, et al. Stanford University Press: 2003, 99.

(8) Joseph L. Graves Jr., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. Dutton: 2004, 133; also, “Transcript: Race and Health: In Genes or Injustice?” The Gene Media Forum, November 14, 2001.

(9) Fix, Michael and Margery Austin Turner, 1998. A National Report Card on Discrimination in America: The Role of Testing. The Urban Institute, March: 104.

(10) Fred Pincus, Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth. Rienner: 2003, 18.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Penn State Press: 2003, 359, Figure 7.1.

(13) U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2006. The National Data Book, Table 217, and calculations by the author.

(14) “Business is By Far the Most Popular Major for African American College Graduates,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Weekly Bulletin, July 27, 2006.

(15) William M. Hartnett, William M. “Income gaps persist among races,” Palm Beach Post, October 20, 2003; also, Patrick L. Mason, “Race, Cognitive Ability, and Wage Inequality,” Challenge. May-June, 1998.

(16) Thomas Shapiro, The Hidden Costs of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004: 7.

(17) Oliver and Shapiro, 1995–see reference above, in text for third asterisk; also, Bernard Wasow, “Class Warfare Fact and Fiction: Myth 4: Over the Course of their lifetimes, Americans are highly likely to enjoy upward economic mobility,” The Century Foundation,

(18) Oliver and Shapiro, 1995: 109.

(19) Paul Starr, “Civil Reconstruction: What to do Without Affirmative Action,” American Prospect. Winter 1992: 7-16.

(20) For information on how white housing opportunity was subsidized by the government, at the same time opportunities for persons of color were being restricted, see, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid. Harvard University: 1993; also, Oliver and Shapiro, 1995.

(21) Orzechowski and Peter Sepielli. 2003, see note 1.

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