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Stephen R. Shalom
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The White Fairness Understanding Gap
Educators, policy-makers, activists, and academics regularly decry and claim to offer solutions to the problem that Blacks tend to score significantly lower than whites on standardized academic achievement tests. It is interesting, then, to read the results of a survey conducted last Spring by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University. According to this high-profile research, whites are far behind Blacks when it comes to grasping elementary facts of American social, economic, and political reality. “Large numbers of white Americans incorrectly believe,” the Post reports, “that Blacks are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schools, and health care.”
For some time now, most white Americans have wrongly believed that blacks enjoy equal opportunity. Now white false consciousness in racial matters appears to be escalating into a profoundly distorted image of social and economic outcomes. African-Americans polled in the survey showed a much stronger grasp of reality regarding racial inequity. When the test subject is fairness, whites lag significantly behind blacks in the United States.
Is this a paradox when whites score higher on academic achievement tests? No, for at least five interrelated reasons. First, the American educational curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade is notoriously conservative on questions of social, racial, and economic justice. Meaningful ideological controversy is taboo in history classes and texts that portray America as a virtually classless land of equal opportunity. Such texts and lessons hardly equip students to understand the unequal distribution of wealth, income, and power between Blacks and whites. They shame minority and poor children, encouraging those kids to disengage from school, thereby contributing to the black-white test-score gap.
Second, there's no substitute for experience when it comes to grasping social reality. White Americans tend to understand Black experience in exceedingly abstract and distant terms, on the basis of projected fears and fantasies fed by a white-owned corporate media that showers them with disproportionately affluent images of African-Americans. Third, that media has long been feeding Americans a steady diet of misleading and provocative news bites on affirmative action for minorities and especially for Blacks. Exaggerating the extent to which whites have suffered from that policy, this coverage has interacted toxically with nearly three decades of relative income stagnation and even decline for masses of white Americans to stoke the fires of white racial illusion. Confronting economic insecurity in their daily experience and viewing rich African-Americans and the alleged excesses of affirmative action and “multiculturalism” on their televisions, millions of whites now think that Blacks have caught up with the majority race.
Fourth, white America's unreal picture of Black reality is reinforced by the persistent hyper-segregation of American communities by race and class. In Chicago, home to the nation's largest contiguous settlement of African-Americans, researchers estimate that 80 percent of Blacks would have to move if they wished to live in a neighborhood whose racial composition matched that of the city as a whole. There, as elsewhere, poverty and such related social indicators as unemployment, single-parent families, and the possession of criminal records are very disproportionately concentrated in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Four out of five U.S. whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods and nearly 9 in 10 suburbanites live in communities that are less than 1 percent black.
Nowhere, fittingly enough, is racial segregation more strikingly evident than in the schools. Nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Southern school segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has recently reported, school “re-segregation” has been underway for at least ten years. It is “happening,” the Civil Rights Project finds, “despite the nation's growing diversity” and “is contributing to a growing gap in quality between the schools being attended by white students and those serving a large proportion of minority students”—a gap that receives curiously little mention in standard pronouncements on the black-white test-score gap. “More than 70% of the nation's black students,” the Project reports, “now attend predominantly minority schools,” whereas “whites on average attend schools where less than 20% of the students are from all of the other racial and ethnic groups combined.” With little substantive connection to the actual daily lives of African-Americans from childhood on, whites rely excessively on racial myths encouraged by dominant ideological paradigms positing color-blind equality of opportunity as an achieved reality and racism as a thing of the past.
A fifth factor is the tendency of many Americans to take an at- once pragmatic and self-interested orientation towards truth. By the terms of that perspective, “the truth of a belief depends less,” wrote the late radical Australian social psychologist Alex Carey, “on the evidence which leads to its adoption than on the consequences that follow from that adoption.” Many whites reason that they have little to gain and much—preferred access to better neighborhoods, schools, jobs, incomes, and health care—to lose from acknowledging the pervasive, deep, and deepening structural inequalities that continue to exist between blacks and whites even as the U.S. moves beyond the explicit racial bigotry of previous eras.
A sixth factor is the weakness of the left. White perceptions would be more accurate if the country possessed significant populist and social-democratic movements that saw ordinary blacks and whites not as pitted in a zero-sum game of competition with each other but as partners in common opposition to the disproportionately (though not exclusively) white upper class—the top 10 percent, say, of Americans that possess more than two-thirds of U.S. wealth. Such movements have tended to provide pragmatic and idealistic reasons for whites to acknowledge and act upon the reality of black experience. Were they to revive, they would help channel ordinary whites' sense of social grievance away from waning affirmative action protections for Blacks and toward the numerous ways in which the predominantly white upper-class rigs the game for its own; for example, the legacy system at Harvard, an affirmative action program for children of the elite.
It will be the task of citizens and not establishment institutions like the Washington Post, the Kaiser Foundation, and (with all due respect to the excellent work of the Civil Rights Project) Harvard University to expand popular interracial resistance to the fantastically privileged minority of Americans. In the meantime and consistent with that project, whites should try to learn more about the black experience past and present. This will mean going beyond standard textbooks, questioning mainstream propaganda, visiting outside lily-white neighborhoods, and engaging in real conversation and relationships with African-Americans. Through these and other methods, it is hoped, whites can work to overcome their fairness understanding gap. Z
Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League. His articles have appeared in Z, Monthly Review, and the Journal of American Ethnic History.