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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The ongoing murders of African Americans has brought national attention to the question of racial disparities in our society. This factor’s made even clearer with the release of a new Department of Justice report on the Baltimore police department this week. It shows that African Americans are 5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than whites, despite similar rates of use. And they account for 95% of people stopped by police. More than 10 times the rest of the population. But the racial disparities in our society go far beyond policing and more present in each domain of life in our society, such as schools, streets, to the work place, and they make up significant difference in the quality of life opportunities and security of African Americans in the United States.

To discuss the reasons for some of these disparities, we’re joined by Jeanette Wicks-Lim, who recently penned an article in Dollars and Sense Magazine titled, It Pays to be White: Assessing How White People Benefit from Race Based Economic Inequality. Jeanette Wicks Lim is an associate professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JEANETTE WICKS-LIM: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: So Jeanette if African Americans have the decks stacked against them in every major life activity, white Americans have the decks stacked in their favor. So what is it that you were trying to get at in this article?

WICKS-LIM: Right well, the goal of this piece was to draw on the wide array of research that’s already available that documents racial inequality here in the US. And I wanted to pick examples that covered really the basic facets of daily lives. That includes as you mentioned in your introduction, things like how we treat our children, what we experience at the workplace, our basic security and our personal freedoms. And I wanted to take these examples, try to make them really concrete, but shift the conversation, somewhat by talking about these differences. Not as just disadvantages the African American community experience.

While it’s important to do that but the conversation seems not to focus as much on the flipside of this which is that white Americans benefit from their elevated status in elevated society based on their racial identity. I think it’s important to focus on that aspect as well. And there are basically two reasons why I wanted to try to shift the conversation this way. I think that we need to, if we want to really think about how to eliminate racism, we really need to be clear about what at stake for white Americans. That they do have this race based elevated status in the US, and that gives them by virtue of their racial identity, certain privileges and advantages. And this is again, just the flipside of what black Americans experience. These are unearned, undeserved, disadvantages for the African American community. These are unearned–

PERIES: Privileges for the white community. So let’s take a look at some of the examples you would like to highlight.

WICKS-LIM: Right. So I’ll provide three examples but I just want to say, this is something that I’ve heard that I think captured really well what I wanted to get across with this piece. It’s that, unless we really are clear about the race based advantages for white Americans, then any of the policies that we try to pursue to make things more fair on the basis of race, anything we try to do to reduce racial inequality will feel oppressive to those who experience, who have that privilege. We have race based privilege.

PERIES: Right. Important point.

WICKS-LIM: To really see that, we won’t make – we won’t get a lot of social support for reducing racial inequality, social policies that would do this. So the examples I came up with – this is a warning, this is a very, very basic example. It’s about school, so it really pays to be white in school. There was a study that was done recently in 2012, I think the city came out and looked at recent newly released data on local and state spending on schools. And through this report they were able to discover what the differences were if you – for a child going to school at a predominately white school versus a predominately nonwhite school.

Now if you’re a child that goes to a predominantly white school, and that is 90% or more white then you can expect your elementary education to have funding that has 3 million dollars more at its disposal than if you were a child attending an elementary school that is 90% nonwhite. These kinds of schools are referred to as hyper segregated schools. They’re not a small share of the schools that exist in the US. About one third of the schools’ children in the US attend hyper segregated schools. So it really pays to be white with school because you have 3 million dollars more at your disposal to fund things like better physical facilities, more staffing, better staffing, better computer equipment, and the list goes on.

PERIES: And in this case Jeanette, where is exactly the white privilege at?

WICKS-LIM: Well I think it’s for any parent who sends their kids to school, to imagine their school has 3 million dollars more in funding to supply their child with quality education, that’s an advantage. A 3-million-dollar advantage.

PERIES: And you outline a broad group of life activities that make these kinds of determinations really profound in terms of white privilege. Tell us a few more of those examples.

WICKS-LIM: Sure. There’s a really interesting study that I read that was a study that was cosponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union here in Massachusetts along with the Boston Police Department. They were trying to assess the Boston Police Department’s basically the stop and frisk policy. They have a different more official title but that’s basically the practice that they were trying to analyze. And so this cosponsored study, some researchers studied the practice over 2007-2010 of the stop and frisk practices of the Boston Police Department.

What they found was that even controlling for things like levels of crime and such, residents in predominately white neighborhoods experience stop and frisks by Boston Police Department markedly less than if you were a resident of a predominately black neighborhood. So I tried to make this very clear. Like the different of magnitude. So take for example, this is just an illustration, a 30-year-old adult and you are a resident of a predominately white neighborhood in Boston. You could expect to expect to be stopped and frisked twice over 10 years. And so maybe you were stopped when you were 15. Maybe you were stopped when you were 25 and that’s just about it. But you’re minimally affected by the police department’s stop and frisk policy.

Now take the same 30-year-old adult and if they were a resident of a predominately black neighborhood their experience would be very different. They would be stopped and frisked maybe once every 3 years. So again, let’s think about what that would mean. When you’re 15 years old and you’re stopped by the police. 18 years old you’re stopped by the police again. When you turn 21 you got stopped by the police another time. 24 one more time. 27 and then again at 30.

So just your basic personal freedom to move about has been charged markedly by whether or not you are white or you are black. If you are a white American or if you a resident of a predominately white neighborhood, your ability to move about freely is markedly greater than if you are a resident of a predominately black neighborhood.

PERIES: That’s rather interesting. A lot of this isn’t new. We’ve known about this in our society for a very long time and there’s been certain periods in our time when it’s been brought to the attention of policy makers and people studying these issues to do something about it. But again and again very little is actually getting done to address the problem. So what are some of the complete ways we can begin to correct the odds to equalize the system.

WICKS-LIM: Right. So this piece, what I’m trying to get across is something maybe a bit more fundamental than specific concrete polices. Although I can talk about those in a minute. It’s simply to reshape the conversation about white privilege as opposed to black disadvantage. Because until people really feel like, I mean broadly speaking, until we really feel like there are unearned privileges in this society, people will not get behind things like redistributing resources in order to make racial inequality a reality.

So for example, policies like affirmative action policies, those get a lot political pushback because I think it’s a basic feeling that affirmative action is unfair because the unearned race based privilege of being white has not been really confronted and accepted by the general American community. So things like that. Things that it’s a proactive. Something that’s proactive, that tries to make things more fair on the basis of race. That kind of affirmative action. Those kinds of policies. Like affirmative action have a hard time getting a lot of local traction because we don’t recognize, broadly speaking, that there is white privilege and not just black disadvantage.

One other policy that has gotten some attention in recently months I think because the black lives movement has brought such strong attention to issues facing the African American community is the policy of reparation. Because this is just something we just don’t talk much about. And the basic idea behind reparations is to first acknowledge, document what kind of racial inequality has occurred over the history of the US based on the history of having slavery and why other race based public policies have existed beyond that. So first seeing those, documenting what those meant, what are those economic ramifications, and then figuring out what do we do to repair those losses to the African American community?

So that kind of a reparations policy would I think first get at the question of let’s really be honest with that’s happening here in the US, under the basis of race and then what do we do to repair that.

PERIES: And besides shifting the dynamics of the conversation, are there some examples of what has worked in the past?

WICKS-LIM: Yea, that’s a really hard question because when I think, one of the reasons why I wrote this was because I had this strong feeling again based on the news coverage and the attention that the black lives matter movement has brought to this issue, that there’s some fundamental block for the American society and dealing with the issue of racism. And I was really trying to get at what is what’s blocking us from doing that?

I think that of course we have made a lot of progress. There are policies that we’ve had that have made a lot of progress in getting us to more equal footing but even at this past week, there is a report that has been released that said something like it would take centuries before black American households could achieve racial wealth–

PERIES: Yea we’re actually going to be doing an interview on that very report later this afternoon. But an important one, yea.

WICKS-LIM: Right so you know, you have – given today’s policies it would take centuries to achieve racial parity on basis of wealth. So you know, yes we have made some progress. But there are some fundamental things that we haven’t grappled with. I think it’s this idea that we have race based inequality that has two sides to it. White privilege and black disadvantage and we haven’t dealt as much to think about how do we shift resources so that we eliminate the white privilege in order to eliminate black disadvantages.

PERIES: I’m wondering whether a lot of that has to do with the redistribution of resources. Obviously it does. Jeanette I thank you so much for coming on and beginning this conversation about shifting the conversation into looking at white privilege and hope to have you back because it is a great opening and I think that it’s an ongoing discussion.

WICKS-LIM: And I just want to say that there is a bill that congressman John Conyers has been putting out for many years to help this conversation in a formal way in congress. So there are policy moves that we can make to push this in a real way.

PERIES: Right thank you so much.

WICKS-LIM: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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