Of Collateral Damage and Roosting Chickens: Reflections on Racism, the Economy and the High Cost of White Ambivalence

The message began ominously enough, with words no one really likes to hear directed their way.

“With all due respect,” it read.

As a writer I am painfully aware of the imprecision of language. Meaning is not always perfectly–and often not at all–communicated by the words we choose to represent our thoughts. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of 42 years it is this: whenever someone addresses you by saying, “with all due respect,” you can rest assured they think you are due very little of it. And furthermore, in what follows they intend to deliver to you exactly that amount of this precious commodity to which they believe you are entitled.

“I have been out of work for 26 weeks,” the e-mail, signed simply “Jeremy” continued. “A little more than six months. Six months without a job. Six months having to live on unemployment insurance or the kindness of family, friends and even strangers. Six months, during which time I’ve had to pawn damned near everything of value in the house, donate blood, and raid my kids’ college savings accounts just to keep the lights on and food in the fridge. Six months of having my self-image battered, interview after interview, being told that I’m overqualified for almost every job I apply for. All because I have a college degree. I did everything right. I played by the rules, and yet, this is where I’ve ended up.”

By this point I was starting to wonder if his missive had been misdirected. Perhaps he had intended it for one of the Senators who had just voted not to extend those unemployment benefits on which he’d been relying. Perhaps he thought I was Sharron Angle, the Tea Party Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nevada who says that people like Jeremy are basically lazy and don’t want to work because life on the dole is so luxurious. Or perhaps he thought I was Rand Paul, the Tea Party favorite in Kentucky, who insists that if people like Jeremy would just lower their sights a bit and be willing to work for less than their previous salaries, they’d be on their feet in no time.

But seeing as how I’ve always been nothing but critical of such right-wing absurdities as these, why was I the focus of Jeremy’s ire? Why was I the one being challenged, and “with all due respect” at that? Intrigued, I read on, and that’s when things became clear.

“Then today,” Jeremy continued, “while researching job opportunities on the web (on a computer at the library, since I long ago had to sell my own) an acquaintance sent an e-mail to my (thankfully free) yahoo account, where you were talking about racism and how hard black people have it in this country. I don’t doubt that, actually. But I’m white, and I fail to see how that’s helping me right now. In fact, if I were black I might actually have been hired by now thanks to affirmative action. But I guess none of this matters, right? All I can say is, it would sure be nice if people like you would be as concerned about the plight of all people, regardless of race, as you are about just one group.”

As adversarial e-mails go, I have to admit, this one wasn’t all that bad. Considering the situation in which Jeremy finds himself, his comments seemed, at least to my mind, relatively mild. God knows I’ve received harsher criticism from people with far less valid reasons to be angry, whether at me, or the world for that matter. So what bothered me about the message wasn’t Jeremy’s tone. And it wasn’t even the mischaracterization of my own supposedly limited sympathies. As tiresome as it can be to have someone misconstrue your views, and assume that because you write and speak mostly about racism, you must be unconcerned about the larger class system, it wasn’t this counterfactual charge that most concerned me.

I wasn’t even that upset by having to read yet another ill-informed broadside against affirmative action, from a white guy who feels that his situation is worse than it would have been had he only had the good fortune of being born with brown skin. Yes, that kind of thing is maddening, seeing as how a) if Jeremy were black a lot about his life would have been different, long before he lost his job, and according to the data, in pretty much every respect he would likely have been worse off, and b) college educated black men are nearly twice as likely as white men like Jeremy to be out of work–hardly evidence of their being “snapped up.” But his ignorance on this score is so common, so pedestrian that it’s hardly worth getting worked up about at this point. Besides, his lack of apparent hard-core racial animus suggested that his anti-affirmative action comments weren’t really all that deeply felt.

Mostly what Jeremy seemed to be saying was that he wished for his struggles to be recognized and honored in a society where they so often aren’t. He especially wanted someone like myself, who claims to care about those facing obstacles outside of their control (like racism) to care equally about the obstacles in his way–a perfectly reasonable request. And he seemed to be asking, at least implicitly, a question that I’ve heard asked a lot lately, which one often hears in times of crisis: “How am I supposed to get all worked up over other people’s problems (like racism), when I’ve got my own hardships right now?” Not a selfish question, but one born of real and understandable frustration.

But as reasonable as the question may be, it was this aspect of Jeremy’s message that bothered me most. After all, to ask it presupposes that Jeremy, like many others, fails to see the irony of the current economic and social predicament facing white men like himself: namely, that it is precisely the existence of racism, racial bias, and white racial ambivalence towards people of color and their plight, which has contributed to the current malady those white men find themselves confronting. Put simply, were it not for the very system of inequity and privilege that has normally worked pretty well for guys like Jeremy–but which now seems to them to have fallen flat–he and millions more might not be suffering as much as they are. There are at least three broad reasons this is true. Let us examine them one at a time.

Of Coal Mines, Canaries, and the Inattentive

Most have probably heard of the way that canaries were once used by miners to check coal shafts for methane gas and carbon monoxide. These potentially deadly emissions being more immediately toxic to birds than people, the miners knew that if they released canaries in the mine and the canaries died, they too would be in danger before long. Over the years, the metaphor of the “miner’s canary” has been deployed by scholars who focus on the issue of race, such as Lani Gunier and Gerald Torres, whose 2002 book by that title explored the way that racial inequity has long served as a bellwether for coming social problems that would affect far more than just people of color.

Much as Guinier and Torres noted then, I would point out now, that in the midst of the faltering national economy we should understand how our inattention over the years to the warning signs of coming crisis explain much about how and why things got to be this bad. And those warning signs were ignored in large measure because they seemed not to impact white Americans, especially middle class and above whites. Because the pain was localized in low income and people of color communities, folks like Jeremy could choose to ignore it, not necessarily because they were insensitive or uncaring, let alone racist in the overt sense; but rather, because the immediate consequences weren’t evident to them, and so paying little attention was easy to do.

For instance, consider the current housing meltdown. Although the crisis is now being felt nationwide, in communities that are urban, suburban and rural, and by people across the color spectrum, things weren’t always that way. Nearly fifteen years ago, Michael Hudson detailed in his groundbreaking book, Merchants of Misery, the way that poor folks–disproportionately of color–were being gouged by high interest lenders on the secondary mortgage market, thanks to discriminatory lending practices. Likewise, community-based groups in places like North Carolina were taking on predatory lenders in the late 90s and early 2000s, like Citi, which was caught charging black families hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional mortgage payments over the life of their loans, by steering them into loan instruments that were more costly than necessary, even when those families could have qualified for lower interest rates.

Yet consistently, when activists would raise these issues, decry the racial and class unfairness inherent to these practices and call for regulations, most of the media, the public and lawmakers routinely ignored them. No national politicians campaigned on platforms to crack down on such policies, to strengthen fair lending laws, or to reign in the interest that lenders could charge. The market, they would insist, was sufficient to regulate these matters.

Of course, once it became apparent that lenders were not going to be heavily scrutinized or regulated when it came to these activities, high-cost mortgage instruments became even more prevalent, and began to spread, from the communities of color and poor communities where they had begun, to solidly middle class and largely white spaces too. Independent mortgage brokers, which are not regulated the way banks are, began to offer loans to consumers based on little if any paperwork to demonstrate the payments could be made. These lenders had little incentive to control such activity, since they were going to sell the loans in bundles to wealthy investors anyway. By the time families were in default and being foreclosed on, the brokers would have made their money and moved on. As a result of the spread of high-cost mortgages, folks in solid middle class counties like Suffolk and Nassau, on Long Island, are now facing higher foreclosure rates than residents in Brooklyn or Queens.

So in a very real sense, white ambivalence to the suffering of black and brown folks opened the floodgates to even more risky economic activity, and this time, in far whiter communities as well. Had racial inequity and injustice been seen as a problem early on, perhaps the market for such predatory loans would have been shut down or at least heavily regulated, thereby staving off crisis. Clearly, the millions of white folks who got roped into these instruments by lenders promising that everything would be alright are suffering today, precisely because the pain was not taken seriously when it belonged to someone else.

When “Those People” Become You: The Cost of Racialized Social Policy

Additionally, there is now a significant body of research suggesting that the reason the United States has such a paltry social safety net–from a weak system of unemployment insurance, to limited cash-based support, to paltry food subsidies and limited public health care initiatives–is precisely because of the perception on the part of large numbers of whites that black folks will abuse such programs if they are too generous. In other words, white racial resentment at folks of color (perceived as the ones taking advantage of any form of assistance for the needy) leads to less support for strong safety net programs. Yet, when the economy craters and millions of whites find themselves struggling to survive, they too end up without the programs needed to support their families.

For instance, according to research by Martin Gilens, in his classic book Why Americans Hate Welfare, it was only after media imagery of the poor switched from mostly white to mostly black and brown (beginning in the early 1970s) that public anger about social spending began to explode. Prior to that time, most people understood the importance of safety nets, and had been highly supportive of assistance to the poor, from the period of the Great Depression well into the 1960s. But once the public came to view aid recipients as people of color, that support waned.

Likewise, Jill Quadagno points out in The Color of Welfare, that the nation’s most promising anti-poverty initiatives and programs have been routinely undermined by racism aimed at those perceived to be the disproportionate beneficiaries. Indeed, racist opposition to the empowerment of blacks was among the principal reasons that President Nixon’s proposal for a guaranteed minimum national income was rejected. Kenneth Neubeck and Noel Cazenave demonstrate similar scholarship in their book Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor. Neubeck and Cazenave document the way that politicians have used racial resentment and racism to limit public assistance of all kinds, and have been more focused on using welfare policy to control black and brown labor mobility and even reproduction, than to provide real opportunity and support. Again, the irony should be clear: because of the racialization of social policy, whites who are struggling, like Jeremy, will now have less of a safety net to catch them.

In fact, a comprehensive comparison of various social programs in the U.S. and Europe found that racial hostility to people of color better explains opposition to high levels of social spending here than any other economic or political variable. To the extent the public–especially the white public–perceives blacks as lazy and too dependent on public assistance, they come to oppose additional spending on programs of social uplift. Then, when they find themselves in need of the same assistance it isn’t there for them. Jeremy is hurting, at least in part, because lawmakers have been insufficiently committed to addressing poverty and economic hardship. And this flagging commitment has been caused by the way in which the poor and struggling have been racialized, and the way this racialization has led to a collapse of empathy among large segments of the American public.

The Last to Know are the First to Blow: When Your Narrative Lets You Down

But there is one more thing, and it is perhaps bigger than the other two combined, in explaining why the Jeremys of the nation are experiencing such trauma right now. And by trauma, I am speaking of the psychological blow of the great recession, rather than merely its financial impact. After all, unemployment and economic insecurity is far more than a matter of material well-being. As Jeremy noted in his e-mail, he was experiencing repeated blows to his self-image due to his inability to land a job. Especially, as he noted because he has a college degree and “did everything right” and “played by the rules.”

That Jeremy feels a special kind of injury based on his having worked hard, played by the rules, and yet still finding himself in the position he’s in is worth exploring at length. This part of his story is especially telling, for it portends a sense on Jeremy’s part that he deserved better than this and should have been able to expect better. People like him are not supposed to be out of work and struggling. Perhaps others are–those who haven’t his work ethic, for instance–but not people like himself.

What’s interesting about this narrative of expectation and entitlement is how contingent it is on Jeremy’s race, whether or not he realizes it. Fact is, people of color–no matter how hard they’ve worked, and no matter their level of education–have never been able to take for granted that their merit and initiative would pay off. They have never had the luxury of buying into the narrative of meritocracy the way white folks (especially men) have, because they have seen family members, friends and others in their communities work hard every day and get nowhere fast. In this sense, the white mythology of America, which people of color have had no choice but to question and realize as only a partial truth on a good day, is one that has set up Jeremy and others like him. By convincing white men that all they had to do was work hard, that mythology–and the privilege that white men have had of being able to buy into it, and the privilege of having it work most of the time–has let them down, doubly hard. It’s one thing to suffer. But to suffer when you were told by the culture that suffering was not, by and large, the lot of people like you, is to experience a psychic blow that is magnified ten-fold.

When one’s illusions are shattered, it is never a pretty thing. To come to realize that everything you assumed about your society was a lie is nothing if not discomfiting. That people of color almost always saw things for what they were points out another irony of the current moment: namely, that the folks being hit hardest by the downturn (who are indeed still people of color) are perhaps the most prepared to deal with it, cope, and survive. While those who had been able to count on the system working for them–and who were usually correct in this presumption–may be the ones least prepared to do so.

It brings to mind the Great Depression, during which it was never the poor or folks of color who went to the tops of buildings and threw themselves off, unable to face the prospects of financial ruin. Rather, it was the white and wealthy who saw a bump in suicide rates at that time, so unprepared were they to deal with setback. Or if not this, perhaps the way that adult children of parents who decide to divorce after 40 years of marriage so often take the news harder than even the pre-teen whose parents do the same. The pre-teen had nowhere near enough time to construct a mythologized image of his or her parents, or their love for one another. But when one has been able to grow up assuming the sanguinity of the home in which you were raised, only to learn that perhaps things were not as they seemed, it can be as if the whole world is collapsing.

This, it seems, is where much of white America finds itself right now: unmoored, untethered, adrift on a sea of shattered illusions. Interestingly, had the society been less committed to the myth than to creating a reality of equity and opportunity for all, perhaps what Jeremy and millions of others are experiencing right now would never have come to pass. Had the culture not set white men up to expect the world, precisely because they were deemed superior to everyone else, the mental anguish and esteem-battering currently underway could have been prevented. Perhaps if we had been serious about making the deed match the word, and had we encouraged the kind of solidarity needed to make a society livable for all, things would have been different.

One thing is certain: If we do not quickly relinquish the remaining grip exercised by the national mythology it will continue to batter us, to insult Jeremy and others like him, to mock their hard work and their suffering, and to reinforce the self-loathing that has been its primary product for generations. Only real solidarity can save us now.

As James Baldwin noted in Nobody Knows My Name:

“…it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free–he has set himself free–for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

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