Uncomfortable white people

Broadcasts from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made clear the intersection of poverty and race in the United States. The simple fact that Americans’ beliefs diverge dramatically about the likelihood that assistance would have arrived faster for white disaster survivors—17 percent of white respondents thought so, as opposed to 66 percent of African-American respondents, in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center—makes clear that race is still a major American divide.

Two new books, Robert Jensen’s The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, ask us to look directly at the way we’ve continued to draw a color line down the middle of our communities.

The Heart of Whiteness could not be more timely. It is a primer on the subject of white privilege, a topic that tends to make whites uncomfortable. Who wants to admit that white privilege functions as an unnamed form of affirmative action, conferring huge social, economic and political advantages on those of us who happened to be born with skin the preferred color?

But Jensen addresses white privilege directly and personally; he offers up twin autobiographies. One seems straightforward enough: A Midwestern boy from a hardworking family puts himself through school and earns a successful life as an academic. But the eye-opener is Jensen’s second version of his autobiography, in which the same facts of his life are related through the lens of the advantages that his white skin has provided him.

That second look is necessary for whites to recognize white privilege in action; to most of us who have it, it’s invisible. While we cite the ways that racism disadvantages people of color, it’s much harder to recognize the other side of the coin: the unearned advantages of white privilege, often perceived as opportunities and conveniences that are merely our due.

Jensen confronts the denial whites build up to protect themselves from the reality of white supremacy—and as uncomfortable as it is, there is no other word for a social system in which white skin provides an unearned advantage. What Jensen makes clear is that white supremacy cannot simply be relegated to racist extremists; our society promulgates racism even though we consider it offensive.

Using narrative examples and citations from research studies, he synthesizes the reality of the white world—whether we are personally racist or not, white people reap the benefits of white supremacy. That means it’s up to white people to do something about it. For Jensen, race is a political issue, not a social one.

But we whites have already done quite a bit to keep African-Americans out of our privileged social enclaves. James W. Loewen examines the evolution of “sundown towns"—towns in which blacks were forbidden, either by law or by custom (backed up with violence), to live. He explains how African-Americans eventually clustered in urban settings throughout the North, Midwest and West. The phrase “sundown town” comes from the signs posted at the boundaries of some communities, urging blacks to make sure they were out of town by sundown.

Loewen’s work, heavily supported by studies of census data, reveals the different ways in which white racism manifested itself in the former slave states and in the so-called free states. In Mississippi, blacks could live near whites but didn’t dare rise above their assigned social position. In Illinois, as in some California towns, whites didn’t care what social status African-Americans attained as long as they didn’t live anywhere nearby.

Both books, though different in approach and style, make clear that there’s more to white privilege than simply freedom from racial profiling. Loewen’s hefty tome provides insight into the less-than-above-board racism of suburban America, while Jensen’s concise and thought-provoking book offers a variety of ways for white Americans to abandon their unearned skin privilege and rejoin the rest of humanity.