When Whites Just Don't Get It, Part 6
A Baltimore protest last April about Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody. Credit Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images
LET'S start with a quiz. When researchers sent young whites and blacks out to interview for low-wage jobs in New York City armed with equivalent résumés, the result was:
A) Whites and blacks were hired at similar rates.
B) Blacks had a modest edge because of affirmative action.
C) Whites were twice as likely to get callbacks.
The answer is C, and a black applicant with a clean criminal record did no better than a white applicant who was said to have just been released from 18 months in prison.
A majority of whites believe that job opportunities are equal for whites and blacks, according to a PBS poll, but rigorous studies show that just isn't so.
Back in 2014, I did a series of columns called "When Whites Just Don't Get It" to draw attention to inequities, and I'm revisiting it because public attention to racial disparities seems to be flagging even as the issues are as grave as ever.
But let me first address some reproaches I've received from indignant whites, including the very common: You would never write a column about blacks not getting it, and it's racist to pick on whites. It's true that I would be wary as a white person of lecturing to blacks about race, but plenty of black leaders (including President Obama) have bluntly spoken about shortcomings in the black community.
Toni Morrison in her novels writes searingly about a black world pummeled by discrimination but also by violence, drunkenness and broken families. In a CNN poll, 86 percent of blacks said family breakdown was a reason for difficulties of African-Americans today, and 77 percent cited "lack of motivation and unwillingness to work hard."
Frankly, the conversation within the black community seems to me to be more mature and honest than the one among whites, and considering how much of the white conversation about race invokes "personal responsibility," maybe it's time for whites to show more.
Obama's election reinforced a narrative that we're making progress. We are in some ways, but the median black household in America still has only 8 percent of the wealth of the median white household. And even for blacks who have "made it" -- whose incomes are in the upper half of American incomes -- 60 percent of their children tumble back into the lower half in the next generation, according to a Federal Reserve study. If these trends continue, the Fed study noted, "black Americans would make no further relative progress."
Most of the public debate about race focuses on law enforcement. That's understandable after the shootings of unarmed blacks and after the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black men received sentences about 20 percent longer than white men for similar crimes. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Lead poisoning, for example, is more than twice as common among black children as among white children, and in much of the country, it's even worse than in Flint, Mich.
Three generations after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools are still often separate and unequal. The average white or Asian-American student attends a school in at least the 60th percentile in test performance; the average black student is at a school at the 37th percentile. One reason is an unjust school funding system that often directs the most resources to privileged students.
So if we're going to address systemic disadvantage of black children, we have to broaden the conversation to unequal education. There's a lot of loose talk among whites about black boys making bad decisions, but we fail these kids before they fail us. That's unconscionable when increasingly we have robust evidence about the kinds of initiatives (like home visitation, prekindergarten and "career academies") that reduce disparities.
Reasons for inequality involve not just institutions but also personal behaviors. These don't all directly involve discrimination. For instance, black babies are less likely to be breast-fed than white babies, are more likely to grow up with a single parent and may be spoken to or read to less by their parents. But racial discrimination remains ubiquitous even in crucial spheres like jobs and housing.
In one study, researchers sent thousands of résumés to employers with openings, randomly using some stereotypically black names (like Jamal) and others that were more likely to belong to whites (like Brendan). A white name increased the likelihood of a callback by 50 percent.
Likewise, in Canada researchers found that emails from stereotypically black names seeking apartments are less likely to get responses from landlords. And in U.S. experiments, when blacks and whites go in person to rent or buy properties, blacks are shown fewer options.
Something similar happens even with sales. Researchers offered iPods for sale online and found that when the photo showed the iPod held by a white hand, it received 21 percent more offers than when held by a black hand.
Discrimination is also pervasive in the white-collar world. Researchers found that white state legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, were less likely to respond to a constituent letter signed with a stereotypically black name. Even at universities, emails sent to professors from stereotypically black names asking for a chance to discuss research possibilities received fewer responses.
Why do we discriminate? The big factor isn't overt racism. Rather, it seems to be unconscious bias among whites who believe in equality but act in ways that perpetuate inequality.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, an eminent sociologist, calls this unconscious bias "racism without racists," and we whites should be less defensive about it. This bias affects blacks as well as whites, and we also have unconscious biases about gender, disability, body size and age. You can explore your own unconscious biases in a free online test, called the implicit association test.
One indication of how deeply rooted biases are: A rigorous study by economists found that even N.B.A. referees were more likely to call fouls on players of another race. Something similar happens in baseball, with researchers finding that umpires calling strikes are biased against black pitchers.
If even professional referees and umpires are biased, can there be any hope for you and me as we navigate our daily lives? Actually, there is.
The N.B.A. study caused a furor (the league denied the bias), and a few years later there was a follow-up by the same economists, and the bias had disappeared. It seems that when we humans realize our biases, we can adjust and act in ways that are more fair. As the study's authors put it, "Awareness reduces racial bias."