A few weeks ago, Ian Ayres brought my attention to some amazing but unsurprising research, When Whites Get a Free Pass. The title is a literal description of a recent study out of Australia. Researchers looked at how often bus drivers would allow people free rides when their passes had run out of money. Not surprisingly, they were much more likely to let whites ride for free. In fact, whites road free twice as much: 72% versus only 36% for blacks. They did it in a lot of different ways too. In some cases they dressed the riders in business suits and army uniforms. It was always the same. For example, 97% of whites in army uniforms got free rides but only 77% of blacks did.
What’s critical here, is that the bus drivers don’t think of themselves as racist. They aren’t intending to disproportionately help whites. In fact, although the numbers weren’t as skewed, black bus drivers also helped out white riders more than blacks. That’s actually quite a well known effect. When tested for subconscious bias, blacks in America tend to be somewhat more positive toward whites. It puts a whole different spin on the conservatives’ great canard “reverse racism.” But the point here is that racial bias is something that is in the society itself and it infects all of us.
This is why I think we ought to calm down on all the freaking out about the explicit racism like we saw at Sigma Alpha Epsilon. We should use such incidents to highlight the broad nature of racism and what we can do about — not use it to feel good that we don’t sing songs about lynching African Americans. A much bigger issue than segregated fraternities is the fact that most Americans don’t understand white privilege and how affirmative action is one tool to fight it. George Will has spent the last several decades claiming that affirmative action is racist, and he’s held up as an exemplar of respectability.
What the Australian bus study shows is the ways that whites get a clear and tangible benefit from being white. And like so much else that has to do with privilege, it is done in a way that is invisible. If we wanted to create a policy to offset this, we would allow blacks to ride the bus for slightly less than we do whites. And just as with affirmative action, this would do two things. First, it would tell blacks in a very forceful way, “We’re helping you!” Second, it would allow whites to claim that they were treated unfairly because they don’t see their privilege. So even the efforts to fight racism would add to racism. It’s frustrating.
What I think needs to be done is that we white people have to get over ourselves. We need to have our noses rubbed in our privilege. And this is something that we are very reluctant to do here in the United States. And this goes way past race. We are supposed to believe that the rich white child going to private schools has the same chance of getting into Harvard as the poor black child going to a struggling public school. I understand that when it is put that way, it’s pretty obvious it isn’t the case. But that is the reality of America where most people absurdly claim that there is “equality of opportunity” (when they aren’t defining it out of existence).
I’m almost to the point of thinking that we will always have racism as long as we accept capitalism. The two seem to be related because capitalism wants to monetize humans. At this point, to really look at why African Americans own and earn so much less than white Americans — as Ta-Nehisi Coates has — is to question the justice of the whole system. I do know that a lot of it is government policy. But I just don’t see how you separate our economic and political systems. They feed each other. And any economic system that allows people to get really rich will also allow them to distort the political system to their advantage.
In the absence of fundamental change, the least we white people can do is to be aware of our privilege. Being a white person in a white community, I’m constantly assaulted with other whites whining about all the special “gifts” that black and brown people get. That’s the thing about white privilege: the more we have, the more we whine. And they both stop us from moving forward.