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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Mark Naison: When my working-class white friends and fellow coaches attacked affirmative action—which they did vociferously and often—it was about preferential treatment that they saw blacks and Latinos getting on the job, especially in the civil service.

Anti-White Discrimination? Reverse Racism?

Reading Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times blaming Ivy League admissions for the disaffection of working-class and middle-class whites made me laugh. 

As someone who grew up in a working class neighborhood and spent large amounts of time with working-class whites during my years coaching baseball and basketball in Brooklyn from the early 80s to the late 90s, I can assure you that among working-class Brooklynites, Ivy League admissions NEVER CAME UP when the subject of white racial grievances were raised.

That subject was, and still is, one that upsets white Fordham students, but in the ballfields, bars and gymnasiums of Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Bensonhurst, Marine Park and Bay Ridge, the racial fears of working-class whites were overwhelmingly focused on things they experienced on the job and fears for their children’s safety as neighborhoods and schools turned from predominantly white to predominantly black and/or Latino.

When my working-class white friends and fellow coaches attacked affirmative action—which they did vociferously and often—it was about preferential treatment that they saw blacks and Latinos getting on the job, especially in the civil service. They were convinced that in any government agency—whether it was the police department, the fire department, the bureau of motor vehicles or the board of education—they were going to be passed over for promotion by blacks and Latinos with lower test scores.

When I told them that these compensatory racial preferences, which were being steadily undermined by Supreme Court decisions, were far less damaging than the discrimination that blacks and Latinos still faced in the skilled construction trades, they listened, but were not convinced. The fact that they might have to get a higher test score than their black or Latino co-workers to get promoted to sergeant or office administrator irritated them enormously, and easily led to self-pitying arguments that “a white man couldn’t get a break in America anymore.” When I challenged them with a litany of things blacks went through on a daily basis—from job and housing discrimination to harassment by police—they listened, but rarely relinquished their deep sense of outrage that color conscious hiring was now official policy in many government agencies and some private employers.

But resentment of affirmative action was hardly the only issue white working-class people I know raised when talking about race. Their biggest concern was that their kids were going to be beaten up and/or harassed by black and Latino peers at Brooklyn neighborhoods and schools turned from majority white to majority black and Latino.

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Since this is something that happened to me when I was in high school (see White Boy: A Memoir) and to many kids in my Park Slope neighborhood (see Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude ), I could hardly tell them that they were making these things up, even though my own children had overwhelmingly positive experiences in integrated schools and neighborhoods. When talking about race, they were prone to view the world through the prism of “the glass half empty.” Whereas I saw neighborhood change as an opportunity to create a more open and inclusive society, they saw it as a threat to the value of their only asset—their home—and something that would put their children and families at risk. Were they wrong about this? There was certainly evidence, both objectively and subjectively, that their fears had substance.

Given these two sets of concerns, about fairness on the job and safety in the neighborhood and the schools, it is no wonder the working class and the middle class look at the changing demographics of American society with some trepidation. As whites are in the process of becoming a minority, not only in the nation as a whole, but in the communities they live in, they wonder if their economic and physical security, which were already somewhat fragile, is going to be compromised. And when they see a black president, they fear that their concerns will be easily sacrificed in favor of some unspecified “black” or “liberal” agenda.

Their fears and concerns when it comes to President Obama often take forms that are ugly and irrational, especially given the president's history and actual policies, but the experiences which fuel their fears are ones that must be examined critically. The racial resentments of whites of modest means are a complex mix of inherited racist attitudes, folk tales, rumors spread by the media and through word-of-mouth, and real-life experiences which lead them to fear their emerging minority status. We ignore the latter at our peril. We need to have a continuing dialogue about race with our white working-class and middle-class neighbors that confronts their prejudices but allows their grievances to be heard.

Only through that kind of dialogue—which should take place between ALL Americans—can we create the basis of a fair and just society in which everyone feels recognized and respected regardless of racial or ethnic background.

Mark Naison

Mark Naison

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Reposted with permission from the History News Network.