White Denial: America’s Persistent and Increasingly Dangerous Pastime

This essay was written originally for CNN.com and can be found here.

There’s an old saying that it’s hard to know what you don’t know, the premise being that when you’re ignorant about something, you aren’t likely to realize your blind spots.

But I’m not so sure. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t know just requires a certain degree of humility.

For instance, I don’t know calculus, because I never took it in school. But here’s the thing: I know that I don’t know calculus; and as such, I would never presume to know it, let alone to tell others for whom it had actually been their major that I knew it better than they did.

How nice it would be if white Americans would exercise a similar restraint when it comes to the topic of racism and discrimination in America. For although we have rarely had to know much about it — and though most of us, by our own admission, socialize in nearly all-white environments where we won’t benefit from the insights of persons of color who have, indeed, had to major in the subject — we continue to insist that we know more about it than they do.

To wit, a just-released poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds that white Americans are far less likely than persons of color to believe that racism remains a serious problem in the U.S. While roughly two-thirds of blacks and Latinos believe racism is a big problem in America today, only about four in ten whites agree. Even a simple recognition of ongoing racial inequities in life chances differs markedly across racial lines, with clear majorities of African Americans perceiving that the typical black person is worse off than the typical white person in terms of income, education and housing, but most whites being evenly divided on the question, with about half of us failing to perceive such well-documented inequalities of condition. So despite the fact that African Americans are worse off than whites in every single category of well-being, and despite the research indicating that these disparities owe significantly to discrimination both past and present, most whites believe there are few if any ongoing inequities in need of being addressed.

For instance, even though young blacks with college degrees are twice as likely as similar whites to be unemployed, regardless of their field of study, most white Americans don’t see much of a problem (or actually continue to insist that it is we who are discriminated against in employment).

Despite the fact that white male high school dropouts between 18-34 are more likely to find work than black men that age with two years of college, most white Americans don’t see much of a problem, or again, insist that “reverse discrimination” is the real issue when it comes to racism.

Despite the fact that the typical white family has about sixteen times as much wealth as the typical black family — and that even white households headed up by a high school dropout have, on average, twice the wealth of black and Latino households headed by a college graduate — most white Americans don’t see much of a problem.

Despite the fact that black children are about three times as likely as white children to be suspended or expelled from school, even though the rates of serious school rule infractions are largely the same (contrary to popular belief), and despite the fact that black children are about twice as likely as white children to be taught by the least experienced teachers, most white Americans don’t see much of a problem.

According to the survey, whites are also far less likely than blacks to believe the Voting Rights Act is still needed, even as several states have moved to create impediments to voting that will disproportionately affect voters of color.

And while overwhelming majorities of African Americans (and a clear majority of Latinos) see biases in the justice system, only about half of whites agree; this, despite the racial disproportionality of police-involved shootings, and the blatant disparities within the so-called war on drugs, whereby blacks, for instance, are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, even as rates of usage and dealing are virtually identical. It apparently doesn’t register as a “big problem” in the eyes of most whites that there are roughly 160,000 black folks arrested for drug possession annually who wouldn’t be were it not for the racially-disproportionate way in which African Americans are targeted in the drug war. Likewise, it fails to give us much pause that there are also about 160,000 whites who would be arrested for possession each year if arrest rates actually mirrored rates of drug law violations. It’s apparently no big deal that in recent years, persons of color have been subjected to massively disparate treatment by police stop-and-frisk policies, even though such policies almost exclusively target innocent people and are unconstitutional.

That white Americans don’t by and large see what people of color see doesn’t mean that white folks are horrible people of course; nor does it suggest that whites are all inveterate racists who don’t care about the impediments to opportunity still facing our black and brown brothers and sisters. But what it does suggest is a degree of isolation and provincialism that should lead us to think twice before pontificating about a subject that we simply don’t have to know nearly as well as those who are the targets of it. When more than half of Blacks (two-thirds between 18-34) and a third of Hispanics report that they have experienced unfair treatment in public places at some point just in the last month because of their race, for whites to deny the seriousness of racism in America is to say, in effect, that folks of color are hallucinating, irrational, or ignorant about their own lived experience. It is to say that we white folks know black and brown reality better than those who live it—perhaps because we are more intelligent or level-headed (which arguments would be inherently racist of course).

Sadly, white denial of this sort has a long and ignoble pedigree. Even in the early 1960s, prior to the passage of the monumental civil rights legislation of that decade, most white Americans didn’t really see the problem. Though civil rights icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are venerated as heroes today by most, including by large numbers of whites, when King was alive, most white folks saw very little need for the movement of which he was such an integral part. In 1963, for instance, more than six in ten whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally with whites in their communities, a number that grew to seventy-five percent the year before Dr. King was killed (but at which point the Fair Housing Act still hadn’t been passed). Even more tellingly, in 1962, fully eighty-five percent of whites told Gallup that black children had the same chance as white children to obtain a high quality education.

Such beliefs might strike us as delusional in retrospect, of course, but that’s the point: Unless we believe that white Americans have somehow become amazingly attuned to the experiences of persons of color in the last half-century (and more so than those people of color are, with regard to their own experiences) — even as our parents and grandparents clearly failed to discern truth from fiction — it seems that we should probably think twice before trusting white perceptions when it comes to the state of racial discrimination in this country. If we were so oblivious even when racism was formally embedded in every fiber of the nation’s being — when the U.S. was an official apartheid country — what in the world would lead us to believe that we had suddenly become keen interpreters of black and brown folks’ lives?

But although white denial has been a constant throughout American history, one thing about today’s version of it seems potentially more dangerous than that of past generations, and it is this fact more than any other which should give us pause. In the past, white obliviousness was of a more genuinely naive sort — in other words, most white folks really did think, absurd though it sounds, that everything was just fine, not only for ourselves but for black folks too — but today’s denial comes wrapped in a patina of resentment and anxiety. Today, it is not just that whites fail to see the obstacles still faced by persons of color; rather, too many of us apparently believe the tables have turned and now it is we who face those obstacles. Denial mixed with perceived victimhood and an unhealthy dose of nostalgia is far worse than denial of a purely ignorant type. For whites to not know black and brown reality is bad enough; but for us to literally invert black and brown reality with our own, and to believe that we are the ones who are being victimized, is a recipe for increased tension and acrimony. It is certainly no way to build multiracial democracy.

Only by challenging white denial — and that means we white folks challenging our own — can we turn back the rising tide of white anxiety, which has manifested most recently in the campaign of Donald Trump, the backlash against Syrian refugees, and the growing hostility to Black Lives Matter protesters, the latter of which culminated recently in the shooting of five BLM activists by whites in Minneapolis. We must proclaim not only that black and brown lives matter, despite a society that has rarely acted as such, but that facts matter too; and as always, the facts suggest that white America still has some waking up to do.

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