4 Ways the American Dream Is Actually Just Affirmative Action for White People

screen-shot-2015-11-12-at-3-10-59-pmOriginally published at Everyday Feminism.


I once wrote an article on how affirmative action doesn’t actually disadvantage White people – despite how many of us believe the opposite.

And a few members of my family weren’t happy about that article. Quite sure that affirmative action for people of Color is “reverse racism,” they gave me an earful.

In their reaction lies the tremendous irony that hangs over most White opposition to programs designed to help people of Color access the schools and jobs from which they’ve been historically excluded.

After all, while affirmative action programs, which have been shown to help White women more than anyone, are a recent creation, there have been systems and structures designed to benefit White people at the expense of everyone else for hundreds of years.

In fact, that which we often call the “American Dream” is built fundamentally upon violent affirmative action programs for White people.

And I’m not just talking about the overt (though coded) forms of affirmative action that we White folks benefit from today.

The entire history of European settlement in North America is a story of unearned benefit that comes at the expense of people of Color.

This notably sets it apart from formal affirmative action programs for people of Color, such as those in admissions to universities, as they haven’t been proven to systemically disadvantage White people in any way.

To understand the White “American Dream,” though, we need to understand the history of Whiteness and its ever-changing and evolving nature.

As highlighted by scholars like Dr. Jacqueline Battalora and Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, Whiteness didn’t always exist.

In fact, prior to the 1690s, “White” people were unheard of.

Wealthy, land-owning Europeans created the category of Whiteness as a tool to divide poor, light-skinned Europeans from enslaved African people and Indigenous people in North America.

Since that time, it has taken on a life of its own and been embedded in every single structure of the US.

This club, known as Whiteness, was designed to offer advantages, some small and some large, to light-skinned Europeans in exchange for their complicity in the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement and exploitation of non-White people.

Notably, not all light-skinned Europeans were initially considered White (Italians and the Irish didn’t join the club until well into the 20th century, and European Jews have only recently been able to join).

Whiteness has evolved over time, but its singular aim has been to ensure that certain people (wealthy, White men mostly) hold power built upon the exploitation of people of Color and, to a lesser degree, poor White people.

It’s important, then, that we as White people understand this identity creation story because in this history lies an understanding of the privileges so many of us call the “American Dream” – something disproportionately available to people considered White.

Does this mean that people of Color haven’t realized this “Dream?” No. It just means that this “Dream” has been a nightmare for most people of Color built upon genocide, exclusion, and slavery.

1. White Wealth Is Tied to Land – So White Wealth Is Bound Up in Genocide

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Throwback: Stop Saying Affirmative Action Disadvantages White Students

I’ve got a whole bunch of awesome irons in the fire at the moment, but that means that I don’t have as much time for writing new material (hence the number of guest posts recently).  However, I have been thinking a lot about affirmative action recently, and I thought it would make sense to repost an older article I had written.

I recently had a student come up to me after I gave a presentation at a conference, and he said something I often hear from young White people: “I agree with most of what you said, but you didn’t talk about the ways that White people are institutionally discriminated against.”  When I asked him to clarify what he meant, he said, “Well, like affirmative action, for instance. It is reverse racism!”

reverseracismcartoon

Considering how often this sentiment is expressed and considering the recent debate about what reparations can and should look like spurred by the amazing Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic entitled, “The Case for Reparations“, I figure it’s time to repost an article that I originally titled “Are White Students Being Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action” (though my friend Scott bemoaned the passive voice used in the title).

***

I notice that whenever I can do question and answer sessions with young people (high school and college students), the same questions come up every time.  First, a White Man usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).  Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? Because from what I understand, White people (particularly White Men) are actually now at a disadvantage in college admissions because of Affirmative Action, and it’s not fair that I will have less of a chance of getting into college because of what happened in the past!”

Ask any White person how they feel about Affirmative Action, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear that it is “racist against White people” and that it is “unfair” or “reverse discrimination” and that they oppose it.  Further, most White folks will tell you that they are, in fact, actually less likely to get a job or a position in a school than a Person of Color because of Affirmative Action policies.

This is not true. Not only are White people not being discriminated against actively, White people are still benefitting regularly from a system that was built from its inception by White people for White people.

You see, White folks will often tell me, “White people make up 72% of the American population, but they only make up 62% of those admitted and enrolled in degree-granting institutions.”  And the tricky part of that statement is that it is not false, not in the slightest.  It is, however, wildly misleading.

The Demographics of Success

Demographics are tricky.  In the United States today, there are A LOT of older White people.  Simultaneously, though, there are also A LOT of younger People of Color.  Thus, while the percentage of the American public that are White hovers around 70%, the percentage of traditionally college-aged folks is much lower: 59.7%.  The critics are right, though, that 62.3% of those enrolled in degree-conferring institutions are White.

Want to know if affirmative action really disadvantages White students? Read the rest of the post here.

“That’s Racist Against White People!” A Discussion on Power and Privilege

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of White people screaming about racism.

I wish these were anti-racist ally White people who were speaking about the prison industrial complex or about systems of privilege and oppression, but no.

These are White folks who are claiming that the Obamacare tax on tanning beds is “racist” against White people. These are White folks who are claiming thataffirmative action is racist against them. These are the White folks who honestly believe they suffer more racism than people of Color.

And every time I hear these folks cry racism, I can’t help but think:

And it’s not just people of racial privilege who are doing this!

Certain Christians claim they are being religiously oppressed because the rights of Lesbian and Gay people are now being recognized at federal and state levels. The entire Men’s Rights Movement is basically predicated on the idea that men are far more oppressed than women (or transgender people or genderqueer people or really anyone who isn’t a cisgender man).

Now aside from the mountains of evidence that makes someone look a little silly when they claim that those with seemingly endless identity privilege are widely oppressed in society, I am realizing more and more that we have a problem of language precision.

Too often, when people are talking about racism or sexism or heterosexism or any other form of oppression, they’re simply referring to when a person was made to feel bad for or about their identity.

There is absolutely no acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power.

And this is no accident.

There has been a concerted effort made by a small but loud group (like theLimbaughsZimmermans, or Robertsonsto coopt language and shift the discussion so that things stay just the way they are.

But whenever we say things like “Well, sometimes women can be just as sexist as men,” we are contributing to the problem.

Precision of Language

Yes. Any person of any identity can be an asshole to any person of any other identity. But that doesn’t make it oppression. It doesn’t even make it racism or sexism or heterosexim or any other -ism.

There is a profound danger in watering down our discussion of identity by removing any mention of societal power, oppression, and privilege.

Doing so ensures that the conversation remains about interpersonal slights rather than about the larger systems of oppression that are the true problem.

Racism is Prejudice plus Social PowerRead the rest at Everyday Feminism.

 

CFW’s 2012 Year in Review

2012 was a big year of blogging for me.  I branched out in my publishing by partnering with a few amazing blogs, and my readership has grown tremendously.  In 2012, Change From Within had approximately 59,000 page views, and the blog had 59 new posts, some short and (hopefully) pithy, and some long and more complex.

There were a few posts from years past that continue to garner huge views on the blog.  In case you missed those, check them out!

Redskins, Sambos, and Whities: Racism in Sports Mascots
Speak American: Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement
It’s Not Just Rap – Misogyny in Music

As we head into 2013, though, it’s time to take stock of the 10 most widely-read pieces of 2012 in case you missed any the first time around.

love-is-a-verb-300x25910.  In October, I had the incredible pleasure of serving as the officiant of my close friend’s wedding.  After the wedding, I posted the message I shared at the wedding.  Coming in at number 10 is that message, Love: Endlessly Selfless and Powerfully Selfish.

alonzoashley9. Unfortunately, my former home of Denver, CO has a serious problem with police brutality.  In July, I attended a rally against police brutality that commemorated the death of Alonzo Ashley, a young Black man who was killed by police at the Denver Zoo.  The piece that came afterward encouraged White people to begin to consider the ways that our relationships with police (on the whole) are vastly different from the relationships of communities of Color.  Coming in at number 9 is Talking Privilege: Waking White People Up to Police Brutality.

FL Tray George Zimmerman smiling 2012 3-238. One of the more important stories of 2012 was the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman.  In my piece entitled I am George Zimmerman, I encouraged White folks to understand the ways that everyone who is socialized in our system of White Supremacy is taught to see Black men of any age as the dangerous other.  If we want to prevent future murders like that of Trayvon Martin (or Jordan Russell Davis), we have to understand the ways that each of us are trained to fear Black men, and then we must work to uproot that socialization.

Chick-fil-A-logo7. Sometimes I just have to rant a little, which is what the piece that comes in at number 7 felt like.  After their CEO spouted virulently anti-gay hate speech, activists targeted Chick-fil-a for boycotts and protests.  Those on the right claimed that such activists were attacking his freedom of speech.  In Chick-fil-a: Censorship or Freedom of Speech?, I lay out just how silly that argument actually is.

IMG_0046-203x3006. One of the best ways to share intimacy with your partner, whether this is a long-time partner or a short-term hook up, is to take steps to ensure that your sexual relationship is healthy and driven by sexy consent.  One way to do that is through a Yes, No, Maybe Chart.  My Valentines’s piece laid out just how to use one to ensure your sex is healthy, fun, and fulfilling.  Coming in at number 6 is, This Valentine’s Day Try a Yes, No, Maybe Chart.

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Are White Students Being Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

I notice that whenever I do question and answer sessions with young people (high school and college students), the same questions come up every time.  First, a White Man usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).  Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? Because from what I understand, White people (particularly White Men) are actually now at a disadvantage in college admissions because of Affirmative Action, and it’s not fair that I will have less of a chance of getting into college because of what happened in the past!”

Ask any White person how they feel about Affirmative Action, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear that it is “racist against White people” and that it is “unfair” or “reverse discrimination” and that they oppose it.  Further, most White folks will tell you that they are, in fact, actually less likely to get a job or a position in a school than a Person of Color because of Affirmative Action policies.

This is not true. Not only are White people not being discriminated against actively, White people are still benefitting regularly from a system that was built from its inception by White people for White people.

You see, White folks will often tell me, “White people make up 72% of the American population, but they only make up 62% of those admitted and enrolled in degree-granting institutions.”  And the tricky part of that statement is that it is not false, not in the slightest.  It is, however, wildly misleading.

The Demographics of Success

Demographics are tricky.  In the United States today, there are A LOT of older White people.  Simultaneously, though, there are also A LOT of younger People of Color.  Thus, while the percentage of the American public that are White hovers around 70%, the percentage of traditionally college-aged folks is much lower: 59.7%.  The critics are right, though, that 62.3% of those enrolled in degree-conferring institutions are White.

Race % of Pop. 15-24 % of Enrolled
White 59.7% 62.3%
Hispanic 18.3% 12.5%
Black 15.6% 14.3%
Asian 3.5% 6.5%
Indigenous 1.5% 1.0%

Source for Population Demographic data, 2009.
Source for College Enrollment data, 2009.

White folks are STILL disproportionately likely to go to college despite formal Affirmative Action programs that attempt to recruit students of color.  Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students are disproportionately less likely to go to college, and the only other group with college-going rates that exceed their percentage of the population are Asian students.  But even that is misleading because to understand Asian success in the United States is also to understand racism.  After all, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar policies that even continue today, for most of U.S. history, it was virtually impossible for someone of Asian descent to legally immigrate to the United States unless they had an advanced degree.  Thus, there is a disproportionate number of folks of Asian descent whose parents are college educated, but when you break down the data by socioeconomic status and ethnicity, low-income Asians are, again, disproportionately less likely to go to college!

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The Racialized Wealth Gap

For this week’s post, I wanted to highlight a study done by researchers at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy that was released recently.

The study found that the wealth disparity between White and Black households has more than quadrupled, regardless of whether a family (White or Black) is making a lot of money or a little bit of money.  To understand the study, it’s important to understand the difference between wealth and income.  Wealth refers to the total net assets to which a person has access (owning a house, a car, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc).  Income, on the other hand, is the amount of money that someone is making at any given time.

As such, the study found that the average White family has 18 times the wealth of the average Hispanic family and 20 times the wealth of the average Black family.  This has been a problem for a while (as in 1995, White families had 7x the wealth of Black or Hispanic families), but the current economic crisis has brought the wealth gap to historic inequality.

That kind of disparity was hard for me to understand until I saw it in dollar amounts.  The median white household today has a net wealth of approximately $113,000, while the median Hispanic family has a net wealth of $6,325 and the median Black family has a net wealth of $5,667.

Check out a great video from CBS News that highlights the problem.

Now the frustrating part of this study is that it should be a call to reform in the United States, a call for us to understand the root causes of this problem and look for just and equitable policies that can change this reality.

However, we list in a society that says that regardless of what racist or sexist policies exist, regardless of what weight history places on the current generation, or regardless of what sociological patterns exist, we live in a society of rugged individualists.  If your net worth is low, it must be your fault.  Thus, much of the commentary and commenting being done across the internet in response to this startling study has been placing blame on Black and Hispanic families for (among other things) not saving enough or for being too lazy (despite the fact that white and black families save at the same rates).

However, we do not live in isolation.  We are a product of our history, and when one group of people has a 600 year jump on wealth accumulation (or even a 10 year jump), that makes for some drastic inequality, for wealth (not income) is what is passed from generation to generation.

For those who doubt the concept of white privilege, this is yet another example of the ways in which we, as white people, have a leg up.  Our families have had, for the most part, significantly longer than families of color to accumulate wealth and invest our wealth in areas that are less liquid (in bonds as opposed to the housing market).  As such, we have easier access to the ever-more-expensive world of college education, and we have more stability and safety during times of economic upheaval.  Even our tax policy today is designed to benefit white folks, for our lowest tax rates are on investment or capital gains, which, according to this study, are primarily a tool of white wealth.

In this time of calls for economic reform, there is indeed a need for economic reform, reform that helps those who have been historically and are currently oppressed and discriminated against to accrue wealth in ways that will lead to a more just nation.

Birtherism, Racism, and Affirmative Action

This morning I opened my browser to read the news online and found this headline: Obama Birth Certificate Released by the White House.  My heart sunk.  “Damnit . . . he gave in,” I thought to myself.  I can understand why he would do it.  After a while, I am sure that Obama and the White House were sick of all of the discussion of where he was born.  This might be able to keep things focused on the issues rather than on Obama’s citizenship.  Wrong.

To help us understand this absurdity, we need to recognize that a majority of people in the United States have at least some doubt as to whether Obama was born in the United States.  Only 38% of Americans completely believe Obama when he says that he was born in Hawaii to an American mother and Kenyan father.  Most recently, this charge has been led by Donald Trump, corporate clown/potential Republican presidential candidate/reality TV star, but it is a charge that has been echoed by both the left and right since Obama announced his candidacy for president (after all, Hillary Clinton called for his birth certificate to be released as well).

For those of you reading this who still question his citizenship, here’s his birth certificate:

“Well, why didn’t he release it a long time ago?  Why wasn’t he willing to be completely forthcoming?”  I’ve heard those questions a thousand times, and I’ve been hearing them in all of the political chatter today.  Well, I don’t know Obama’s motivations, but I didn’t want him to release his birth certificate.  I didn’t want him to because the calls for him to do so are based in nothing but blatant racism.

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