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What I know about racial preferences

Tom Guglielmo | Sunday, February 8, 2004

In response to the recent spate of affirmative action articles in The Observer – some of which, I must say, were deeply disturbing – I felt the need to weigh in. At some level, these debates revolve around questions of racial preference, something I know a good deal about. Yes, I research, write and teach about race in the United States. But, perhaps more importantly, I’m an authority on racial preferences because, as a white person, I receive them each and everyday.Here’s what I know. For starters, having substantial savings or wealth makes one’s life a whole lot easier. I also know that, like most people, much of my wealth comes from what I inherit from family members. Because my ancestors never faced severe or systematic discrimination in buying a home, joining a union, working a quality job or receiving an honest wage they’ve had more of an opportunity to earn and save money – and to pass it on to me. This point helps explain why the assets of today’s average white households are – “controlling” for income, age, occupation, and education – still $25,000 higher than those of average black households. I also know that, thanks to my whiteness, my job prospects are, on average, a good deal brighter than those of nonwhites. White men like me occupy the overwhelming majority of the most prestigious, powerful and well-paid jobs in the country. To quote a recent Newsweek article: “White males make up just 39.2 percent of the population, yet they account for … 77 percent of Congress, 92 percent of state governors, 70 percent of tenured college faculty, almost 90 percent of daily newspaper editors, 77 percent of TV news directors,” and, I’d add, 95 percent of senior managers in Fortune 500 companies. Did someone honestly say “reverse discrimination”?Why the preponderance of white men? An important reason is continuing racial discrimination in the job market. One recent experiment that involved college students posing as job applicants found that white ex-cons were more likely to receive interviews than African Americans with squeaky-clean records. In another study, economists at MIT and the University of Chicago responded to 1,300 help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston by sending out equivalent resumes and randomly assigning “white-” and “black-sounding” names to each. The study concluded that applicants like “Greg Kelly” and “Emily Walsh” were 50 percent more likely to get called for interviews than “Jamal Jackson” and “Lakisha Washington.”I also know that my whiteness greatly increases my chances of living in a nice, clean and safe neighborhood. Part of this, of course, has to do with my savings and employment options; chances are I can afford a better home in a better community. But there’s more to the story. For one, government agencies and businesses are far more likely to place toxic waste sites and hazardous landfills near African-American and Latino neighborhoods and not next to mine. In addition, racial discrimination remains rampant in the housing market. Over the last decade, numerous studies by banks, academics and government agencies have found that African Americans and Latinos – when compared with whites of similar economic standing – have a harder time securing bank loans, are often quoted higher interest rates and are steered by real estate agents into particular (i.e., racially segregated) communities.I also know that my whiteness improved my chances as a child of attending a quality school. Because local tax dollars fund America’s public schools (with a few exceptions), all the economic advantages I’ve mentioned here make it far more likely that white schools – like the one I attended – secure the best equipment, most highly paid teachers and nicest facilities. Given that the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation a full fifty years ago, you might think the term “white schools” is something of an anachronism. I wish you were right. The truth is today’s schools are resegregating at alarming rates. According to a recent report from Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, “African-American and Latino students are now more isolated from their white counterparts than they were three decades ago, before many of the overhauls from the civil rights movement had even begun to take hold.” I also know that should I, during the course of my life, experience any health problems, my whiteness will be an asset. Having reviewed over 100 recent studies on race and health, the Institute of Medicine concluded last year that “racial and ethnic minorities in the United States receive lower quality health care than whites, even when their insurance and income are the same.” Thanks in part to the conscious and unconscious biases of white doctors, Latinos and African Americans are less likely to receive appropriate medications for heart disease, to undergo bypass surgery or to receive kidney dialysis, transplants or the most sophisticated HIV treatments. They are, therefore, far more likely to die from numerous diseases. Race, in this case, is literally a life or death matter and whiteness the great immunizer.Finally, I know that whiteness deeply shapes my everyday life – when I go shopping and security guards take my integrity for granted; when I’m driving on the highways and the police do not pull me over or eye me suspiciously for Driving While White; when I walk around the Notre Dame campus and am never forced, on account of my race, to feel out of place; when I enter a classroom and need not worry that some students might automatically question my qualifications for being here; and when I read The Observer without fear that some writers, on the basis of my whiteness, may seek to malign my intelligence, character and sense of self-worth.Although this list of preferences is hardly exhaustive, I trust you get the picture. Whiteness pays. Whether it’s my savings, income, health, home, education, job opportunities or everyday peace of mind, whiteness offers me and other whites countless seen and unseen advantages. Given this fact, I am continually dismayed and disheartened that the very term racial preference has become synonymous in popular parlance not with these widespread and longstanding white advantages, but with affirmative action, a relatively new and limited program designed to offset them.Indeed, this equating of racial preference with affirmative action is the great racial fiction of our day; the twenty-first-century version of “separate but equal.” It sounds plausible but is, in reality, profoundly and perversely misleading. Affirmative action doesn’t “prefer” any one “race.” Yes, many universities, colleges, companies and government agencies do offer “minority” applicants some form of preference in the selection process. But preferences also go to many other groups, such as athletes, legacies, musicians, men in nursing, Catholics at Notre Dame, Italian Americans at the City University of New York and, of course, white women – the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action – in workplaces all across the country. Equally important, people of color should receive some “preference” in hiring, contracting and admissions decisions. In a country that for far too long has parceled out the lion’s share of power and money, rights and resources to whites alone, how else can we ensure that all Americans receive some semblance of equal opportunity? If you’ve got a better solution, I’d love to hear it. But, in the meantime, let’s preserve affirmative action and fight real racial preference. It’s a fight we all win by waging, for while white privilege charms the few, a more equal America enriches us all.

Tom Guglielmo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies. He can be contacted at tgugliel@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.