The Unbearable Whiteness of Being


Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Reading Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times blaming Ivy League admissions for the disaffection of working-class and middle-class whites made me laugh.  As someone who grew up in a working class neighborhood and spent large amounts of time with working-class whites during my years coaching baseball and basketball in Brooklyn from the early 80s to the late 90s, I can assure you that among working-class Brooklynites, Ivy League admissions NEVER CAME UP when the subject of white racial grievances were raised.  That subject was, and still is, one that upsets white Fordham students, but in the ballfields, bars and gymnasiums of Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Bensonhurst, Marine Park and Bay Ridge, the racial fears of working-class whites were overwhelmingly focused on things they experienced on the job and fears for their children’s safety as neighborhoods and schools turned from predominantly white to predominantly black and/or Latino.

When my working-class white friends and fellow coaches attacked affirmative action—which they did vociferously and often—it was about preferential treatment that they saw blacks and Latinos getting on the job, especially in the civil service.  They were convinced that in any government agency—whether it was the police department, the fire department, the bureau of motor vehicles or the board of education—they were going to be passed over for promotion by blacks and Latinos with lower test scores.  When I told them that these compensatory racial preferences, which were being steadily undermined by Supreme Court decisions, were far less damaging than the discrimination that blacks and Latinos still faced in the skilled construction trades, they listened, but were not convinced.  The fact that they might have to get a higher test score than their black or Latino co-workers to get promoted to sergeant or office administrator irritated them enormously, and easily led to self-pitying arguments that “a white man couldn’t get a break in America anymore.”  When I challenged them with a litany of things blacks went through on a daily basis—from job and housing discrimination to harassment by police—they listened, but rarely relinquished their deep sense of outrage that color conscious hiring was now official policy in many government agencies and some private employers.

But resentment of affirmative action was hardly the only issue white working-class people I know raised when talking about race.  Their biggest concern was that their kids were going to be beaten up and/or harassed by black and Latino peers at Brooklyn neighborhoods and schools turned from majority white to majority black and Latino.

Since this is something that happened to me when I was in high school (see White Boy: A Memoir) and to many kids in my Park Slope neighborhood (see Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude), I could hardly tell them that they were making these things up, even though my own children had overwhelmingly positive experiences in integrated schools and neighborhoods.  When talking about race, they were prone to view the world through the prism of “the glass half empty.”  Whereas I saw neighborhood change as an opportunity to create a more open and inclusive society, they saw it as a threat to the value of their only asset—their home—and something that would put their children and families at risk.  Were they wrong about this?  There was certainly evidence, both objectively and subjectively, that their fears had substance.

Given these two sets of concerns, about fairness on the job and safety in the neighborhood and the schools, it is no wonder the working class and the middle class look at the changing demographics of American society with some trepidation.  As whites are in the process of becoming a minority, not only in the nation as a whole, but in the communities they live in, they wonder if their economic and physical security, which were already somewhat fragile, is going to be compromised.  And when they see a black president, they fear that their concerns will easily sacrificed in favor of some unspecified “black” or “liberal” agenda.

Their fears and concerns when it comes to President Obama often take forms that are ugly and irrational, especially given the president's history and actual policies, but the experiences which fuel their fears are ones that must be examined critically.  The racial resentments of whites of modest means are a complex mix of inherited racist attitudes, folk tales, rumors spread by the media and through word-of-mouth, and real-life experiences which lead them to fear their emerging minority status.  We ignore the latter at our peril.  We need to have a continuing dialogue about race with our white working-class and middle-class neighbors that confronts their prejudices but allows their grievances to be heard.

Only through that kind of dialogue—which should take place between ALL Americans—can create the basis of a fair and just society in which everyone feels recognized and respected irregardless of racial or ethnic background.

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james joseph butler - 8/13/2010

No'onek, so you're saying that Haiti is screwed up because it's white citizens/residents want it to be, because it serves their purposes? I've read fairly widely on Haiti and as much as I'd agree that whites as manifested by the actions of U.S. government and big business have not acted in the best interests of Haitians I think you ignore the truth that black Haitian "elites" are just as guilty if not more.

This notion that whites have a patent on self-interest and racism is silly. South Africa and Haiti are prime examples of blacks exploiting blacks because there's money to made. News today: Mandela's grandson involved for anti-union deaths in mine. La di da.

No'onek State - 8/13/2010

In this hypothetical discussion where the grievances of the white working and middle class have to be "heard" - that doesn't mean they get to go first, does it? Or second or third or . . . till the very last.

In addition to the insult of having to take their concerns seriously when much of it is based on racism, which is why I'm not ready to hear their grievances, I think if they really took to heart what people of color, including "assimilated" Asians experience, maybe they'd re-think their "grievances."

Then, if they didn't, that'd just let me know where they really were, as in, not really looking for racial justice for all, just wanting to ensure that superior status remains intact.

Lastly, I think it's a false assumption that once whites are no longer the majority, things will necessarily have to change. I mean first of all, they'll still be the largest plurality. They'll still own well over their fair share of wealth - and no, I don't mean in a collectivist, communist sense. I mean in the sense that people of color paying more for things like mortgages, even after holding for income, collateral, etc and so on, while facing pay discrimination. Not to mention the social security and VA benefits withheld from blacks since the Great Depression. I can go back farther, but you get my point.

Also, I think South Africa, Haiti, and several other countries have demonstrated that the supposed "superior" race doesn't have to have a numberal majority. Just money and power.

james joseph butler - 8/10/2010

Shirley Sherrod's speech was about class not race and what does the dumb or under the corporate thumb media gush for weeks afterwards: black white race white black race yada yada race.

I hate to sound so "professional left" but these are smart people, the msm, is there another reason apart from contempt for their audience why they would ignore Ms. Sherrod's actual message?

Nat Bates - 8/9/2010

The politicians and the businessmen know that they can destroy any kind of labor movement by dividing people up in to artificially created categories. They can define terms, and convince us that they exist. Children play together regardless, and people have sex across such "lines." However, since Bacon's Rebellion, such easy-goingness was dangerous where expectations were rising. Eventually, "whites" were convinced of some kind of unique status that never existed all that much in the early colonial period. Even the wave of emancipations that occurred in the North after the Revolution did not reverse this over-all trend toward racialization. Oh, and yes, for the "Scopes Trial" articles, it was the scientific intellectuals who trail-blazed on this idea of "race," Jefferson among them, not the poor whites.

Once again, "race" will work to defeat any kind of progressive agenda on labor, sadly. President Obama will probably be replaced in 2012 by a Wall Street/Tea Party/Red China approved Republican who completely dismantles America and placed her under a corporate "new world order." Americans of all races are dim bulbs when it comes to this kind of tactic. Believe me when I say this, the tactic will work. Frankly, I believe it will also work with recent immigrants, women, gays, and all manner of people who will buy in to identity politics while Wall Street robs you blind. Enjoy slavery.

Shel Barry Silver - 8/4/2010

At the community college where I worked for 27 years, I took part in a multi-racial, multi-session, workshop that addressed inter-ethnic & inter-gender tensions. It actually seemed to ease them, as well as enhancing inter-group comfort & institutional cooperation--both while it was being conducted and afterward. However, I have also seen that without preparation & willingness, not to mention experienced, supportive leadership, discussions that just touch on, let alone explore, such conflicts & suspicions can easily make them worse.

Nancy REYES - 8/2/2010

The cries of racism don't lead to better race relations: They lead to paranoia in the black community, and resentment in other groups for what they see as an unequal playing field.

Nowadays, the "Ethnic whites" isn't just Catholics or Jews or rednecks, but also it is South Asian and East Asians, and even Hispanics who have assimilated.

My medical school, up to a the early 1960's, had "quotas" for Asians, Jews, and blacks. They didn't have a quota for women: because there were none allowed at all.

So I am not against affirmative action.

But overdoing is leading to worse problems in culture, and overlooks the dirty little secret: that "whites as a minority" meme is nonsense to those of us with multiracial families. Are you perhaps suggesting we go back to the "one drop" rule?