Affirmative Action for Whites & the Generational Handoff

I spent the first 35 years of my life interested in social sciences and economics. I wanted to know how things worked, really worked, and I believed that economic forces drove us. But after writing hundreds of business and economics stories and investing on my own, I began to believe that mapping economic and rational forces, while important, leave gaps. Big gaps. That’s especially true when we’re trying to understand how something that is not “real,” like race, has “real” effects on our world.

So I dug into history, or cultural history, to try to grasp the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and to understand how those stories are translated into laws and economic relationships and public policies.

My journey eventually took me way back – to the founding of the country. But we don’t have to travel so far to begin to see what I’m talking about. “But wait,” you might say, “just because others fall into the trap of treating race as real, why should we? We don’t have to fall into the same trap!” This is the point that my friend was making when he suggested that we look at class and power. I’m with my friend who doesn’t want to make “race” stronger by treating it as if it is real.

If we don’t acknowledge the power that race has in society, we can fall into another trap – failing to see how rules we’ve already created in society penalize people of some races and give a leg up to people of other races (mainly whites). Here are some examples of race, class and power from recent American history – laws that provided the foundation for our parents’ generation. If we used only class and power to think about these, I believe that we would be missing a large part of the lesson. These programs provided the bedrock of our parent’s and our lives.

  • Minimum Wage Laws. When FDR was trying to enact the minimum wage laws, FDR couldn’t get the votes he needed without the Democrats in the South. The Deep South Democrats demanded that the law exclude the two occupations that most blacks worked in at the time – agriculture labor and domestic service. (Of course, this also hurt whites working in those professions. However, these two occupations weren’t the overwhelming occupations of whites NOR did those occupations define their standard of living and opportunity as it did for blacks.)

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Does Race Matter?

If it’s not real, how can race matter?

We looked at a friend’s question last time. He asked: why focus on race at the expense of analyzing class and power – especially if race is not biologically “real.”

Today, we confront the fact that although race is not “real,” it has real impacts on our lives. (In future posts, I’ll talk about the history of how society constructed definitions of race to give certain groups power.)

Powerful personal stories, like the one told here by the Oregon professor Rick Settersten, who is raising two black kids in 2013, illustrate the power of race. (Thanks for the tip, Amy Solomon!) But they don’t uncover the system by which race is created and enforced.

Horror stories about racist actions and vitriol make my skin crawl. I get mad, but I try not to stop there. I try to push myself to go further.  I look at those stories squarely and then begin to collect still more stories.  Patterns emerge. And those patterns illustrate the broad and systemic forms of racism.

Data, or statistics, represent a multitude of stories — those of Settersten and many others. And if we want to change the way race operates in America, we have to keep the personal stories in mind — the humanness — and then dig for data. We might ask: what do the social scientists say about race and class?  Let’s look what they found when they separated the effects of race from the effects of class in different parts of society.

The overall conclusion won’t surprise you: although “race” isn’t something that is real, social scientists in different specialties all found that it has an impact on our lives today.

Yet the reach of “race” may indeed surprise you. “Race” — even though it is made up — affects the job you get, the house you buy and even how your kid is treated in school. Take a look at these examples:

• Discipline in Education. Students of color are more likely to be more harshly disciplined than whites for similar offenses. Why? The statistics tell us that schools punish black students for more subjective infractions. Racial disparities drop for more objective infractions, such as drug or weapon possession. In his personal recounting, Settersten sees this dramatically as he raises his son.

• Housing Discrimination. The Race Matters Institute tells us that “African American homebuyers encountered discrimination in 17 percent of their efforts to purchase homes and Hispanic homebuyers experienced discrimination at the rate of 20 percent.”

Again,  Settersten sees this — in 2013!

• Hiring. In real-life “audit studies,” white applicants are more likely than black applicants to be hired even if skills and other qualifications are equal. (Harry J. Holzer, Chief Economist at the Department of Labor has a nice review of the literature around low-wage labor, hiring and access to jobs).

• Access to jobs. Geographic concentration of the poor in general is on the rise. This is especially true in the black community. Recent research shows that low income blacks and other minorities are increasingly isolated from places of employment growth.

• Bouncing back from job loss. Whites are more likely to receive unemployment benefits than are blacks or Hispanics even though these two groups lost jobs at a higher rate than whites during the Great Recession. (The reason: they are more likely to work in jobs that pay unemployment benefits.)

• Racial Wealth Gap. Income disparity in America is stark, but it is especially dramatic along racial lines. White household median wealth is 20 times more than median wealth in a black household and 18 times more than the median wealth of an Hispanic household. The result: Middle-income whites, blacks and Hispanics are not all at the same place in our class structure. To be middle class in each group is something vastly different.

This chart from a recent Pew Research report on wealth gaps:

Pew Median Net Worth Households 2011

White net worth more than 10 times greater than Hispanic or Black

These kinds of economic differences then make Blacks and Hispanics much more vulnerable to economic calamities like the housing crisis. (More on this in the future.)

• Social Safety Net. Limited access to federal programs like Food Stamps and the Earned Income Credit. A lack of outreach and publicity mean that immigrant populations are less likely to receive these benefits even if they are legally entitled to them.

So, there are lots of examples that we are using race to make some lousy distinctions between people. And I’m not arguing that we look at race alone. I think that a class-based strategy can take us a long way. However, I think that we ought to be clear that race still counts. And that a class-based strategy alone won’t get us to the full understanding — or the public policy — we need.

A good place to find for more information on some of these findings and on others is the Race Matters Institute, which has published a series of  fact sheets. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Association of Black Foundation Executives are partners in the organization.)

Are there other studies that illustrate race alone — without class — showing itself that particularly speak to you? If race has its own impact, beyond class, does that affect the way you look at public policy or philanthropy?


Race, How Real Is It?

A friend recently asked a great question: is our diversity work focusing too much on “race” instead of “class” and “power?”

For those of us in the foundation world trying to figure out how to finance projects that will close some of the wide gaps in education and income that we see in America, we need to know how to focus our efforts.

We live in an era in which some like to point to our black President, believe that they carry no conscious bias and even sometimes say that our society is “post-racial.”

I don’t believe that we live in a “post-racial” society – more on that in future posts.

At the same time, the “post-racial” folks are on to something – race isn’t anything real. We share 99.9% of our genetic makeup – and so there is more genetic variation among people within what we call a “race” than between races. Superficial physical features that we often associate with race, like skin color or hair, do have a genetic basis. But it turns out that these features have little to do with other biological differences. (Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin offers a very accessible explanation here.)

And the story of how we created a “scientific” description of different races — and “scientific” attempts to make claims about innate qualities of people of different races, is told in the classic The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould, a now-deceased Harvard professor who was an evolutionary biologist, investigated the “science” behind claims of racial superiority.  He recreates some of the most cited “experiments” that supposedly established white superiority and demonstrates how,  even in a “data-driven” process, the unconscious bias of the research skews the results.

For example, Samuel George Morton, a scientist highly respected in nineteenth-century America, argued that whites were more intelligent because they had larger cranial capacity. (Morton was so sure of his conclusions that he published the raw data.)  Gould found that a series of edits and other “data corrections” — that he believed weren’t overt on Morton’s part — skewed the results.

I include the Morton example not to castigate science as a whole. Rather, Morton shows us how, even with “data” at our fingertips, our unconscious biases can lead us astray.

The book is filled with examples of how we, as a society, have tricked ourselves into believing something that isn’t true.

We’ve spent years building up these fictions.  And we haven’t done the work, like Stephen Jay Gould has, in dismantling all of those we have come across.

Nevertheless, we do know that we can’t believe the neat racial categories we have created for ourselves during the last 300 years.

But if race is not real, what the heck is it?

That’s the same question that a traveling exhibit, soon to hit Seattle, is asking.  The Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation worked with the American Anthropological Association on, “Race, Are We So Different? It will be in Seattle in September, and you can check out the web site and its terrific resources here and see the exhibit page for the Seattle-host Pacific Science Center here.

Now the second part of my friend’s question comes in. Many folks today would say that race is an expression of class and power.

And I’ll plunge into that question in my next post. Stay tuned.

Cracking Open the Race Conversation

I’m not supposed to have much useful to say about the subject explored on this page. I’m a middle-aged white guy.

I haven’t escaped all of life’s traumas, but I am privileged in just about any way you want to cut it. I head a foundation. I’ve had the opportunity to devote 15 years of my life to earn a Ph.D. studying something morally important but not directed at making money, and I’ve had the enormous luxury of being able to align my work and my values.

Even on my privileged white path – what on the surface would look like a path free of any racial restrictions we see around us – the subject of race has had an enormous impact on my life. When I was growing up, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and the subject divided my parents. The debates, given my dad’s temperament, were loud. And to my young ears, they seemed threatening to a stable home, and they seemed constant.

That family tension so affected me, I’ve devoted the last 15 years of my life trying to understand that impact on myself and how it stands in the way of our making the world a better place.

Now, I have the good fortune to be working on several efforts at understanding how race, class and power affect our environment, the way we build our cities and our philanthropy.

These experiences lead me to many places where we see these issues played out in everyday life. Sometimes these places are struggling neighborhoods in American cities. Sometimes we play these issues out in “places” that are not physical spots. They are in the minds of the very good people that I get to work with or are explored around a dinner table with friends.

It’s a topic that many whites – even those of us eager to see injustice righted – usually aren’t very comfortable talking about.

I don’t pretend to have completely escaped my Ohio upbringing or the racial beliefs so baked into our culture. But in that limitation rests an opportunity.

These blog posts from time to time will tease out some of the issues that arise publicly and in our intimate conversations surrounding race in America.

Right now, I’m sad after a very public discussion that never got to the real core: last week’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

That case is filled with the kind of questions that will arise here in future posts and conversation. What are some of the ways that we use race to devalue some of our citizens? And since few of us consciously believe we “devalue” some citizens, how does that happen? How do some laws, like Stand Your Ground, create racial biases even if the lawmakers who wrote the law did not intend to focus on race? (For six-minutes of video that upends the law’s “race neutrality,” see this John Oliver clip from The Daily Show and make sure you watch to the end. If you crave data now on this topic, read this post.)

This isn’t navel-gazing. Trayvon Martin’s death shows us that these questions are about flesh-and-blood. In that young boy’s death, we lost a precious life.

And I will work with you, dear reader, as we, in conversation, lurch toward a fuller understanding. I welcome your thoughts.