The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

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.

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.

Mark NaisonOnly 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 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.


  1. John says

    White people need freedom of assembly not for racist reasons but survival reasons, blacks and latinos can organize without being called racists,as long as whites are kept divided we will continue to lose our ways,just as a black man needs a black mentor so does a white child needs a white mentor. If we can’t organize as a group we will perish as a race. If you go back to the million man march one of the black speakers said they need to support each other no matter what and divide the white race. If you see white males are kept bound separated women are a minority, gays are a minority, when you separate families right from the start you divide whites and pair them with other minorities. On the other hand blacks never turn on murders (look at black support for O.J.)drug dealers, or thieves, how many times do you see them crying on TV saying he was my baby after being gunned down No actually your baby was a gang banger.(Take note you never see vicious white gangs on TV) I just want my race to have a chance to compete.

  2. says

    Fear of a black president for following a ‘liberal’ agenda? Clearly unwarranted. Republican allegations of Obama’s ‘socialism’? Clearly idiotic, if not indeed disgusting.

    But that doesn’t mean that Mr Obama hasn’t introduced a new and genuinely scary element into USA policy – namely an allegedly superior messianic ‘morality’, where enemies receive more respect than friends, and where the USA isn’t supposed to act like a great power, or even a sponsor of liberty, but instead be a helpless giant which stands aside for the likes of repressive regimes (especially Islamic ones).

    • says

      Joe: You’re losing me. The Taliban? Al Qaeda? Who’s getting all this unwarranted respect?

      And ignoring the 100 rabid miscreants who attack you and instead sending 150,000 troops (300,000, if you count contractors) on a decade-long invasion of a different country — is that acting like a great power or a bunch of dopes?

  3. marie says

    Interesting dialogue.
    Our white-history of tyrannizing those of different skin-color, has created consequences.
    To soften those consequences, the best we can do is dropping our own aggression, suspicion, dislikes and arrogance.
    By the way it is not just blacks and Latinos that might outnumber us. How about the Chinese emigrant- (and some illegal-) growth?

  4. keller says

    “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.”

    This will never happen in my children’s children’s lifetime. Everyone is racist, that is no big deal. IT’s the prejudice that gets people.

  5. Nate says

    Well ;

    I’m white and live in The Ghetto across the street from a crack house , my Lady is Black and my son is mixed so I get racism from all sides on occasion .

    I’m a career Civil Servant and yes , most of the middle and upper managment is Black or other non White but , I work hard and prove myself , I get along just fine , I like living in my older , tree lined neighborhood , all my neighbors know I don’t make noise nor am I any threat so they don’t hassle me and I don’t bother them .

    I *do* agree with Benjamin’s assessment of Mr. Naison’s attitude but no worries ~ we’re the ‘minority ‘ now so you’d best stop whining and get to work if you want your slice of the American dream ~ it’s _NOT_ free .

  6. Benjamin says

    Once again we see the foolishness of “progressives” and liberals. Mr. Nelson acknowledges the discrimination that affirmative action really is but dismisses white peoples fears by saying that affirmative action’s affects are “far less damaging” than they could be. Indeed he seems to justify a policy of evil simply because others have suffered an evil.

    Indeed, the root of the problem does not appear to be the age old problem of solving an evil problem (discrimination) by perpetrating a policy (affirmative action) that is equally evil in that it by it’s very nature is discriminatory.

    I suggest that instead of trying to respond by spreading the evil around and that we actually seek real solutions to the problems that blacks and latinos face. We should not be trying to solve evil by simply doing evil to individuals who most likely are NOT responsible for past evils to another group.

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