Racism and "Preferential Treatment" by the Numbers
By Tim Wise
Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE)
Anyone who does political analysis, advocacy or organizing knows that folks on all sides of an issue have "numbers." Trotting out statistics to prove one's point about something is a well-accepted practice, and yet rarely do we stop to think about what certain numbers mean: be they used by "our side," or by political adversaries.
As someone who works full-time doing antiracism work, I constantly run across those whose "numbers" are thrown at me in an attempt to prove two things in particular: 1) that racist attitudes among whites are virtually nonexistent nowadays; and, 2) that the only real discrimination still in evidence is that dreaded "reverse" kind, as in so-called affirmative action "preferences." Herein, I would like to address both claims, with reference to numbers, and what they do (and don't) mean.
With regards to the first issue-white racial attitudes-my general response has always been that no matter how much improved are the views expressed to pollsters, the real issue is institutional inequity; and that is something that requires no overt bigotry for its perpetuation. While I still believe this is an important point, I've also come to realize that in some ways it's a cop out: after all, there are real people behind those institutions, making real decisions, and others who don't make decisions themselves but nonetheless collaborate with the system as it is. It is with that in mind that I decided to look a bit more deeply at the numbers used by folks like D'Souza, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, and others to "prove" how much more tolerant are today's white folks.
Although there have been many polls in recent years indicating that between 30-70% of all whites believe blacks are generally lazy, less determined to succeed, and more violent and aggressive, those who deny the persistence of racism tend to ignore these numbers, focusing instead on the one or two surveys which bolster their position. So, for example, I have heard it said with great pride by many race commentators on the right, that only a very small percentage-perhaps 5% -of whites now say that blacks and other people of color are "inferior races" in the biological sense.
This is of course an improvement since the 1940's, at which time a clear plurality, or even the majority of whites would have responded positively to this Bell Curve-ish proposition. However, a few things should be remembered: first, there are still obviously enough people willing to entertain the notion of biological determinism so as to make The Bell Curve a best seller (not in the 1940's after all, but in 1995), and secondly, even if we accept the 5% figure as an accurate reflection of what people think, we should be clear on just how many folks that represents. We're so used to hearing percentages, that often if we hear that "only" 5% think something, we think it to be a fringe viewpoint, hardly worthy of concern. But when we look deeper-or simply pull out the 1998 Statistical Abstracts of the United States-it becomes clear that 5% of the white population holding essentially Hitlerian views about racial inferiority/superiority is more of a big deal than previously believed.
Even if we subtract from the white population totals all whom the Census Bureau dubs "Hispanic whites," leaving only those whom folks like David Duke might consider sufficiently Caucasian, there are nearly 200 million whites in the U.S. today. Thus, 5% of the white population is approximately 10 million persons; in this instance ten million persons who adhere to the purest racism imaginable, and would be considered racist under pretty much anyone's definition.
Well just how many people is that? Is it really such a small group that we shouldn't concern ourselves with it? Is it so small that people of color who concern themselves with ongoing discrimination and unequal treatment must be paranoid or overreacting? Hardly. Compare these 10 million with a number of other population cohorts, many or most of which the right (and others) are worried about, and in some cases about which they are apoplectic. Consider that 10 million overt white racists is:
twice the number of "illegal immigrants" (approximately 5 million) currently residing in the U.S;
at least five times the estimated size of the so-called "hardcore underclass," (between 1.5-2 million) about which the right is constantly in an uproar;
more than three times the number of black single-moms with children (about 3 million), who, according to contemporary political discourse are responsible for many of the nation's worst problems;
40% more than the total number of persons who will commit a violent crime this year (roughly 7 million);
1000 times more than all the drunk drivers who will be involved in a fatal crash this year (less than 11,000);
one-third more than all the babies born to teenagers in the last twenty years (about 6.5 million);
10 times more than the number of persons who will be reported for abusing or neglecting a child this year;
more than five times the number of persons currently in jail or prison nationwide;
3.5 times more than the total number of federal government employees put together (and you know what a problem people think those "bureaucrats" are);
four times the number of single-moms receiving cash "welfare" payments, even before recent "reforms" bumped tens of thousands off the rolls;
And for a few final points of comparison, 10 million overt white racists is:
twice the number of whites who are officially unemployed, and equal to the number who are actually out of work or underemployed in today's economy; and,
more than all the cashiers, secretaries, police officers, waiters, waitresses and cooks in the U.S. combined;
and it is more than all the farmers, lawyers, telephone operators, child care workers, cops and classroom teachers combined.
In short, "only" 5% of the white population is a lot of people, so that even by the most optimistic assessment of white racial attitudes, there are literally millions holding overtly racist views. When combined with those whose views are less vicious, but nonetheless hostile, and those who aren't hostile at all, but who simply refuse to speak up against those who are, it becomes clear just how real a problem racism-even on the purely attitudinal level-remains today.
As for the second issue-so-called preferential treatment-numbers again are important. Although opponents of affirmative action typically shy away from numbers here-choosing instead to focus on individual (often inaccurate) anecdotes about victims of reverse discrimination-those of us who fight for racial equity tend to offer up a bevy of statistics indicating the real nature of preferential treatment which has worked to the benefit of whites.
And make no mistake, showing the degree of preferential treatment afforded whites-both historically and today-is exactly what we need to be doing. The problem about which I have become acutely aware, however, is that numbers alone are not enough: mainly because we often don't explain them in a way which makes sense to people.
For years I have lectured to students and community groups about the multitude of preference programs available to whites throughout the years which have been largely off limits to people of color. My hope was that by doing so, I could place in context the discussion of "preferential treatment," being offered up by the right, and thus undermine some of its ability to persuade. Although my efforts were sometimes successful, it was only when I began to " break down" some of the numbers I was using, that clear majorities of the often hostile white audiences would begin to get that puzzled look which lets you know they are having to think about something for the first time.
For example, for years now I have used the government's FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loan guarantee program as an example of preference for whites which still has effects in the here-and-now. As most of you know, from 1934-1962, the FHA guaranteed and underwrote over $120 billion worth of home equity for over 35 million white families. Due to racially-restrictive underwriting policies, this font of public largesse was virtually off limits to families of color, who generally couldn't receive FHA loans for homes in white suburbs. This process entrenched residential segregation which then contributed to educational and employment inequity for persons of color.
This much is known, and irrefutable, as is the fact that the value of that home equity-which is in the process of being handed down to today's white baby-boomers or their children-is now approximately $10 trillion. But when I would talk in these terms-"millions" of white families, and "hundreds of billions" or "trillions" of dollars-it was obvious that many a person's eyes were glazing. Fact is, folks simply don't have a reference point for numbers that big, and so they tend to go in one ear and out the other. So about a year ago, I turned again to the Statistical Abstracts, and was able to cobble together the following comparisons, which help to put the magnitude of this one program's preferences in clear perspective:
$10 trillion dollars (the current value of the housing equity loaned preferentially to whites throughout the middle of this century) is:
More than all the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRA's and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.
Now read that again. The first time I ever shared this information with an audience (and I'm not talking about a left audience, I mean just typical not-all-that-political students, and their professors), the sound of disbelief emanating from their lungs was more than a little noticeable-and in a way that it had never been when I had shared the numbers in an abstract, purely intellectual way. Now the face of preference had a context; one that they could understand; and one which makes the claims of the opponents of racial equity seem petty and disingenuous even to many of the most skeptical listeners.
The lessons of this already too lengthy commentary are simple: make sure to deconstruct (for lack of a better term) the statistics offered by political commentators, to find what's really underneath the surface; and learn to break down the statistics you use in your own work, so as to give them real meaning for people. Given the appropriately cynical attitude many have towards what any political commentator or activist has to say, it is not enough to try and win debating points about whose percentages are better. Rather, it is necessary to make folks understand the faces behind the numbers, and the real-life impact of political decisions. The Statistical Abstracts can't do that. Only we can.