The report recently released by the Pew Research Center that showed that the wealth gap between white families on the one hand, and African American and Latino families on the other was greater than at any time in the last 25 years, caught many people by surprise. It should not have. We have been witnessing an expansion of this gap for some time. The so-called Great Recession has exacerbated this tendency.
Yet when I read this report, actually the first thing that came to mind was a discussion I recently had with a white friend of mine. They were telling me about their son, a 20-something who has been looking for work. He has gotten into the frame of mind that goes like this: white men have it rough out there and, in fact, white men face discrimination compared with–hold onto your hat–Black women. My friend, who is progressive, has had constant debates with their son but to no avail. He continues to believe that the decks are stacked against white men.
So, first, I started wondering what this young man must think about the Pew Center report. How, I have wondered, does this jibe with his sense that white men are facing discrimination when clearly the facts demonstrate something very different? I am sure that he will find a way to rationalize it. The reason he will is that it is actually rough out there for young white men, but not because of Black women, black men, Latinos or anyone else. To paraphrase an old saying, it’s the system, dummy…
What my friend’s son is confronting is the manner in which the economy has been changing over the last 30 years. Not only has the economy reorganized, leading to the introductions of new technologies; downsizing; and off-shoring of jobs, but white people can no longer assume that they are immune or cushioned against the full impact of economic downturns any more. The challenges to white racial privilege and racist discrimination by people of color and their allies over the years has meant that the automatic assumption that, when all else fails people of color will be there to soften the blow, does not work the way that it once did. Back during the Great Depression, for instance, Black workers were often fired from their jobs and replaced by white workers, though the white workers would be paid at the lower salaries than Black workers were making. These days it is more difficult to pull this off.
So, what does this all mean? Racist discrimination is alive and well, but looks different than it once did. Nevertheless, the racial differential in treatment, whether in employment, wealth, education, etc., remains very much a part of the fabric of U.S. society. But the second piece is that the reorganization of capitalism means that many of the opportunities that whites believed that they were entitled to have dried up. In this situation many of these whites, like my friend’s son, focus on imaginary opponents–in this case Black women–rather than understanding that the system is actually crushing them. It is anger like his that helps to fuel Tea Party movements, white nationalists and others who desperately want to believe that the American Dream can be restored…for whites.
Sorry. It won’t work that way. The system is saying loud and clear: Do not pass “Go”; do not collect “$200”; go directly to the unemployment line where you stew and try to figure out how did this happen because, after all, it was not suppose to happen to white folks…right?