When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 4
by Nicholas Kristof
WHEN I write about racial inequality in America, one common response from whites is eye-rolling and an emphatic: It’s time to move on.
“As whites, are we doomed to an eternity of apology?” Neil tweeted at me. “When does individual responsibility kick in?”
Terry asked on my Facebook page: “Why are we still being held to actions that took place long ago?”
“How long am I supposed to feel guilty about being white? I bust my hump at work and refrain from living a thug life,” Bradley chimed in. “America is about personal responsibility. ... And really, get past the slavery issue.”
This is the fourth installment in a series of columns I’ve written this year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” and plenty of white readers have responded with anger and frustration at what they see as the “blame game” on race. They acknowledge a horrific history of racial discrimination but also say that we should look forward, not backward. The Supreme Court seems to share this view as it dismantles civil-rights-era rulings on voting rights.
As Dina puts it: “I am tired of the race conversation. It has exasperated me. Just stop. In so many industries, the racial ceiling has been shattered. Our president is black. From that moment on, there were no more excuses.”
If only it were so simple!
Of course, personal responsibility is an issue. Orlando Patterson, the eminent black sociologist, notes in a forthcoming book that 92 percent of black youths agree that it is a “big problem” that black males are “not taking education seriously enough.” And 88 percent agree that it’s a big problem that they are “not being responsible fathers.” That’s why President Obama started “My Brother’s Keeper,” to cultivate more prudent behavior among men and boys of color.
But we in white society should be equally ready to shoulder responsibility. In past articles in this series, I’ve looked at black/white economic inequality that is greater in America today than it was in apartheid South Africa, at ongoing discrimination against African-Americans in the labor market and at systematic bias in law enforcement. But these conversations run into a wall: the presumption on the part of so many well-meaning white Americans that racism is a historical artifact. They don’t appreciate the overwhelming evidence that centuries of racial subjugation still shape inequity in the 21st century.
Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”
One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.
Whites often don’t realize that slavery didn’t truly end until long after the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating history, “Slavery by Another Name,” that recounted how U.S. Steel and other American corporations used black slave labor well into the 20th century, through “convict leasing.” Blacks would be arrested for made-up offenses such as “vagrancy” and then would be leased to companies as slave laborers.
Job and housing discrimination also systematically prevented blacks from accumulating wealth. The Federal Housing Administration and other initiatives greatly expanded home ownership and the middle class but deliberately excluded blacks.
That’s one reason why black families have, on average, only about 6 percent as much wealth as white households, why only 44 percent of black families own a home compared with 73 percent for white households.
The inequality continues, particularly in education. De jure segregated schools have been replaced in some areas by de facto segregation.