Several years ago, a television commercial asked parents to consider the lengths to which they would go to protect their children. After the narrator poses a series of rhetorical questions appealing to parents’ bravado, a child asks poignantly — yet pointedly — “Would you … buy a minivan?” The message is that parents don’t need to risk life and limb to prove that they love their children; they merely need to act responsibly. One doesn’t have to be a superhero, or even extraordinarily brave.
Acting to protect children is an issue that should not be bound by class, race or political partisanship. Neither should fighting against racial discrimination. More specifically, white Americans should support practical and simple efforts that fight racial and socio-economic injustice — which is analogous to the minivan example above. Most white Americans profess that they are against racial discrimination. For us to take them at their word, they simply need to act in accordance with what they say they believe.
Unfortunately, history teaches us that white Americans often are willing to harm themselves if doing so keeps African Americans from achieving equity. For example, as their descendants like to remind us, most Confederate soldiers did not own African Americans. But that begs the following question: Why would they be willing to sacrifice their lives to maintain a system that disadvantaged them economically? After all, it’s extremely difficult to compete economically against unpaid labor. The answer is what scholar W.E.B. DuBois termed the “psychological wage” of being white. In short, whites perceive racial discrimination as a benefit to them that outweighs the tangible economic benefit that they would receive by destroying racism.
Perhaps the most prominent contemporary example is white Americans’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). There is no question that most Americans — of all races — have benefitted from Obamacare. Yet, opposition among white Americans remains high, largely because a Black man implemented it. (Not surprisingly, white Americans are less hostile to the Affordable Care Act than they are to “Obamacare.”) It’s certainly true that the law isn’t perfect, though it could be improved if Republicans weren’t reflexively against it. In any case, the irrational and self-defeating battle first to prevent its passage, and then to repeal it, has been jaw dropping.
I’ve shared in previous columns Thurgood Marshall’s declaration that, “No one benefits from racism.” But Marshall’s statement doesn’t go far enough. Heather McGhee, in her new book, “The Sum of Us,” makes an empirically-based case that racism harms white Americans. For example, she points out that, according to Citibank’s calculations, racism has cost America $16 trillion dollars during the past 20 years. Note that these data come from a pillar of capitalism, not a “looney liberal” think tank. Another example that McGhee points to is the frequent refusal of white workers to unionize — even though doing so would benefit them financially. Such opposition is often based on whites’ unwillingness to share the fruits of progress with their Black and Latino co-workers.
Even the 20th century fight against communism largely was due to the government’s fear that the racial caste system — which oppressed poor whites nearly as much as it did African Americans — would be undone. Further, beyond the economic costs, we know that the effects of racial discrimination cause white Americans to die younger than they otherwise would. Perhaps most stunningly, the cumulative impact of racial discrimination is largely responsible for the fact that, for essentially the first time in American history, white children will be less well-off financially than their parents are (except for the children of the wealthy).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that white people should give up racism because it is economically detrimental to them. My appeal to them is primarily moral, not socio-economic. They should actively dismantle systemic racism because it is the right thing to do. The financial benefits should be a side reason. (Unfortunately, I don’t have space to address the spiritual and emotional toll that racism takes on white America.)
Still, as a minister, I am delighted that we now have a solid empirical basis upon which to demonstrate that there is an economic benefit to acting in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. The question that remains is whether racism’s psychological wage is more important to our white brothers and sisters than the well-being of their children and grandchildren.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.