Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Last Day of School

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Last week, the dozens of students whom I've come to see and know since January were released from their obligation of talking about racism with me. It is hard work discussing the nature of your relationship to white supremacy, and fifteen straight weeks of it must seem like enough for anyone. So it was with some trepidation that I chose my parting words for the last day of school. "In all likelihood," I said, "you will never again be held to account for what you learned about racism in this class. At least not by any institution that has any power over you." If they are accepted, graduated, hired, promoted, invited, befriended, married, or congratulated, they are so in spite of their antiracism and not because of it. For where in the world will their grasp of the reach and power of white supremacy attest to the state of their competence? Our society just isn't built that way. Where the Potomac is Lethe, every day can be a forgetting and an absolution. Like summer vacation. Who else besides their earnest professor will so esteem such knowledge?

The answer, of course, must be ourselves. For our own sake, we must hold ourselves accountable for what we have learned. We are all that we have.

We must do this for ourselves because the alternative is oblivion. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently held a Twitter colloquy on the proper role of the political writer in America. He describes the part at the end of a talk where an audience member asks him for "a reason to hope" for the coming of racial justice. Coates cannot offer any optimism because failure is a very real possibility. The kicker, however, is that pessimism shouldn't change a thing.
Of course this leads to the obvious question--Why struggle? For me it's simple--so I can sleep at night. There's too much talk about "inevitable victory" and not enough about keeping your conscience. I could very easily imagine an America that is racist to the very end. If you showed me that future, I'd say, "Meh. And keep fighting." How I live my life has actual meaning. As much meaning--perhaps more meaning--than convincing other people.
Similarly, graduating seniors have asked me for advice on how to make a difference. Despite their evident desire to accomplish something in the world, I tell them that their goal should be to hold themselves to account. This is not an easy thing. Most will forget everything they learned about racism within a year. Given the currency of our realm, they should expect nothing else. In time, a stranger will cry colorblindness, and they will stumble reaching for an adequate response. Live your life so that there is no reaching. The measure of your virtue is the health of your conscience. To know this is not to waste your time and blood.


Toni Morrison knew this forty years ago when she delivered a lecture entitled "A Humanist View" at Portland State University. It is a remarkable jeremiad for a new age. In this part of the transcript, she cautions against forgetting who you are and who you are responsible to.
It's important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. . . . None of that is necessary. . . . And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me. To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. . . . And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas.
I wish that words like these would ring in every commencement from coast to coast, but of course that is impossible, which is entirely my point. Black women cannot even whisper white supremacy without a Nobel Prize. All that is beyond will sanction and measure us against their vital fictions, so we must be the ones to know better. Anything less is a puny humanity.

To be accountable to yourself is to stay awake despite how vigilance can smart, for white supremacy is nothing if not an ether. Ask the lawyers of Cleveland, who nodded in time when one said blame the child. Or ask the police of Baltimore, who will break your neck to make you nod. But you do not have to nod to be asleep; you need only say nothing despite the pricks of your conscience which, one by one, slowly dissolve into your dreamy plot.

You are your own stern lecturer or you are done.

In 1855, Herman Melville knew this when he wrote Benito Cereno, the story of Amasa Delano, a white American sea captain who encounters a Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, floundering adrift off the coast of Chile. He boards the ship and discovers it in disarray. Its captain, Benito Cereno, behaves so erratically that the American begins to feel threatened. Over the course of the story, Delano contrives a series of possible explanations for the odd behavior: Cereno is inexperienced, poorly bred, insane, a pirate, an impostor, in league with his slaves. With each new theory, Delano is momentarily shaken, his perspective dizzied, calmed only the vision of black slaves in their customary roles on deck. Familiar stories displace the novel and the truth they bring.

Amasa Delano lacks imagination. He cannot unify the fragments of meaning before him into a true history: that the slaves had masterminded a revolt and then a charade to deceive him. The leader of the slaves, a Senegalese named Babo, is puppeteer to his hostage Cereno. Delano had authored countless biographies for Cereno but only one for the Africans: slave. Readers who fail to decipher Cereno's freaks also subscribe to an oppressive single story of the Africans. Even when Babo drives a dagger toward Cereno's heart, Delano miscalculates, believing himself to be the target. Once safe, Cereno calmly expresses his frustration:
"[Y]ou were with me all day; stood with me, sat with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men."
Cereno is changed by his long captivity. Delano cannot abide Cereno's enduring gloom, unsure why his counterpart cannot be more like himself: "'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; 'you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Exiled for weeks, lost at sea on a crippled galleon, Cereno had a singular experience: to observe the fullness of black humanity on its own terms, absent any worldly mediation. The knowledge is too much to bear for the slave trader.

We end the semester reading Benito Cereno in my early American literature course. I want it to remind my students that new stories will come to dizzy them as they did Delano, who was as real as they themselves are. They will be on the brink of something new and terrifying. That is the time to pay attention and to refuse craven innocence. At times unsteady and out-of-focus, the truth will be right in front of their faces if they will only see it. But old stories will materialize to settle and distract them, say that it is all right for now and ever. Their only reward for pulling away from these lies will be their conscience.

The classic American literary archetype was never Huckleberry Finn or Jay Gatsby; it is Amasa Delano, who in Melville's tale remains asleep to the world and yet is celebrated by it. We live in different times and on dry land. There is no Babo with a razor at your throat in the middle of the ocean. You are free to go. There is nothing to hold you to account to learn what white supremacy scorns. Do it anyway and for yourself.

For all of my students, past, present, and future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You're the Model Minority until You're Not

As a Chinese American, I know that my racial identity occupies a space in the cultural imagination somewhere between white and black. I know that white supremacy often works in my favor to give me privilege and the benefit of the doubt. I know that the world is this way until it isn't.

Peter Liang, who is also Chinese American, must know this too. On February 10, a grand jury ruled to indict the NYPD officer for killing Akai Gurley, who is black. Liang and his partner were in the stairwell of a public housing complex when Liang discharged his weapon and hit Gurley, who had entered from the floor below. The ruling followed three controversial grand jury decisions not to indict white officers Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, respectively. Because of this apparent racial double standard, the Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights plans to protest Liang's indictment later this month and has called for national rallies on that day in support of Liang. "Officer Liang is being used as a scapegoat," says Doug Lee, co-chair of the CAACR. Other Asian American organizations support the indictment, leading to some confusion over what justice looks like in this case. But there should be no confusion: Peter Liang should stand trial. Liang's supporters are asking for the same standard that exonerated Wilson, Williams, and Pantaleo. It is a racist standard.

Among other things, the story of Peter Liang and Akai Gurley is the story of contrasting stereotypes. By the mid-1960s, Chinese Americans began to be systematically associated with so-called "positive stereotypes." In 1965, President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, better known as the Immigration Act of 1965, on Liberty Island in New York City. This act abolished the racist National Origins quota system that had favored European nations, replacing it with one that privileged immigrants with professional work skills as well as those reuniting with families. As immigration from China steadily rose, public interest predictably turned to Chinese America. In 1966, the conservative U.S. News & World Report published a profile of Chinese American communities on both coasts. "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." lavishes praise upon Chinese Americans for their commitment to improvement and success despite prejudice and other hardships. The article is an early and important blueprint of the "model minority" stereotype of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans in general.

My students sometimes aren't sure how to feel about "positive" stereotypes of Asian Americans. What's wrong with being known as educated, hard-working, and law-abiding? The problem with positive stereotypes is the same problem with negative ones: the dominant group gets to decide what they are. It decides who gets to be a part of the favored racial group and why. What this means is that you're the model minority until you're not. The history of Chinese Americans is a crash course on the social construction of race in America. Stereotypes come and go. From the beginning of significant Chinese immigration during the California gold rush to the present, Chinese Americans have been racialized as undesirable or desirable depending on circumstances at home and abroad. The Exclusion era, the World War 2 era, and the Korean War era all racialized Chinese Americans differently according to the historical needs of white supremacy. It took the Civil Rights Movement to shift the social meanings of Chinese Americans once again. Like negative stereotypes, the model minority stereotype is also a tool of white supremacy.

The model minority stereotype has always been less about praising Asian people than it has been about shaming black people. From its lede, the unsigned "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." is interested in more than the state of Chinese America; it aims to compare Chinese Americans to black Americans. The article lists off the admirable qualities of a monolithic Chinese American community: low crime rate (especially among juveniles), strong work ethic, traditional family structures, value on education, low public assistance usage, etc. However, comparisons with black communities quickly become conspicuous:
  • At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own--with no help from anyone else.
  • What you find, back of this remarkable group of Americans, is a story of adversity and prejudice that would shock those now complaining about the hardships endured by today's Negroes.
  • "The Chinese people here will work at anything. I know of some who were scholars in China and are now working as waiters in restaurants. . . . [T]hey're willing to do something--they don't sit around moaning."
  • Even though Chinese-American teen-agers in New York City . . . are a source of growing worry to their parents, statistics show that those youths still cause far less trouble for the police than others do.
  • "[I]t must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today. We haven't stuck Negroes in concentration camps, for instance, as we did the Japanese in World War II."
This closing point about Japanese Americans in an article ostensibly about Chinese Americans makes plain that the state of black America is the true focus of the writer. Only two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the publication of the article coincided with a turbulent period of the Civil Rights Movement, one marked by large-scale civil unrest sparked by police brutality in Watts, Harlem, and many other communities.

Chinese Americans weren't the only Asian American ethnic group to be racialized in opposition to black Americans. In 1992, Los Angeles became a flashpoint for tensions between black Americans and Korean Americans. Heightening the injustice of the acquittal of the officers who brutalized Rodney King was the trial of Soon Ja Du. Store video caught owner Du killing teenager Latasha Harlins, a black customer, in cold blood. Du was sentenced to probation. In the days to come, the violence of the LA uprising hit Korean American communities hard, with over half of Korean-owned businesses suffering damage. The spectacle of armed Korean Americans encamped on the rooftops of their stores told the story of a race war compatible with white supremacy. For some, Korean Americans became the poster children for white supremacy, defending their hard-won property from "problem" minorities lacking their work ethic and respect for the law. Although half of those arrested during the uprising were Latino, the "black-Korean" narrative framed the conflict and drew attention from the racist structures oppressing all three groups.

White supremacy spins the tale of the model minority because it is a story of American meritocracy. As late as 2014, the rags-to-riches model minority stereotype was the core talking point Bill O'Reilly used to rebut the argument that white privilege is real. O'Reilly cites Asian American rates of education and income that exceed those of all other groups, including white Americans. But the conflation of "Asian American" and "model minority" identities masks the poverty of many ethnic groups within Asian America. Coverage of the LA uprising tended to cast Korean American immigrants as successful entrepreneurs despite unique institutional barriers that produced wide economic disparity within the community. In 2010, Hmong Americans had the lowest per capita income of any racial/ethnic group, including Latinos. As the story of meritocracy, the model minority stereotype can disempower Asian Americans themselves by linking low social status to cultural deficiency. Positive stereotypes are a two-way street.

Today, model minorities can be too good to be true. Highly-skilled immigrants from India and China make possible the Asian demographic O'Reilly describes, and industry demand for them is so great that tech firms must enter a lottery for their H-1B visas. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) questions whether the perception of a perpetual shortage of tech workers is, in fact, accurate. The "Silicon Valley STEM Hoax," he claims, is a ploy of American tech firms to hire lower-paid foreign labor instead of home-grown American labor. This fear of cheap foreign labor, mostly Asian, is not new. The economic "yellow peril" stereotype that defined 19th-century Chinese immigrants conjured the problem of an endless stream of labor against which the white workingman could not compete. The devastating solution to the problem was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect until 1943. While Sessions' concerns are, by all accounts, marginalized, they do illustrate how readily the assets of the model minority--hard work and frugality--can be reimagined as deficits. New yellow perils. You are the model minority until you are not.


The only logic of white supremacy is to sustain itself. Every way that people of color have been racialized and will be racialized is in the support of white supremacy. This is the purpose of racial stereotypes. The CAACR claims that because Peter Liang is Chinese American, he is being treated differently from Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo. But this possibility doesn't mean Liang shouldn't be tried. It just means that he does not have the privilege that the white officers have. They should have been tried too. Those supporting Liang only because he is Chinese American should know that they are not fighting racism. If the CAACR truly desires justice, it will not lobby for Liang to be treated the same as the white officers. To do so would be to ask for an ad hoc dispensation from a racist system. The model minority stereotype was also an ad hoc dispensation. Other Asian American organizations such as the CAAAV understand this and support the indictment. Akai Gurley and Peter Liang had much in common, but this is the most tragic: their lives in the balance, they were who white supremacy needed them to be. All of us would do well to remember that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Comfort Tells Us about Racism

As a kid growing up in Texas, I didn't like it when my parents spoke Cantonese in public spaces. Too loud to me, their voices made me uncomfortable. The white people around us who screwed up their faces must have felt the same way. Their discomfort probably had to do with not understanding the words, the ugliness of the sounds, or both. These strangers and I had something in common: the need for their comfort. When my parents kept on talking, seemingly oblivious to the scene they were creating, they left me wondering why they didn't care as much about the white people around us as I did. In time, I gained an awareness of what comfort says about the state of internalized white supremacy in ourselves and others.

Especially for adult, middle-class white Americans, white supremacy cultivates a sense of entitlement to comfort. Their discomfort disrupts the equilibrium of the racial status quo, manifesting as annoyance, impatience, or something more serious. Consider what happens when a white person is openly called out for making a racist remark. Even at a time when the proper feeling is shame, the need for comfort dials up different, confrontational feelings. Too often, the response is defensiveness or anger. Robin DiAngelo coined a term for this condition: "white fragility." In a recent interview, she critiques how even discussions of racism need to be as comfortable as possible:
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, "What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?" Usually those questions alone make the point. It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, "Get off my head," and you respond, "Well, you need to tell me nicely." I’d be like, "No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head."
White fragility is a valuable and productive way to understand how internalized white supremacy precludes critical conversations about racism and deforms relationships.


White supremacy socializes white people to expect comfort, but it also socializes people of color to give comfort to white people. We know that our safety and security may depend on the white people around us being comfortable. Thus, consciously or unconsciously, we do not do things that would discomfit white people if we can help it. Perhaps the most common method for giving comfort is simply not bringing up racism in conversation. Or remaining silent or not showing anger if the topic of racism does arise. In 2014, musician Pharrell Williams famously proclaimed himself a "new black," meaning that he "does not blame other races for our issues." Oscar-winner Common asked other black people to forget about past injustices while extending a "hand in love" to white people. Isaiah Washington advised Chris Rock to "adapt" to racial profiling by police by driving less-flashy cars. And Bill Cosby used to have enough moral authority to tell young black men to pull up their pants and speak good English. The head-scratching persistence of the thing known as "respectability" politics owes to nothing more than the racist idea that black people should not make white people uncomfortable.

Non-white comfort is a trigger for racism. Because white supremacy polices non-white comfort, people of color are not allowed to be comfortable on their own terms. Being noticed as too comfortable can be dangerous or deadly. Teenager Jordan Davis and three friends were in a parked SUV when Michael Dunn asked them to turn down their loud music. When they refused, Dunn fired ten rounds at the vehicle, killing Davis. College student Martese Johnson was beaten by ABC agents after exiting an off-campus bar during St. Patrick's Day festivities in Charlottesville. In Pine Lawn, Missouri, sagging pants can get you fined. Three weeks after he fled Iraq, Ahmed Adnan Ibrahim Al-Jumaili was shot and killed outside his Dallas home while photographing his first snowfall with his family. Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha in their Chapel Hill home, had once appeared with a rifle at the door of two of the victims to complain about the noise they made playing a board game. Non-white comfort does not usually inspire such violent responses, but all negative responses originate from the common wellspring of white supremacy. Why?


People of color comfortable with one another decenter whiteness from any given social situation. Nothing makes this dynamic more apparent than the absence of English. My parents rarely gave a second thought to speaking Cantonese in public because they didn't grow up in the US as I had and weren't as socialized to give comfort to white people. For many immigrants, speaking your native language is comforting. However, the mere presence of certain languages other than English can annoy or even antagonize native-born Americans of all races. Such a response is a symptom of xenophobia and internalized white supremacy. Why else should another language in our midst concern us so? Intolerant responses to other languages reveal how much comfort depends on an expectation of centrality in a diverse world. For instance, some people get upset when they suspect that they are being talked about in another language. They are probably wrong, but would it matter if they were right? What would truly change in the nature of the relationship between you and the woman trimming your toenails or you and the man serving you dim sum? There is a word for the condition of thinking that everyone around you is talking about you. Paranoia. And then, is the consciousness that wants them silenced truly your own?

Even seemingly supportive or derivative responses to non-white comfort can betray an origin in white supremacy. To illustrate this point to my students, I show them a video entitled Light in the Shadows, which features a diverse group of women discussing the forms of racism in their lives. A white woman named Penny Rosenwasser admits that she is envious of how women of color can be so comfortable together. Intended as a compliment, her remark leads to an unexpected response. "I think that white people get upset when they see us comfortable," says Intisar Shareef, a black woman. "Because I think that challenges their notion of superiority in this world." In other words, Shareef explains, white supremacy in America has taught white people that people of color should not have things that they themselves do not have. How else do we explain a white woman envying the camaraderie of black women as black women? Iggy Azalea and white belly dancers are cautionary tales reminding us that white culture will appropriate whatever it envies or finds lacking in itself.

No one is entitled to comfort. The reality is that people of color experience discomfort as people of color as a regular and predictable part of their lives. This feeling of nominal discomfort is so normalized that finding yourself comfortable in a diverse setting can be a warning signal. Intisar Shareef describes such a moment and what she makes of it.
A couple weeks ago at a staff meeting at the college that I work at, there was something going on that I disagreed with, and I spoke out. And people said, "Oh, she's just bizarre." And that's just another way of labeling me as different. At first I was offended by that, and then I said, "Hmm, I am bizarre, given the environment that I was in, and proud to be it. . . . I really begin to question myself when I go into these arenas and I'm fitting in. I have to figure out, "Why am I so comfortable?" I really do. There's a lot of work that we have to do, so if I get real comfortable then something is not going on with me.
Shareef is right that when we experience comfort in institutional spaces not committed to antiracism, we should absolutely check ourselves. It is not that people of color should never feel comfortable nor fit in. It is just that it is all too easy to assimilate to white supremacy culture. If we understand that white supremacy shapes our institutional policies and practices, why should we ever be comfortable managing our little part of the system? What have we been conditioned to overlook, and why? For all of us, regardless of race, discomfort in diverse settings is a boon companion, alerting us to the danger of white supremacy in and around us. Discomfort is the canary in a coal mine. It is what keeps us awake.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Starbucks and the Problem with Empathy

"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

I have conversations about racism for a living. And even if my job as a college professor did not professionalize such an activity, I would find a way to have them with as many people as possible. But I would still prefer to have conversations about racism in a classroom, as part of a college course. Why? Because I have fifteen weeks of classes to do so. And that is still not enough time to accomplish what is necessary.

Starbucks has a different idea. Its new "Race Together" campaign operates from the assumption that a few minutes of coffee talk, however humble, is part of the solution to racial injustice. "Race Together" encourages baristas to engage with customers on the topic of "race." Customers are invited to be part of the experiment if the words "Race Together" appear on their beverage containers. Starbucks aggressively promoted the campaign on social media but was unprepared for responses that questioned or outright mocked it. One senior vice president even temporarily suspended his Twitter account because of a barrage of critical tweets. In this blog entry, I will explain how "Race Together" perpetuates a popular myth of social justice education: that empathy is part of the solution to injustice. Empathy is part of the problem.

To be clear, I am not talking about empathy as a problem in and of itself, absent any context. Trying to understand a situation from the perspective of others can be personally edifying. As well, others can benefit from a conscious intent to know their pain. The problem arises when empathy becomes part of a plan--a stage of that plan even--and that plan seeks to undo racism.


Above, Starbucks lays out a simple plan for "change" that begins with "conversation." Conversation ostensibly leads to empathy, which is really supposed to get the ball rolling. However, if the goal of "Race Together" is meaningful antiracist change, then its plan is exactly backward. Authentic relationships and the real conversations that develop from them are, on the whole, the result of institutional, antiracist change, not the catalyst. Do the black mother and the white mother living next door to each other become friends only because they decide to talk to one another? Or because their neighborhood was integrated by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, legislation brought about by organized protest movements? At college, does the interracial couple even meet in the first place if not for the desegregation and Ethnic Studies movements? Institutional change creates the conditions for good relationships, not the other way around.

Complete strangers of different races talking honestly about race is liberal white fantasy. The fantasy presumes that the stakes in the conversation are equal, as well as the trust between parties. How is a person of color supposed to empathize with a white person as a white person over racism when white people cannot experience racism? Quite simply, people of color have more skin in the game. Their role is to satisfy the curiosity of white people at great psychic risk to themselves. There is no good reason why my students should trust me on the first day of class; they shouldn't. I need weeks to foster the kind of trust that enables authentic dialogue on racism. What might two strangers expect to be able to do in a few minutes? Even when I openly model my experiences with overt racism or my own internalized white supremacy, my goal isn't for students to empathize with me. I don't want them to dwell on my stories. I especially don't want my white students to channel their feelings into a conviction to help people like me. My stories should direct all of my students to identify the reach and role of white supremacy in the stories of their own lives. Empathy gets in the way of that learning.

Empathy can be a problem because of the faith that it places in free speech. You do not have to be a literature professor like me to believe that stories are everything. Stories determine our reality. Lies like white supremacy are nothing more than really popular stories. The only reason why people like Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz includes empathy as part of a plan to fight racism is because he also believes that stories are everything, even if he doesn't come out and say so. Empathy is nothing more than the capacity to be transformed by a story: a racist white person believes X about black people, hears a powerful story, and now believes Y. What else is a stereotype but a popular story writ large? "Race Together" reinforces the myth that the best way to deal with racism is to tell a better story. A belief in the efficacy of empathy is simultaneously a belief in the efficacy of free speech. However, ask people of color how much the freedom of speech empowers them at an everyday level, and you begin to understand the problem with empathy as any part of an institutionalized effort against racism.

A critical race theory concept known as the "empathic fallacy" helps to explain the problem with empathy in this context. According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the "idea that one can use words to undo the meanings that others attach to those very same words is to commit the empathic fallacy--the belief that one can change a narrative by merely offering another, better one--that the reader's or listener's empathy will quickly and reliably take over." A true exchange of free speech is simply not possible under many real-world circumstances. For example, it is often not safe for a person of color to respond to free speech, whether it takes the form of hate speech or of small talk with that nice Asian barista. People of color comprise 40% of Starbucks' workers, and baristas of all races have expressed reservations about "Race Together." Indeed, we must question the honesty of any tête-à-tête between working-class laborers and the customers they must serve. Unlike what was on tap at President Obama's "beer summit" with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who racially profiled him, Frappuccinos don't necessarily loosen inhibitions.

Most importantly, however, the impossibility of a true exchange of free speech over racism at Starbucks is not a problem of honesty; it is a problem of imagination. Coffee nation cannot have a real conversation about "race" because there is no common consciousness of the meanings of race and racism. A 2011 study found that not only do white Americans believe "reverse racism" to be real but that it is a greater problem than racism against black Americans. "How can one talk back to messages, scripts, and stereotypes that are embedded in the minds of one's fellow citizens," argue Delgado and Stefancic, "and, indeed, the national psyche?" In other words, how do you tell a story to a person whose sense of self is so deeply embedded within another story? And what if that other story is the story of white supremacy? Can you do it in three minutes? With a smile? The Eric Garner video is a three-minute story of racism. The Tamir Rice video is a two minute story with a two-second climax. These are not anecdotes but eyewitness videos. And yet they have no purchase with some. The smugness of "I Can Breathe" can make perfect sense to too many Americans, and the city of Cleveland can blame a twelve-year old boy for his own death. One would hope that these videos--stories of white degeneracy--are more compelling stories than white supremacy. The person who edited Eric Garner's Wikipedia page certainly thought so. But not grand juries.

Howard Schultz is fooling himself if he believes that Starbucks occupies a space in the cultural imagination very different from that of the Mall of America or expensive Sunday brunch. Starbucks is the harbinger of gentrification. Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries of Zillow report that properties near Starbucks appreciate in value at greater rates than the average American home (96% to 65% over the past 17 years). "Race Together" will never interrupt the story of white supremacy and will probably make it stronger. But the story of white supremacy is also a lived narrative, and it can be interrupted. Ask the Black Lives Matter activists who punked the Black Friday free-for-all at the Mall of America last year. Or those who continue to disrupt trendy brunches across the country with "Black Brunch." Racism in America is not a problem of misunderstanding, Howard Schultz, not really. It is a problem of wealth and geography. A recent report from Demos found that eliminating disparities in homeownership rates would shrink the wealth gap between white and black Americans substantially more than equalizing college graduation rates and income.

In this nation's history, there is relationship between casual dining and racial justice. Take the Greensboro Four--Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond--the North Carolina A&T freshmen whose carefully planned, nonviolent protest of segregation could not have happened without coffee. On February 1, 1960, they sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and stayed until closing time, expecting to be refused service. They were joined by more students each following day and eventually inspired a boycott that desegregated more than just lunch counters. With their principled actions, these activists and others like them interrupted the lived narrative of white supremacy, and the social change brought about by these actions is the reason why Howard Schultz can even entertain the ludicrous idea of transformative interracial conversations in his cafes. Engaging with the reality of racism is not meaningful if it happens only when we feel like it. Pity that Starbucks has avoided predominantly-black communities such as Selma, AL, Ferguson, MO, Highland Park, MI, or Gary, IN. Starbucks is not part of the noble history of antiracist activism in America. Despite its literary namesake, a character from an iconic American novel that cautions against the hubris of the powerful, Starbucks has no idea how stories work.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Monopoly Can Teach Us about Ferguson

The unchecked glee with which Darren Wilson supporters celebrated the recent DOJ report on the killing of Mike Brown was both predictable and myopic. Predictable in the sense that their faith in the justice system was vindicated by the likelihood that "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" is more metaphor than literal truth. And myopic in the sense that such faith willfully looks past the other DOJ report, a bombshell that found a systematic pattern of predation by the Ferguson PD against the black citizens it had sworn to protect. In light of the latter report, which amounted to nothing less than a strategic plan to arrest and shake down the black residents of Ferguson, I thought of another motto that Ferguson protesters might use: "Palms Up, Don't Grift." The motto's mascot could be the Monopoly man, empty-handed with his pockets turned inside-out. As the DOJ discovered, the Ferguson PD paired corporal violence with economic violence, targeting black people because they could be counted on as human annuities, indefinitely paying out fines on top of fines into city coffers.

The iconic Monopoly man reminded me how much his board game can teach us about institutional racism in general. A decade ago, the academic journal Multicultural Education published "When the Rules Are Fair, But the Game Isn't" by Muktha Yost, Edward Whitfield, and Mark Yost. These authors played Monopoly with their students, with a simple but crucial modification: each person was placed in a group, and each group started the game at a different time. What this meant was that those in Group 1 had readier access to the acquisition of property, railroads, and utilities. After a half-hour, Group 2 would be allowed to begin, with Group 3 jumping in a full hour after the game had started. The rules of the game did not change; each player was equal under the "laws" of the game. Despite this fact, the authors concluded that Group 1 "always produces the winner." This was not the only common outcome. Players in groups starting later lost the desire to play, many preferring to stay in jail to avoid having to pay rent to other players. I used the activity with my own students and arrived at similar results.

The most important lesson from this activity is how the legacy of centuries of de jure, institutionalized white supremacy must be understood through the concept of group-based identity. That is, the lie of Monopoly is the same lie of liberalism: that our rights should inhere only in our identity as individuals. Players must buy, sell, and trade properties as abstract individuals. However, as the activity illustrates, the group one is assigned to is the best predictor of success or failure. Looking only at the situation of black Americans, we see how being shut out from property acquisition for most of the "game," as it were, limits future prospects and social mobility. Most black Americans escaped the identity of chattel only to be restricted from owning property themselves. Like those redlined out of homeownership by FHA guidelines, players in groups starting later are relegated to paying rent rather than owning property and building equity in the form of houses and hotels. In this way, the activity makes the important distinction between income and wealth; although all players begin with the same seed money and earn the same salary, Group 1 accumulated more assets and hence more wealth.

Black Americans able to buy their own homes still fare poorly compared to white peers. White flight (abetted by blockbusting and the anti-busing Milliken v. Bradley decision) depressed home values in black neighborhoods, even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibited housing discrimination. In the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, legal scholar john a. powell notes that the value of the five-bedroom house he grew up in in Detroit is $20,000; if it were in the suburbs, it would be worth $320,000. Following the subprime mortgage crisis, the wealth gap worsened. This is because most of the wealth of black families was found in their homes, unlike white families with more diversified assets. To make matters worse, Wells Fargo bank specifically targeted black people for subprime mortgages which its employees called "ghetto loans" for "mud people." The Monopoly activity can jumpstart a discussion of how much group-based identity matters in the relationship between wealth and racism.

As useful as the Monopoly activity is, its lesson about group-based discrimination accounts for only part of the story of institutional racism in America. If we wanted a more accurate representation of what it means to play this game as a black American, particularly in Ferguson and communities like it, we would have to make additional adjustments. For example, some game cards, such as "You Inherit $100," would have to be changed for players in Group 3. Given the fact that people of color are less likely to inherit money than are white people, money regularly flowing "upstream" from children to parents, these players should have to give up $100 instead.

So here goes. Let's assume that upper- and middle-class white Americans comprise Group 1, working-class white Americans comprise Group 2, and black Americans comprise Group 3. (With this example, I don't intend to diminish the oppression of other racial groups and women in general when it comes to property acquisition, least of all American Indians.) I show gender intersecting with race in some of the situations below, although I admit that much more could be done to demonstrate negative impacts on women.

INCARCERATION: To begin, we need to redefine the role played by jail. Because 1 in 3 black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, all men in Group 3 must begin the game by rolling two dice. If the player rolls a 4, 5, or 6 (a 33% probability), then the player must immediately go to jail to start the game. White men can also be asked to do the same; 1 in 17 white men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime (almost a 6% probability, the same as rolling a 3 with two dice). House rules can determine how long the player stays in jail, but black players must receive a sentence that is 10% longer than white players.

MUNICIPAL GRIFTING: Because black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, all railroad and utility spaces count as "Go Directly to Jail" spaces for men in Group 3 (additional "Go Directly to Jail" cards would need to be added to Chance and Community Chest). Whether you are a man or woman, when your stay in jail ends, you must pay $100 in fines for the trumped-up charges added by the arresting officer. If you cannot pay the fine, you must pay $150 before you reach "Go" or you will be arrested again and sent to jail.


POLICE BRUTALITY: Every time a man in Group 3 is sent to jail, he may be killed by police during or after arrest. While it is unclear how often an arrest leads to a killing, a recent study reported that 928 people are killed by police every year. And we know that black men are more likely to be targets of threats and/or force by police. For our purposes, if the player rolls a 2 with two dice ("snake eyes") twice in a row, we can assume that he has been shot and killed by police and is out of the game.

CLASS & RACE PRIVILEGE: If you are in Group 2 or 3 and are sent to jail, roll two dice. If you roll a 5 or 6 (if you are a woman, a 4, 5, or 6) you have lost your job as a result of your conviction and/or time lost from work. Unemployed, you collect nothing the next time you pass "Go." For subsequent circuits, your salary is cut by $50. Repeat with each arrest. Conversely, if you are in Group 1, every "negative" card in Community Chest counts as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card because you know a person who can fix your tickets. Group 3 players get a salary of $180 instead of $200 even though they have degrees from more prestigious universities than players in Groups 1 and 2.

DE FACTO SEGREGATION: If you are in Group 3 and have an opportunity to purchase or trade for a property from a set whose other two properties are owned by members of Group 1 or 2, roll the dice. A negative result means that you will not be able to purchase the property after all. Nikole Hannah-Jones reported that a federal inquiry into the lending practices of M&H Bank found that unlike black and Latino customers, white customers were steered toward white neighborhoods. Moreover, white applicants were approved for loans denied to better-qualified black and Latino applicants.

BLOCK BUSTING: Alternately, if you are in Group 1 or 2, and a Group 3 member manages to buy into your neighborhood, the mortgage value of the properties in that set will be cut in half after two turns. You may try to sell those properties to a Group 3 member, but not at a price lower than what you paid; you may sell to Group 1 or 2 members at any price. Any improvements (houses, hotels) on properties owned by Group 3 players will cost 25% more because of higher insurance rates for black neighborhoods. If mortgaged, these improvements will bring 25% less than the standard value.

WHITE FLIGHT: If players in Groups 1 or 2 sell properties in an integrated neighborhood, they may purchase any unowned property in a better neighborhood without having to land on it. Ferguson itself was once a majority white community and is now majority black. For another community hit by white flight, "[i]t wasn't African Americans moving in that caused housing values to go down . . . "it was whites leaving." Did Ferguson offset its eroded tax base with grifting? There may be a direct correlation between the rate of white flight from Ferguson and the rate of city revenue from policing.


In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan G. Johnson uses Monopoly to explain why people not acting racist won't end racism. The reason is the same reason why everybody can't win at Monopoly: the game isn't designed that way. Monopoly is a system designed to produce predictable outcomes.
So, if I notice that someone plays Monopoly in a ruthless way, it’s a mistake to explain that simply in terms of their personality. I also have to ask how a system like Monopoly rewards ruthless behavior more than other games we might play. I have to ask how it creates conditions that make such behavior appear to be the path of least resistance, normal and unremarkable. . . . And even if I don’t try hard to win, the mere fact that I play the game supports its existence and makes it possible, especially if I remain silent about the consequences it produces. Just my going along makes the game appear normal and acceptable, which reinforces the paths of least resistance for everyone else.
So pocketing a competitor's last dollar of Monopoly money with a heavy heart doesn't change the outcome that you have just bankrupted someone. The DOJ report told us that the Ferguson PD and courts systematically targeted black residents to make money. And Ferguson may not even be the worst example of this kind of revenue system. So while we might be encouraged that Ferguson police officers and officials are losing their jobs as a result of the report, we shouldn't expect that any of this passes for satisfactory justice. Just as Monopoly, as a system, is designed to bankrupt all but one player, the system of law enforcement is designed to find criminals--or to create them if necessary.

As this article reports, many NYPD officers lamented the end of their recent, unofficial work slowdown because the system pushed them to enforce "broken windows" policing against their better judgment. The NYPD's refusal to "play the game" of grifting unwittingly revealed the flaws of the system that many already suspected: violent crime did not increase without "broken windows" policing. Does this mean that the system of law enforcement might do something other than manufacture criminals? We just might be onto something. But, then again, Mike Brown may not have had his hands in the air when he was shot and killed by Darren Wilson. So never mind, the system is fine. Forget everything I just said. Move along, nothing to see here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

White Supremacy Can Make You Poor

Although I decided to skip watching this year's Oscars, I couldn't avoid following the event vicariously through Twitter. At some point in the evening, the narrative unfolding on my timeline became a show in its own right, color commentary of a train wreck happening in slow-motion. Twitter's responses to Sean Penn and Patricia Arquette were so satisfying that I decided not to blog about the Oscars. But one story from that evening did not die and took on a life of its own. This is the story of how feminists should talk about feminism. Even before the Oscars concluded, interested parties tweeted graphs of the wage gap disaggregated by race and gender. These folks insisted upon the need for an intersectional feminism, one that acknowledged how race, gender identity, and sexual orientation complicate monolithic (usually white heterosexual) critiques of power. Other parties, while acknowledging Arquette's poor choice of words, tended to support Arquette and worried that her argument about the sexist origins of the gender wage gap was lost amid the intersectional criticism. Sexism and patriarchy absolutely sustain the gender wage gap. In this blog, I argue that the origin of the gender wage gap also owes to racism and white supremacy, a story that makes ignoring or deferring the relevance of intersectionality that much more perilous.

Not all wages are material. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell reminds us of the psychological wage paid to every poor white person in America, the social assurance that despite the hardships of poverty, poor white people will never be at the bottom of the well, that there will always be black faces looking back up at them. Bell's short story "The Space Traders" imagines a scenario where space aliens visit the US and offer Americans untold wealth, limitless energy, and an end to pollution in exchange for every black person in the country. (A video dramatization of the story offers a quick introduction.) In the story, the President decides to hold a national referendum on the offer, and various pro/con factions organize to state their cases. Business leaders ally against the trade because of how institutional racism lines their pockets, also realizing what else enables their hegemony.
Though seldom acknowledging the fact, most business leaders understood that blacks were crucial in stabilizing the economy with its ever-increasing disparity between the incomes of rich and poor. They recognized that potentially turbulent unrest among those on the bottom was deflected by the continuing efforts of poorer whites to ensure that they, at least, remained ahead of blacks. If blacks were removed from the society, working- and middle-class whites--deprived of their racial distraction--might look upward toward the top of the societal well and realize that they as well as the blacks below them suffered because of the gross disparities in opportunities and income.
Simply, the belief in white supremacy among enough poor white people is what keeps the class status quo in place in America.

As many readers of my blog already know, using race to ameliorate the tensions of class division is an idea as old as, well, the idea of race itself. Our modern-day conception of "race," a heritable identity associated with our skin color that defines our social value, was invented in colonial Virginia. This conjuring did not happen overnight, but between the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1619 and the early 18th century, the dominant meanings of "white" skin (free labor) and "black" skin (slave) had become established. In The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America, Theodore Allen traces this process through the development of public policy in Virginia. For example, in 1660, servants "of what christian nation soever" had their bond servitude
limited to a period of five years. By 1705, the colony provided "Freedom Dues" for released "christian white" limited-term bond laborers. These included "to every male servant, ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings of money (or the equivalent in goods), a gun worth at least twenty shillings; and to every woman servant, fifteen bushels of corn, forty shillings in money (or the equivalent in goods)." However humble, these dues helped to establish a class of white settler whose social potential was superior to that of enslaved and free black people but also would never threaten the interests of landowning elites. It would be white people, after all, who coined the pejorative term "cracker," a term whose usage in America depended on the hierarchy of rich white people, poor white people, and all black people.

In "White Poverty," bell hooks describes her experiences as a southern black girl living among other black people, poor white people, and the class of people who her community called "white trash." hooks argues that public debates over poverty fail to drive home the important point that most poor people in the US are white. "It serves white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ruling class interests to mask this reality," hooks explains. "Hence, the almost invisibility of the white poor in mass media." Media coverage of poor Americans paints the color of poverty as black or brown (partly because rates of poverty are higher among black people and Latinos), obscuring the visibility of millions of poor white people. (Former Congressperson Ron Paul recently suggested that the Congressional Black Caucus was anti-war because its members wanted the funds for food stamps. In fact, 40% of food stamps recipients are white.) hooks makes this point not to recenter the needs of white people--Arquette's controversial rhetorical move--but to show how ignoring white people in this way furthers white supremacy. The class divide among white people is not seen as a social issue because of the low public awareness of white poverty, and even when poor whites are profiled, their poverty is not seen as a problem having to do with white supremacy. White supremacy escapes notice as a concern having to do with white poverty.

When we don't consider how racism and white supremacy have kept wages low for white people, then when we do question the gender wage gap, sexism and patriarchy are the only structural factors in play. My argument is different from that which faults Arquette for not mentioning that racism and white supremacy have kept women of color at the bottom of the gender wage scale. I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism. But I am adding that the persistence of white supremacy participates in robbing all women, including white women, of a higher wage. If intersectionality doesn't register for any other reason, it should do so because of material self-interest. (Granted, material gain is only one form of self-interest for white people; the psychological wage of racial superiority may in fact be the Pearl of Great Price for many.) When poor white people do not ally with poor people of color because of white supremacy, then racism artificially suppresses wages for all poor people.

The truth of the matter is that such an alliance can help all workers who are women--and did. Following the Oscars, Patricia Arquette turned to Twitter to defend herself from her detractors and to recommit to her original position. At this point, many feminists withdrew the benefit of the doubt and went after Arquette. One of my favorites belongs to Brittany Cooper, a professor at Rutgers who is "going on strike" because of the burden of explaining intersectionality that falls upon black women. But the best response rang out 140 characters at a time. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, took to Twitter to rebut Arquette's claims. Her lesson is so important that I represent it here in its entirety.










Here is an example of black people helping a white woman fight for gender wage equity by challenging a core construct of a patriarchal society: the professional penalty a woman pays for being a mother. One reason the gender wage gap persists is because women must work part-time or even cut short their careers because they are expected to be the primary caregivers for their children. Black people and white people fought together against structural sexism here. And won.

As a Chinese American man, cis and straight, I know that I don't have as much skin in this game as women of any race or sexual orientation. When we're talking about wage equity, Chinese American men as a group are doing just fine for themselves. But what concerned me about talk of the gender wage gap was that the reach of white supremacy was either denied or seen as targeting only people of color. For example, this article smugly mocks transgender discourse in order to chide those critical of Arquette. And this one falsely claims that intersectionality puts feminists in a double bind. In the end, it was Arquette herself causing the most confusion. In her tweets following the Oscars, Arquette mentioned growing up in poverty and becoming a single mother at a young age. One tweet even tried to flip the script.


If any readers are still unsure why some are so angered by Arquette's words, the first reason was her demand for the labor of LGBTQ people and people of color (sometimes one and the same!) in a fight for wage equity that did not seem to include them. But the tweet above, made after those statements, demonstrated no growing self-awareness. By asking why one does not fight for "ALL" women, Arquette seems to accuse LGBTQ people of some kind of minority tribalism that threatens wage equity for all. Let's be clear here. LGBTQ people and people of color are not why we have the problem of a gender wage gap. The bond that people of color have with one another is not the problem. A major problem is the bond that white people have with one another on the basis of their whiteness, whether they ask for it or not. Let's not mystify the origins of that bond of white supremacy even further, especially not with an issue as important as gender wage equity.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Six Myths about Affirmative Action

I think it's me. I have a BA from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Both universities just happen to be involved with the landmark affirmative action cases of our generation, Hopwood v. Texas (1996), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013). Coincidence? After Hopwood, Michigan and Texas put up staunch, largely-successful defenses of their affirmative action admissions policies. But the issue remains fraught, last week bringing a couple of noteworthy developments. Abigail Fisher filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, keeping alive her lawsuit against the University of Texas. And the actor Vince Vaughn decided to weigh in on the issue. In an interview appearing in Playboy, Vaughn explains why he is not a "fan" of affirmative action:
But then you’re evaluating someone based on race, which is racism. Rights don’t come to you because you’re a man or a woman or African American or European or Jewish. And I certainly don’t think the federal government should be in the business of deciding things or handing out money based on factors like these.
I wouldn't be an English professor today were it not for affirmative action. This blog entry won't convince Vaughn or anyone else against affirmative action to change their minds--affirmative action is that kind of issue--but even those in favor of it may not know everything they need to about its history and nature.

In 1987, the summer before I started college at the University of Texas, I was awarded the Virginia and Ernest Cockrell, Jr. Scholarship in Engineering. I didn't apply for this scholarship, so it must have been one of the many merit-based scholarships I was eligible for by checking a box on my application. I was a strong high school student and did well on my SAT, factors that probably contributed more than anything to my earning the scholarship. Months before taking the SAT, I convinced my dad to spring for a computerized study course for our IBM PC. It cost $200. For weeks, I parked myself in front of the PC and took dozens of sample tests based on actual SATs. When it was time to take the real deal, I was more than ready. The UT scholarship awarded $2,000 a year, and it was renewable provided I kept my grades up. (I didn't.) As far as I know, my receiving it had nothing to do with affirmative action and everything to do with high school GPA and SAT score.

The reason I chose Michigan for my doctoral institution was because of an affirmative-action based opportunity called the Rackham Merit Fellowship for Historically-Underrepresented Minorities (it's not called that anymore, but maybe it should be). There just weren't that many Asian Americans wanting to study English language and literature. I'm much prouder of the Michigan fellowship than I am of the Texas scholarship, largely because of what I had to do to get it. I had to demonstrate to the admissions committee that Asian American literature belonged within English studies. My fellowship money had everything to do with my racial identity because someone believed that the consciousness and experiences of an Asian American mattered in the research and teaching of Asian American literature. I'm sure that some would say that the "special treatment" is not only unfair to white people but also unfair to me. But they're wrong about this and more, and I'll tell you why.

Myth #1: Affirmative Action Beneficiaries Are Unqualified

Considering the race of students among other qualities doesn't mean that unqualified students are admitted. The lack of qualification is one of the biggest myths of affirmative action. Nobody should get a job or place in college that they aren't qualified for; you are either qualified or not. (UT's president is under fire at the moment for some off-the-books affirmative action for unqualified students.) Yet people of color bear the burden of suspicion when it comes to qualification. Abigail Fisher, who sued my alma mater for discriminating against her because she is white, is a good example of this mentality. A ProPublica story reported that in the year of her application, 47 students were provisionally admitted to the University of Texas with GPAs and SAT scores lower than Fisher's; 42 of the students are white. As well, 168 black and Latino students with higher GPAs and SAT scores than Fisher were denied admission. Why didn't Fisher target the white students? Were all of their qualities accessible to her as a young, middle-class white woman? Why didn't she target the low-income students, or those raised in single-parent households, also experiences that you cannot "earn"? Why ignore white men whose gendered experiences may have compensated for lower scores? The failure here is the inability to imagine qualifications beyond AP credits and test-taking proficiency.

Myth #2: Affirmative Action Leads to a Poorer Learning Experience

In allowing the University of Michigan to continue using race as a factor in admissions (until a 2006 referendum ended all affirmative action in the state), the Supreme Court admitted that diversity is a "compelling interest" for student learning. You'd be surprised how many students and colleagues don't give this reason when asked why we should have affirmative action in college admissions. Instead, they sometimes say that "it is the right thing to do" given the history of institutional racism in the US and in higher education. Certainly, this is a consideration. But an equally valid response is that affirmative action makes everyone in the classroom smarter. As a student wrangling with social issues in your English, sociology, nursing, marketing, and journalism classes, wouldn't you want as many different perspectives as possible on those issues? Wouldn't everyone benefit from hearing a black man's perspective on the death penalty or a Hmong woman's perspective on gerontology? Colleges and universities do not implement affirmative action policies out of regard for social justice only; they have them because they are ethically-committed to providing the richest educational experience for all of their students.


Myth #3: White Students Lose Out to Minorities for Scholarships

Even then, institutions don't necessarily make it easier for students of color to attend even after they are admitted. Another enduring myth of affirmative action is that students of color get more than their share of scholarship and grant monies. However, the opposite is true. Mark Kantrowitz of Edvisiors.com released an influential report in 2011, "The Distribution of Grants and Scholarships by Race," which found that while white students made up 62% of all college undergraduates, they received 69% of all institutional grant funding (and 65% of all private scholarship monies). I recently contacted Kantrowitz, and he told me that the figures are basically the same now. When it comes to merit-based institutional grants like my engineering scholarship from Texas, white students claim almost 76% of the funding. In almost all of the metrics in Kantrowitz's study, save need-based grants, white students garnered more than their share of the available funding.

Myth #4: Affirmative Action Benefits Only People of Color

I ask my students what kind of person comes to mind when they hear the words "affirmative action." That image should be of a white woman, if we're talking about the group that has been the primary beneficiary of affirmative action since the 1960s. The title of Sally Kohn's 2013 article for Time doesn't leave much room for equivocation: "Affirmative Action Has Helped White Women More Than Anyone." Using examples from the public and private sector, Kohn shows that affirmative action has advanced the careers of white women more than those of people of color. From 1985 to 2000, the median wage gain of white women outpaced that of white men and black men and women. Ironically, the plaintiffs in all of the suits against Texas and Michigan have been white women. Not only do white women benefit from affirmative action, but so do their white husbands and white children. The 2010 Census revealed that 97% of the people who checked "White" as their race did not check another box. This means that 97% of those who believe that they have white ancestors believe that they have only white ancestors. In 2010, Pew found that white women marry outside of their race at a 9% rate, the lowest of any racial group. For generations, then, most affirmative action resources have been returned to white people, many living in predominantly white communities. Because of these relationships, the Atlanta Blackstar went as far as to say that the group that benefits the most from affirmative action after white women is white men.

Myth #5: Affirmative Action Hurts People of Color in the Long Run

Those spouting this myth purport to advocate for people of color and to know what is best for them. Granted, people of all races do this. But I've heard it most often from white people who say that affirmative action places people of color into circumstances beyond their abilities or that it fosters a culture of dependency. What's amusing here is that the group with more power presumes to know what is best for the group with less power. (I ask those who think that ending affirmative action will help people of color what else they are doing to interrupt racism and live antiracist lives.) A recent survey asked 1,000 participants to respond to this statement: "Affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas." 71% of black Americans strongly agreed with this statement, while only 20% of white Americans did. I will go out on a limb here and say that these black people know what is best for them. I wonder if the other 80% of white Americans acknowledge that white people tend to get the jobs they have because of their associations with other white people--friends, friends of friends, family members, frat brothers, et al. However, this kind of advantage is not seen as special treatment deleterious to the recipient. It is, simply, smart networking. A recent study showed that white people have social networks that are 91% white, with 75% of white people reporting zero minority presence in their social networks.

Myth #6: Affirmative Action Is Just Reverse Racism

This argument against affirmative action never fails to irk me with its facile use of the word "racism." All it takes is a little critical thinking to reveal it as a false analogy. When James Meredith was trying to attend the University of Mississippi, what was the rationale of the school for denying him admission and of the Governor going through the courts to keep him out? We might fairly call the rationale white supremacy. When the University of Texas takes the race of a student into consideration for admission, what is the rationale? Is it black supremacy? Latino supremacy? American Indian supremacy? Or is it a more ethical rationale, one aware of the historical impacts of institutional racism and sexism? Moreover, except in the most egregious example of discrimination, modern-day affirmative action in the workplace does not take the form of "preferential treatment" for white women or people of color. Rather, the goal of most workplace affirmative action efforts is to diversify applicant pools with expanded outreach and recruitment strategies. Even with greater diversity within applicant pools, "aversive racism" can intervene so that white applicants still come away with the job. Far from being racist, the rationale for affirmative action is, in fact, antiracist. According to law professor Cheryl Harris, affirmative action has been the only institutional intervention against the entitlements historically derived from white identity.

I could go on, but the reality is that none of these points will sway those like Vaughn who agree with Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that "The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Such a colorblind approach operates out of the belief that affirmative action has outlived its necessity, this despite the fact that black unemployment rates have been double that of white people for decades now. It refuses to read the impacts of centuries of institutionalized genocide, slavery, exclusion, and segregation into present-day circumstances and relationships. It misses how, since the 17th century, the allocation of state resources on the basis of race is affirmative action for white people: "freedom dues" for indentured servants, the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill of Rights, FHA-recommended interest rates, and more. The reach of policies such as the GI Bill extends even into the lives of my traditional-aged college students. "A family's net worth is not simply the finish line," says sociologist Dalton Conley. "It's also the starting point for the next generation."

Growing up in affluent Lake Forest, Illinois, Vince Vaughn benefited from the accomplishments of his parents, his mother an elite, Bloomberg-recognized money manager. Perhaps affirmative action was a guiding hand in her career, who knows? Vaughn's example reminds me of a famous quotation from University of Texas arch-enemy Barry Switzer (one so good that others adopted it for political purposes): "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple."

On second thought, it's not me. It's Vince Vaughn and people like him. You're so money, and you don't even know it, Vince.