Monday, January 19, 2009

White privilege

When I was in college, I spent a summer babysitting for the McCombs. Sweet little Ashton was only 2 and a half. We would go for walks to the park, which was down a steep hill. I would hold Ashton's hand on one side as I would push his younger sister in a baby stroller. His older sister walked alongside. When it came time to cross the streets, we would stop, look both ways and then cross. Most streets had stop signs, so sometimes we would cross even though a car was coming. I knew the car would stop but Ashton did not have the experience to know that the stop sign protected him. Several times, he would let go of my hand and bolt across the street while I was struggling not to lose control of the stroller.

Of course, letting go of my hand was actually more dangerous than staying put. The driver of the car couldn't see the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper toddler. But Ashton did not have the experience to work out the physics yet, either.

Gosh, did I yell at him. I needed him to trust me that his survival instincts were wrong and that societal infrastructure (the stop sign) would keep him safe.

In her paper, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Peggy McIntosh wrote down the things she can reasonably expect from her life on a daily basis that people of color cannot reasonably assume about theirs.

These include:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.

18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

As we look forward to the inauguration of our first black president (an event that has me randomly tearing up whenever it is referenced on the radio), #20 makes me cringe.

McIntosh writes:
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."

But this is not the solution. A whole planet of people who behave and consume like White Americans? What a nightmare. Instead, people of privilege must acknowledge that they have power that they did not earn and be willing to disadvantage their own lives and the lives of their children for the sake of equality. There is no other way.

I'm not sure I can do it. Can you?

I'm willing to keep trying, though. I'm willing to turn off my survival instincts and trust that a greater good will come out of it. We do it all the time. When it's -18 degrees outside, I ignore my survival instinct and walk out to catch a bus. I know that warmth will be available to me before I will freeze.

I believe that White privilege is a result of our survival instinct. Without it, we would have a much larger pool of competition for a finite amount of resources.

There is a game theory scenario called the Tragedy of the Commons. In it, several farmers share one piece of grazing land. If the farmers cooperate and put only a moderate number of cows to graze, they all benefit. However, each farmer has an incentive to cheat and put out more cows than they should. They receive more profit in the short term even though in the long term, the commons is destroyed and can no longer support any cows.

If the farmers are going to live on the commons for a long time, then the continued profit they will make over the years is greater than the individual profit they can make in one season. The incentives to behavior shift from selfishness to selflessness.

There has to be a way to apply this metaphor to race relations in our country.

In class last week, Professor Charles, who is African American, related an anecdote about never being able to hail a taxi when he is in New York. He believes that this is because cab drivers know that, statistically, they are more likely to get knocked on the head by Black passengers. Since different cab drivers are willing to take on different levels of risk, if he waited long enough, one would probably come along that was willing to take. However, since his time is valuable, he simply calls a limo company ahead of time to send a car for him specifically.

This scenario parallels the Tragedy of the Commons. This time, the finite resource for the cab drivers in not getting knocked on the head. Every time they do not pick up a Black man, they create a dynamic in which more Black men do not even try to take taxis. But those Black men who call limos are almost always the Black men who would NOT knock the cab drivers over the head. So, by ignoring all Black men, they actually increase their chances of getting knocked over the head when they do pick up Black men since the pool has gotten smaller. This is called a vicious cycle. As their chances of getting knocked over the head go up, they leave more Black men stranded. Every time the leave a Black man stranded, their chances of getting knocked on the head go up. Ultimately, the system breaks because no cab driver is ever willing to risk taking on a Black passenger and no Black person ever tries to hail a cab.

This is definitely analogous to the series of events that brought our society to its current racial state. As an example, consider segregation in housing. For years, the formal criteria for assessing home value in Chicago included how racially mixed the surrounding neighborhood was. Although the criteria has been changed and the overt racism that inspired the old system has become obsolete, Chicago is still consistently rated the most highly segregated of the largest 20 cities in the country. At the end of last year, the Chicago Tribune wrote another article confirming and detailing the high level of segregation in our city. Their analysis of 2008 population estimates indicate that "[t]o truly integrate Chicago, 84 percent of the black or white population would need to change neighborhoods." This seems eerily similar to the cab driver and the Black men. A broken system. This is also called a market failure.

The only way to disrupt a vicious cycle is for an exogenous (that means from outside the circle) factor to intervene. Often, reparations are suggested. Glen Loury, an economist at Brown University writes that instead of reparations,
"What is required, instead, is a commitment on the part of the public, the political elite, the opinion-shaping media, and so on to take responsibility for such situations as the contemporary plight of the urban black poor, and to understand them in a general way as a consequence of an ethically indefensible past. (This is not so much to 'compensate' for an ethnically troubled past as to adopt the 'right interpretation' of it.) Such a commitment would, on this view, be open-ended and not contingent on demonstrating an specific lines of causality."
Like Peggy McIntosh, Loury believes that this honesty about history and power is the necessary first set to fixing the broken system.

However, the most powerful exogenous force is that of self-sacrifice. Like Ashton, we must be willing to trust that it is more dangerous to obey our survival instincts. In the long-run, we are destroying the commons by allowing market failures to remain. Those of us who benefit in the short term from the broken system must be willing to give up those benefits for the sake of fixing the system.

It is the only way.

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