In a recent NPR poll, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that 55 percent of white Americans believe that they are being discriminated against due to the color of their skin. Given that the clear majority of all wealth and power still resides with white people in this country, this finding would almost be laughable if we were not living in the era of Trump — which, incidentally, coincides with the increased growth of white nationalism.
These findings are actually terrifying. When probed more deeply, few respondents could provide concrete proof of this discrimination. Instead, they relied on feelings or on anecdotal stories of non-white people being promoted or receiving jobs to which white people felt they were entitled.
In racial justice spheres, we often discuss the fact that racial equity can often feel “unfair” to white people because when you are used to eating the entire pie, only being able to have 75 percent of the pie feels unfair. When you’re used to a wide range of automatic privileges in life because you’re white, it is easy to ignore that you are still accessing most the pie.
For many white Americans, the Obama years were a “righting” of hundreds of years of oppression which gave them the right to deny that massive racial inequality still exists. It very much does. They saw one Black president out of 44 white presidents as being the great equalizer. That’s not how racial justice works, but it is a happy delusion many cling to. But while things are far from equitable, the world has shifted and, in the global market, whiteness simply doesn’t pay out the dividends that it once did. But make no mistake: Whiteness is still very much a form of social currency. The same NPR study revealed that over 90 percent of Black respondents reported that they experienced discrimination — this discrimination actually played out in greater numbers for high-earning Black folks, often in professional white-collar settings. Given that this demographic is often in direct contact with white people socially and professionally, it makes sense and bears out with my own personal experiences. And lower-income Black folks, much like their white counterparts, often live very racially segregated lives.
In a country that is unraveling, run by a president who agitates on a near-daily basis and sees the good in white nationalists, our collective inability to have real conversations about race is dangerous. When one sees those “others” as taking from them rather than realizing that much of what they have was predicated on someone else being left out or harmed, that is disingenuous. Even in Maine, the myth persists that immigrants — particularly immigrants from African nations — are receiving untold numbers of goodies at the expense of the Maine taxpayer. Despite this myth being debunked on numerous occasions, look at the comment section of any article that involves immigrants in Maine and the nationalist and nativist detritus appears — and appears often.
In the past several years in Portland, there has been an awakening of sorts when it comes to race. The city has its own chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and there are other groups as well who are operating with an eye towards racial justice. And yet to talk to almost any non-white person in Maine is to hear about almost daily racial occurrences. Even this very paper has made a shift to talk more about structural inequity, but it is not enough. If more than half of white America believes that they have become the forgotten, downtrodden and daresay oppressed, that means that the rest of the white people who do understand that white people are still very much privileged regardless of their economic status need to do better. They need to leave the echo chamber and start the difficult conversations that often need to start with those closest to us and spread from there — otherwise, nothing changes and the well-meaning people will mostly miss the mark.
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