Home > rant > White people don’t talk about racism

White people don’t talk about racism

August 11, 2014

Here’s what comes up in conversations at my Occupy meetings a lot: systemic racism.

Maybe once a week on average, whether we are talking about the criminal justice system, or the court system, or the educational system, or standardized tests, or chronic employment problems, or welfare rhetoric, or homelessness. There are many very well-informed people in my group which can speak eloquently and convincingly about how the system itself, not any particular person (although they do exist), discriminates against minorities in this country.

As a group we cheered when Ta-Nehisi Coates came out with his Atlantic piece entitled The Case for Reparations. So much resonated, especially the parts about widespread reverse redlining of mortgages to minorities in the run-up to the credit crisis. And it finally taught me how to think about affirmative action.

Another thing that comes up sometimes, although less often: how white people, even liberals like Elizabeth Warren, don’t talk about racism anymore. They want to address education inequalities through class-based or income-based measures rather than race-based ones. They talk about unemployment and joblessness and the need for criminal justice reform without referring to the enormous and glaring racial disparities.

I’m left feeling a lot like I felt in 7th grade social studies when we studied the period of mass genocide of American Indians and called it “Manifest Destiny.”

This recent study entitled Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies might explain why white people are so reluctant to talk about racism. Namely, because white react strangely when you specifically point out systemic racism (they are OK with it).

So in other words, if you tell them how many people are incarcerated in this country compared to other countries, they think it’s terrible and we should stop putting so many people in jail. But if you tell them most of those prisoners (60% in New York City) are black, then they’re less likely to think it’s terrible. They also remember the number wrong, thinking it’s higher than it is. Here’s a succinct summary from this Vox article:

The question seems to be which instinct wins out: the belief that our prison system isn’t fair, or the assumption that a prisoner must be a criminal. According to the study, when whites are primed to think of prisoners as black, it’s the latter that wins out.

The conclusion of the Vox article is this: politicians and activists have figured out that, if they want to agitate for criminal justice reform, they can’t mention systemically racist unfairness, because that just doesn’t upset powerful people enough. Instead, they need to focus on important stuff like saving money, which is how you get white people people up in arms. That’s what flies in the focus groups, apparently.

It explains why Elizabeth Warren doesn’t talk about race when she talks about student loans, preferring to talk about “young people”, even though the problem is worse for non-Asian minorities. Similarly, Obama is targeting for-profit colleges without reference to race (but with reference to veterans!) even though for-profit colleges notoriously target minorities.

The problem with understanding stuff like this is that it’s primarily used to be politically cunning, which is not enough. I’d like to talk about how to get people to directly confront racism, starting with liberals.

Categories: rant
  1. cat
    August 11, 2014 at 10:37 am

    I don’t think you can get the entrenched and entitled demographic to acknowledge the system is unfair. I rarely run into people who acknowledge their success in life is mostly luck based and even the outcomes that are skill based have a high variance. So you have people who are biased to believing the system works because they succeeded even though its survivor bias.

    The other factor of human nature you have to over come to get the haves to acknowledge the have nots, is that it seems very hard to get people to accept the fact that its OK to be proud of or love something that has flaws and work to improve it. Everyone seems to want perfection and will ignore the flaws.


  2. Min
    August 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Race and class have been confounded in the US for a long time. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, racism was obvious. Today it is mostly covert. Discrimination against poor people, however, is still socially acceptable. The racist element of such discrimination is unspoken, and denied if pointed out.

    It may be that today the most effective political tactic is to attack economic oppression instead of racial oppression, but really, it is not an either/or. We need to attack both, as well as gender-based and other kinds of oppression. Besides, it is the systemic aspects of oppression that are the most powerful. It is important to show that the individual is not solely or even mainly responsible for his or her fate. That is not an easy task in an individualistic society that maintains the myth of self determination.


    • August 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Well said.

      On Mon, Aug 11, 2014 at 12:11 PM, mathbabe wrote:



    • Michael L.
      August 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Years ago I read this article (below) by philosopher Iris Marion Young:

      Click to access young.pdf

      I think it contains a number of insights about racial and other kinds of oppression.


    • Phil H
      August 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm


      You say

      “It is important to show that the individual is not solely or even mainly responsible for his or her fate. That is not an easy task in an individualistic society that maintains the myth of self determination.”

      I think the idea that the individual is not •solely* responsible for his or her fate is clearly true. But to go on to say “or even mainly” does, I believe, make your statement far from obvious.

      And to talk about the “myth” of self determination is big “fundamental assumption” on your part, that could be the beginning of an endless debate among intelligent, knowledgeable, compassionate, and (perhaps most important) non-racist people.

      But you say this as if this “myth” is obviously true. I understand that to you it may be obvious. But to me and many other thoughtful people, it is simply your assumption.

      I think it is critical to understand people’s “fundamental assumptions” when it comes to debatable issues as complex as this.


      • Savonarola
        August 13, 2014 at 3:28 pm

        Phil, you just eloquently made the case for why liberals refuse to recognize racism or talk about it. I think perhaps what I would call the myth of meritocracy is even more strongly held than what Min called the myth of self-determination. Genuinely, honestly, most of any given individual’s outcome is not in his or her hands. I was born a few miles from the border to Mexico. From a very early age it was clear to me that this particular accident almost completely formed my opportunities, and those of children born on the other side. The accident of having a second X chromosome also makes a huge differences, as did the accident of the particular constellation of strengths and weaknesses I got at birth and the accident of which of those I had the opportunity to address and build out in the community I found myself in. For love or money, you weren’t picking up hockey in 1970s South Texas, for example. I think Min is dead on – but I find most Americans staunchly disagree that their fate is not their own accomplishment.


        • August 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

          Maybe because I wasn’t born in the USA, and I accepted and believed in the American dream, that I don’t buy into the privilege paradigm. Raised by a single mom who worked piecework in a sweatshop so that her children would have a better life, gave me the push I needed. Mom finished 8th grade. 7 of her siblings were murdered by the Nazis. My paternal grandparents were murdered by the Nazis as well. We came penniless to the USA. We had no money, but we had lots of cousins in similar situations. Most of my cousins did not attend college. Yet, I and a few others did. I got into grad school(s) on merit, not by the color of my skin or because of past tribulations that my family had gone through. Yes, it’s really hard for me to accept that it wasn’t my single mom’s sacrifice and my own determination which got me to where I’ve gotten in life. Prove me wrong.


        • MCA
          August 19, 2014 at 12:45 pm


          The problem is how to conceptualize the role of “chance” in one’s outcome. If I’m being really pedantic, every single person alive and dead owes everything they’ve ever been or done to a tiny gravitational nudge that made the difference between a civilization of upright apes and one of intelligent theropod dinosaurs. Or to the fact that a plucky band of a few hundred humans managed to scrape by 70,000 years ago when the planet was blanketed in the ash of the Toba eruption. However, while philosophically interesting, neither tells us much about current society.

          There’s a difference between the accidents of birth that led a given person to be born in a particular place and time with particular characteristics, and the role of chance in, say, making millions by taking a chance on a startup company.

          Being born with the genetic background to be 7 feet tall does not guarantee you a spot in the NBA – you need skills, developed through hard work and effort. Sure, you’ve got an advantage over someone who’s 5’5″, but that does not invalidate your countless hours of training.

          To blindly assert that every accomplishment of a person is due to luck of birth is, quite simply, wrong. Maybe there are a few sickeningly rich, hyper-privileged people who can fuck up in every possible way and still become President of the USA and lead us into two quagmire wars, but for the vast majority of people even including most of the dreaded 1%, hard work is necessary to even keep treading water, much less to advance.

          Just as you can’t say our society is a pure meritocracy, you can’t say it’s a pure crapshoot determined only by chance (of birth and later).

          Also, for a closing bit of philosophical pedantry, there is also the very real possibility that there is NO chance, that time’s flow is an illusion due to the limitations of our sensory and memory system, and the motion of every atom, every person, every event, every flip of a coin and every random proton decay is not merely “pre-destined” but has effectively already happened and is as immutable as what you had for breakfast last Thursday.


  3. August 11, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    White people don’t want to acknowledge racism just like men don’t want to acknowledge sexism. We don’t want to be blamed, especially for things that are true.


  4. Min
    August 11, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks, Phil. 🙂

    Self-reliance is a core American value. But that is not the same as self-determination. Self-determination depends, upon other things, the mythic level playing field, upon equality of opportunity. But it is apparent that there is no level playing field in America today.

    We used to have a level playing field in the frontier. Hence the 19th century advice, “Go West, young man.” But that advice also indicates the lack of opportunity in the more urban East. The frontier was also less racist, with a high percentage of Black cowboys. But civilization caught up with the frontier long ago. (Maybe Alaska is an exception.)

    Speaking of the frontier, a couple of years ago a local TV station played reruns of “Have Gun, Will Travel”, which was a morality play about American values. Self-reliance was prominent, of course. But so was community. You didn’t raise your own barn. (Nearly all of the actors were White, but I did catch an anti-racist episode. :))

    Judging by statistics, there is greater economic opportunity in Europe today than in America. Go to Denmark, young man!


  5. August 11, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Maybe it’s my age (north of 60) but I admit to becoming increasingly jaded with all the “isms” as I get older… I think it’s the powerlessness one feels as an individual to ever accomplish much; progress is achingly slow. Even when laws change, people’s hearts and minds don’t change so fast. I’m still very concerned, rationally, with racism, sexism, and even speciesism (animal rights), but emotionally it’s hard to stay engaged.
    Also, there are so many groups subject to prejudice/mistreatment: ethnic groups, religious groups, the handicapped, the obese, old people, the poor or uneducated or homeless…. it’s overwhelming and frustrating. I have lots of hope that younger generations will bring on needed changes, but only over time. Meanwhile, what I seem to be most concerned with these days is a completely different ‘ism’: corporatism — the control private corporations increasingly have over our lives from birth to death, and that crosses the boundaries of all the other isms.


  6. August 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm
  7. Phil H
    August 11, 2014 at 5:03 pm


    Thanks for the input.

    You say:

    “But it is apparent that there is no level playing field in America today.”

    Once again, I consider this statement to be way too broad.

    Consider the important “playing field” of “getting a college education”. Do you think that field is not “level”?

    I grew up in extreme poverty, and did not go to very good elementary or secondary schools. I was certainly bright, but so were a lot of people around me. The difference between me and a lot them is that I liked school and they didn’t. I liked studying, and they didn’t. Some of these people were black, and some were white. I have no doubt (and in fact know in two cases) that a lot of these people wound up in prison or worse.

    The fact that I liked studying eventually enabled me to get a fairly good professional job (actuary) and to live a fairly normal “upper middle class” life. And, I want to emphasize that I don’t give myself any “credit” for having done this. I simply always liked to learn, and the rest followed naturally.

    I also want to emphasize that the people I’ve mentioned were all at least as “intelligent” as I was (however you want to define intelligence). And, they didn’t have abusive parents either. But, they didn’t like school, and I did.

    I can see nothing that would have prevented such a black person from simply studying the way I did, graduating at the top of his/her high school class, going to college, and living a relatively fulfilling life. Even graduating in the top *half* of your class would be enough to go to college these days. But, I believe hard work is enough to enable most people to graduate in the top 10% of most high school classes, and therefore wind up in a very good college.

    So, do you think that (especially today) blacks do not have “equality of *opportunity*” when it comes to education? That the society doesn’t *present* the opportunity for a black person to get a college education, provided he/she qualifies for admission? Let me say again, I believe (one of *my* fundamental assumptions) *most* people are capable of doing well in school if they make the effort. That is, I think most people are pretty intelligent in that sense. But, people seem to vary greatly in their ability to put out the effort to do well in school.

    Yes, it is no doubt true that many poor black (and white) people also have a dysfunctional family to go along with their poverty, and it is therefore quite understandable why such a person might not be interested in studying. What to do about *that* is complicated of course.

    But, my point here is I believe the *opportunity* to get a college education (even if you go to poor elementary and secondary schools like I did) *is* provided by society for poor white *and* black people. The problem is that (often for some very legitimate and understandable reason) people are not always able to take advantage of this opportunity. But, the “field” itself is level.


    • Josh
      August 12, 2014 at 10:10 am


      You should be very proud of your accomplishments. But it does not prove the playing field is level. if 10% of poor people succeed as you did and 90% of rich ones do, it isn’t a level playing field.

      To say that the people with your background didn’t succeed just because they didn’t “like studying” is extremely simplistic and understates the situation. They (and you) were facing some substantial headwinds. Many of the more privileged people (myself included) would probably have failed if they didn’t have the wind at their backs or opportunities to recover from setbacks.

      Also, from your silence on the point, I assume you are white which means that you faced less strong headwinds than your black peers.


      • August 12, 2014 at 2:46 pm

        How do you know that he faced less headwinds, even assuming he is white? How do you know what headwinds I faced? By my name? You make assumptions by racial or ethnic classification? How is that valid? How is that not racism? A single immigrant/refugee mom working in a sweatshop is privilege? Born to a rich Nigerian oil executive is not privilege? Yes, white people talk about racism. Racism in affirmative discrimination. Racism in di-worse-ity. Racism in assuming you had “privilege.”


      • Phil H
        August 12, 2014 at 11:50 pm


        You say:

        “You should be very proud of your accomplishments. But it does not prove the playing field is level.”

        Actually, I don’t think “proud” is quite the appropriate word to describe how I feel about my accomplishments, because I achieved them by doing exactly what I enjoyed doing most, learning.  That enabled me to get into a college, and working hard at learning there enabled me to get into graduate school.  Getting a Master’s degree in math made it relatively easy for me to get my job as an actuary.

        Now, if I had not been particularly interested in learning or study, but had had the insight to see that in order to succeed in this society, I needed to get a good education, which at least meant I needed to do something I really didn’t *want* to do (study), and if I had done this anyway and did accomplish something as a result, then I might be proud of myself.  

        As it is, I simply feel not pride, but happy that my natural inclination to learn and study happened to be exactly what our society requires one to do in order to attain a certain measure of success.

        Now, I was a poor white person (yes, you guessed correctly that I’m white).  But, was one of my poor black friends/acquaintances at a disadvantage because the “playing field” was stacked against him/her? Well, let me ask you:

        Do you think if a poor black person loved learning and studied hard, and had a 3.5 grade point average (which, as I indicated elsewhere, I *assume* is possible for most people if they put in the effort), he/she would be unable to go to college because he/she is poor or black?  It seems to me that because of affirmative action, under such circumstances, a poor black person would be in great demand at even “prestigious” colleges. Ironic, don’t you think, if the “playing field” is stacked against poor blacks?  As for a poor white person in such circumstances, although he/she might not have as great a chance to get into a place like Harvard as the poor black would, he/she could in all probability get financial grants or loans and attend a relatively good university.

        Do you think if a poor black person who studied hard and graduated with good grades from college (maybe a “prestigious” school) and then applied to graduate school that he/she would be turned down because he/she was poor or black?  It seems to me that graduate  schools are also quite interested in accepting high-performing black people, rich or poor.

        Do you think a poor or black  person who has emerged from graduate school with a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. is going to have a more difficult time finding a relatively good job than a white or rich person is?

        If your answer to any of the above questions is “yes”, I would appreciate some elaboration.

        If your answer to all three is “no”, then I ask, in what way do you think the “playing field” is not “level” for poor blacks?  And remember, as I stated in my previous post, the “playing field” I am talking about was the one  of “getting a college education”.  Here, I’ve also added the “playing field” of “getting a relatively good job”, which of course is directly related to the education “playing field”.

        I think getting a relatively good job mostly depends on getting a relatively good education.  Don’t you?  And the clear “rule  for these “playing fields” is: if you study hard and do well in school, your ability to get a good job is not going to depend on whether you are black or white, rich or poor.

        Keep in mind I am *assuming* here that most people have the ability to do well in school if they seriously apply themselves.  Do you think this is *not* true for black people or poor people?  

        As I also said in my previous post:

        “Yes, it is no doubt true that many poor black (and white) people also have a dysfunctional family to go along with their poverty, and it is therefore quite understandable why such people might not be interested in studying. What to do about *that* is complicated of course.”

        This is an important point, which I perhaps should have talked about in more detail.

        Suppose (expanding on your example) only 10% of poor black people (or just poor people) “succeed” while 90% of rich people (white, black, or whatever) do.

        It does not at all follow from this that the “playing fields” (for education and getting a good job) is stacked against the poor or black people.  Why?  Because, as I indicated, the “rule” for the most important “playing field” (which I believe is getting an education, which in turn usually leads to job success) says that if you do well in school, you will be able to get the “credentials” that will enable you to get a reasonably good job, and therefore have a reasonably good life.  And this rule applies to *everyone*, black, white, rich, and poor.

        Now, it *may indeed* be true (as I indicated previously)  that a much larger percentage of (say) poor, black people have no interest in learning or in applying themselves in school.  And it may also be true that there are good reasons for this (dysfunctional families, etc).  And what to do about that is a deep and serious question.  But, this is not related to the question of whether the “playing field” per se is “stacked” against poor and black people.  The “playing field” rule (concerning education and jobs, which is what I’m talking about – I think we might need to define exactly what this phrase “playing field” is supposed to mean – but I made it clear what I was talking about) is: study hard, do well in school, and you will be treated essentially equally no matter what your race or financial status.  Although  if you are black (rich or poor) that might be an advantage when it comes to getting into a school like Harvard.

        You also say:

        “To say that the people with your background didn’t succeed just because they didn’t “like studying” is extremely simplistic and understates the situation.”

        Can you please give me more details on why you think my analysis is “extremely simplistic and understates the situation”?  Do you not agree that doing well in school usually leads to a good job, regardless of race or financial background?  


        “They (and you) were facing some substantial headwinds. Many of the more privileged people (myself included) would probably have failed if they didn’t have the wind at their backs or opportunities to recover from setbacks.”

        Assuming you did well in school, what specific “headwind” did you have that enabled you to succeed aside from that, and how did it help you?  Are you saying that in spite of having done well in school, you would have not been successful had it not been for this “headwind”.

        Or, are you perhaps saying that you didn’t do well in school (and don’t have any particular  talent) and the only reason you’ve succeeded is because you had the “headwind” of being white (my guess) and/or wealthy.  And if this is the case, how do you think your “headwind” helped?


        • Josh
          August 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

          Phil, actually, i said I had a tailwind and I didn’t say the “only” reason I succeeded was good luck or privilege. Just that it contributed.

          I worked hard and succeeded just as you did. I just don’t think that is the whole story.

          For one minor example, I walked around at times with marijuana in my pocket (the statute of limitations is long passed so I can admit this freely). As a white person who spent little time (at that time) in Manhattan north of 96th street, my odds of being arrested were extremely low.

          On the other hand, the same behavior by a black person living in that neighborhood, would result in a high chance of being stopped, frisked and, since he/she has marijuana, arrested.

          If I had been arrested, I would have had a good private attorney, would have been treated with respect by the courts and would have very little chance of going to jail (or even prosecuted). A poor black person today has a very different experience.

          Affirmative action affects fewer people than you seem to think and only partly offsets other institutional biases.


        • August 13, 2014 at 3:58 pm

          Must have been my “white privilege” that told me not to walk around with marijuana in my pockets, that way I wouldn’t have to spring for a lawyer, which in my younger days I could ill afford. Choices. We all make choices. Consequences. Responsibility.


    • Josh
      August 13, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Choices, consequences, responsibility. Except, the consequences — of both good and bad decisions — may be different for some than for others.

      I have more to say but I think Savonarola (see above) said it more eloquently and succinctly than I can.

      If you think all (or 90%) of your fate is determined by your own decisions and behavior, you are simply being willfully blind. As Warren Buffett has noted, if he had been born in rural India, he’d probably be extremely poor.


      • August 13, 2014 at 4:45 pm

        I know quite a few rural born Indians who are quite well off. They put their heads into studying to get into one of the IITs, came to America, and live the American dream.


  8. August 11, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    As always, an excellent OP in a favorite blog.

    Movement rhetorics, however cherished, have meteoric careers– brilliant, colorful, and short. For much of this society, “racism” was honorably retired decades ago, although nobody is under the illusion that racial equality has been born. Even viewers of Fox News could not mentally update “socialism” to mean “whatever it is that Barack Obama stands for” because, even with all the hate speech in the world, they still could not imagine their golfer-in-chief wearing a Che beret or whistling the Internationale on his way to the next bailout or vacation on the Vineyard. Likewise, trying to update “racism” to mean “disparities strongly correlated with race” has failed even with liberals because, say, Birmingham and Selma are not in those numbers and all ordinary people know that. Of course. should such incidents recur, retrieving “racism” from mothballs would make perfect sense.

    I hear outraged shouting at screens. But esteemed readers, surely you know that the public heart is not now– and never will be– like the hearts of activists? To activists, great causes morph into ever-new forms and never really end, so that brand extensions of old rhetorics feel like stirring moral insights that they pride themselves on seeing before everyone else. (On the right, Fox’s Strossel still can’t stop calling non-libertarian politics “socialism.”) But to the ordinary citizen, loyalties are formed in, and limited to, some horizon of their own personal lives within the public narrative. Quite naturally, they feel that they own the languages of their hearts and ignore or despise attempts to revise them. After all, they reason, nothing prevents today’s activists from finding honest new rhetorics for their new causes in new times, and making their pitches for them. We really can do good new works that are not faux continuations of old works.

    In the special case of “racism,” however, there is another, less literally “trivial,” problem. Lots of people, left and right, have expected that, at some point, actual progress in race relations would be acknowledged and celebrated for awhile. Extending another brand, we might say that they want a “peace dividend” from the last generation of civil rights zeal, and, until they get what they consider to be their fair share of civic good-feeling and celebration, their minds are closed to anything remotely like “reparations.” Knowing and hating this reality, passionate activists from time to time grit their teeth and scold the public like perfectionist parents, insisting that nobody has yet earned allowance money, let alone the big pool party they want. Can’t. Let. Up. Discipline. Even. A. Moment. Or. Kids. Will. Get. Ideas. Some early disappointment with the Obama presidency came of precisely this disappointment, not just that people were not invited to a big party, but that liberals and civil rights leaders refused even to throw one, to say “thank you.” It might have been wise; do a favor before you ask for one, they say. Yet just as it is still 1980 to America’s aging conservative activists, and always will be, so it is still 1967 to too many of America’s racial progressives, and perhaps always will be. Like physics (according to Niels Bohr), the rhetorics of activists may only progress one funeral at a time.

    It’s good to read that Occupy, a fresh voice, is on the case. Just as younger pro-life activists have experimented more than the pro-choice pioneers who have long dominated the other side, and gay activists have easily outflanked the religious gerontocrats opposed to marriage equality, so Occupy may be less nostalgic, derivative, and slow, and more street-wise, inventive, and nimble in imaginatively opposing all of the inequalities of today.


  9. August 12, 2014 at 2:13 am

    Privilege is invisible to the privileged.


    • Phil H
      August 13, 2014 at 12:36 am


      I think this is of course true for *some* “privileged” people (although I’m  not really sure what you mean by the word privilege).  And I regard such people as psychologically shallow.

      I assume you would consider most of the people I know to be privileged, since they are white and members of the “upper middle class”.  But, I’ve made an effort to talk anout this to a lot  of my friends and acquaintances over the past few months, and they (like me) all seem to be very aware of how fortunate they are to have the kind of life they have.  

      So, could you be a bit more specific about exactly what you mean by your  statement?  


  10. EJD
    August 12, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Summed up nicely by Johnathan.
    Learning to check your privilege is a very active act. And very uncomfortable.
    Race and class and sex are just the beginning, but a start.


  11. Phil H
    August 13, 2014 at 7:46 pm


    Yes, I did get confused in the “headwind” versus “tailwind” idea. I said the former when I meant the latter. Sorry about that. I assume you understood from the context what I was saying.

    What I’m seriously concerned about however, is that you didn’t respond to some very specific questions I asked you. Why?

    Also, I made it very clear that I was talking about a very specific (although extremely important) “playing field”. But in your latest note, you shift the discussion to a completely different “playing field” when you talk about the differences in the experiences of blacks and whites who are caught with marijuana. And, I’ll be glad to talk about that too, later. But first, I would appreciate it if you would give specific responses to the questions I asked you on the topic I was talking about.

    Concerning one thing I did talk about in my posts, affirmative action, you say:

    “Affirmative action affects fewer people than you seem to think…”

    You imply I think it affects a lot of blacks, but I do not at all think this. But, it does *very significantly* affect the relatively few blacks who do put in the effort to become well-educated. And, in this country, virtually all people have a chance to do that. But, it takes effort. And, for those who make that effort, the “playing field” I’m talking about is not only “level” for blacks, but to their advantage because of affirmative action. The problem is not that the educational “playing field” is not “level”, but that few blacks get themselves in a position to benefit from the fact that it is. And to benefit even more from affirmative action. The reasons for that are worth discussing. But my point is that the reasons are other than the idea that the educational “playing field” is not level.

    You continue by saying…

    “… and only partly offsets other institutional biases”.

    There may indeed be other institutional biases, and as I indicated, I’m interested in discussing that point. But, the point of much of my previous posts was to object to Min’s statement

    “But it is apparent that there is no level playing field in America today”.

    I regard this statement as way too general to withstand scrutiny, and I was trying to argue that the critical “playing field” of “getting an education” is indeed level, if not a bit off balance in favor of blacks because of affirmative action.

    One last thing. In your last post, you say:

    “If you think all (or 90%) of your fate is determined by your own decisions and behavior, you are simply being willfully blind.”

    I’m not sure if you’re talking here to me or to abekohen. And, I’m not sure anyone said anything about all or 90% of one’s fate being determined by one’s decisions (please point it out if I have overlooked this). But, whomever you’re addressing, I think calling someone “willfully blind” is a subtle form of “name calling”, or “ad hominem” argument. And, I prefer rational arguments. I think we should assume everyone in this thread is simply trying to understand things better. A “willfully blind” person is obviously not trying to do this.


    • Josh
      August 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Phil H,

      First of all, I had second thoughts about “willful blindness” after I wrote it. I did not mean to attack you or Abekohen. I apologize for the comment. But, it does seem to me that the evidence for the system being stacked against blacks is very clear that I’m puzzled when people don’t see it.

      To respond to your questions and comments: sorry for not responding to your request for specifics. I did begin to answer but it seemed to me that anecdotes about my life would not further the discussion. Also, in any individual case it is hard to attribute a business decision in favor of one person versus another to sexism, racism, merit, etc. I can’t say that I got such-and-such a job because I was white. All of those factors may be at play. But, when the aggregate evidence is strongly in favor of one group it becomes clear that many of the decisions were influenced even if it is still impossible to make attributions in specific cases.

      to address some of the specifics you raise: I agree that at the college acceptance level there is a clear bias in favor of blacks, at least at “elite” schools which are very eager to increase their diversity. But, the primary and secondary educational systems that are available to the average black are clearly inferior to those of the average white and I think there are also subtle factors (such as teacher expectations) that are important and work to the detriment of blacks. Not just a few but most.

      I believe that similar factors are also operating within colleges (once students are accepted). I’ve heard affirmative action criticized on the grounds that blacks who are accepted into elite schools have a lower graduation rate and this is then attributed to their not being as qualified. This may be a factor but so may discrimination within those institutions.

      The same is true in business. For instance, this is documented in many studies where resumes are submitted with identical credentials but suggestions in irrelevant ways of race such as name that apparently “black” resumes get a very different response than “white” ones do.

      As far as the “90% of ones fate” comment. It was a response to Abekohen’s “choices, consequences, responsibility” comment which seemed to me to say that all that matters is one’s personal behavior.

      While I’m correcting my mistakes, Buffett did not say India but “Bangladesh or Peru”.http://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-famous-warren-buffett-quotes/reference.

      I do appreciate your interest in engaging in discussion and hope that this addresses your questions.


      • August 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm

        When you hit a bump in a road you have three (or more) choices: 1. stop, 2. go around it, 3. climb over it. I’ve hit more than my fair share of bumps, but I’ve never stopped. Of course external forces matter, but what counts is what you do about it. That’s where YOU make YOUR destiny.


  12. Phil H
    August 15, 2014 at 12:36 am


    I appreciate your thoughtful response. I’ll go through it and make some comments.
    Unfortunately, no matter what I write, my comments will be incomplete, because of the complexity of the subject.

    You say:

    “First of all, I had second thoughts about “willful blindness” after I wrote it. I did not mean to attack you or Abekohen. I apologize for the comment”

    I certainly appreciate and accept your apology. I constantly worry about saying something that can be interpreted as a personal attack, and don’t always succeed in avoiding doing it. But, I think we should all try. And it is clear to me that you do.

    “But, it does seem to me that the evidence for the system being stacked against blacks is very clear that I’m puzzled when people don’t see it.”

    I don’t actually disagree with the essence of what you’ve said about the situation. I would certainly not want to be black in this society.

    I simply have a problem with the general statement Min made:

    “But it is apparent that there is no level playing field in America today”.

    Let me try to explain.

    When we had slavery, (to use your words) the “system” was definitely “stacked” against blacks. I interpret “the system” to be the official “rules” of society, that is, our body of laws. And when we had slavery, our laws said slavery was okay. And, of course, this was horrible. But in 2014, we no longer have such laws. All the laws now say that blacks are “equal” to whites. That’s our “system” now.

    Of course, blacks still have some serious problems in this society. But these problems are not caused by the “system”. The “system” says everyone is now equal under the law. What causes the problem is *people*. First, we still actually have some white people in our society who are “racist” in the sense that they believe black people are inherently inferior to white people. I do believe that (mercifully) such people are “dying off”. Younger people, because of positive cultural influences, are not nearly as “racist” in this sense.

    But, a lot of black people who have emerged from a culture of poverty are still looked at with fear and suspicion by some white people who are not racist in the above sense.

    Although I am white, I spent a lot of my formative years in a “poor black” culture. I went to a high school that was 95% black for my first two years, and was usually the only white person in my class. And, I loved the place. But… the black people I was around and knew well ranged from “poor” to “lower middle class”. And their “culture” was different from the white middle-class culture I had been raised in before my circumstances changed because my parents divorced.

    Anyway, I have a “feeling” for, and an appreciation of at least some aspects of what I’m calling “poor black culture”. And it’s different from what most white Americans are used to. For one thing, a lot of poor black people have a certain type of accent, which seems alien to middle class (and even lower class) whites. And this “poor black” or “ghetto” accent as I call it, seems scary to a lot of white people.

    My field is math, and I believe that if a black mathematical genius (call him X) came along who had that sort of accent, top-notch math departments might think twice about hiring him, even though his work was world-class. Because the administration would be worried about that “poor black” accent, and the effect it might have on people who felt uncomfortable with it. Sure, the department may want him (because mathematicians are relatively enlightened😊), but the university administrators don’t. So, the department comes up with a bright (as opposed to genius) black mathematician to hire instead. And everyone’s relatively happy… except X, who has a suspicion that because he comes from a poor black family and speaks with an unacceptable accent, he didn’t get the prestigious job. He may call the department “racist”. After all, he knows the reason has something to do with his blackness (white people don’t have accents like his) but the department was clever and hired a black mathematician (but no genius) to “get around” this “racism”.

    But, is this really “racism”? Is the “system” really “stacked” against X? Or is something more complex going on? After all, the department hired a black man, just not X.

    I use this as an example of a way in which “life” is sometimes “stacked” against black people. But, this is not the same thing as the “system” being stacked against X. The “system” or body of laws does not cover this sort of thing. You can’t have a law that says a prestigious math department must hire someone like X. No matter what kind of law you try to come up with, there will always be a way to get around not hiring someone because university administrators feel uncomfortable about someone’s “poor black” accent.

    Here’s another example. Suppose a rich white woman wants to marry that mathematical genius X with the “poor black” accent. And suppose the woman’s family is a part of a very conservative “high society” sort of family. I can imagine that the family might take a dim view of such a marriage. So, because X happens to be black, and speak with a “poor black” accent that scares a lot of people, he’s going to have a hard time marrying into that “sophisticated” family. Of course, if X were white and spoke like a “redneck”, the family would probably also take a dim view of the marriage (although not quite as dim as before). But, my point is, black or white, this is an example of *life* (or people) being “stacked” against blacks with “ghetto accents” and poor whites with “redneck” accents, whether they are mathematical geniuses or not. It is *not* an example of the *system* being stacked against anyone, black or white.

    You say

    “For instance, this is documented in many studies where resumes are submitted with identical credentials but suggestions in irrelevant ways of race such as name that apparently “black” resumes get a very different response than “white” ones do.”

    Unfortunately, people feel afraid of different cultures. People feel uneasy about people who speak differently than they do. Or who have strange names. Suppose someone raised in (say) a white, upper middle class culture was charged with picking one of two candidates for a job. They had both graduated from Harvard and had identical 4.0 averages. One’s name was Jane Smith, and the other was named Tanisha Jones. I have no doubt that some people (as you indicate) would choose Jane over Tanisha merely because of the name – for many reasons.

    My point, once again is that as horrible as this sort of thing is, it is *not* an example of the *system* being “stacked” against Tanisha. It is an example of *life* (or a person) dealing her a hideously unfair blow. But, how could society ever come up with a law that would make this sort of thing impossible? I’m sure we have many laws whose purpose is to prevent people from experiencing this sort of thing. But, we are never going to be able to have a system of laws that makes it impossible for people to be hideously unfair.

    And some of those unfair reasons are actually semi-plausible. For example, ask yourself this: suppose you had to choose between two surgeons to perform a serious operation on your child. And suppose that *all you knew* (aside from the fact that both had graduated from Harvard Medical school) was that one was white and the other was black (not realistic I know, but let’s assume this). Would you choose the white one or the black one? Or, would you just flip a coin?

    And, if you chose the white one, would it be fair to call you a “racist”, as no doubt many people would? I say no. I say the problem here is much more complex than that. For example, we know that affirmative action sometimes allows black people admission into schools they would not be accepted to if they were white. And we know that professors are sometimes afraid to be overly hard on black students for fear of being accused of “racism”. So, as you are trying to decide which surgeon to pick to operate on your child, you can’t help but wonder whether the white surgeon has a higher probability of being better than the black one, simply because of some of the consequences of affirmative action. This is not to say the black surgeon would not be competent. I like to think that this “fear of being accused of racism” doesn’t extend to allowing a black incompetent surgical student to graduate. But, you obviously want the *best* surgeon you can get for your child. So…which do you choose?

    You say:

    “As far as the “90% of ones fate” comment. It was a response to Abekohen’s “choices, consequences, responsibility” comment which seemed to me to say that all that matters is one’s personal behavior.”

    As I say, there are always going to be situations where, no matter what you do, you are going to be unfairly treated by people who are either mean-spirited, afraid, or just stupid. And, I think blacks (not because of the *system*, but because of human nature, and historical circumstances – that is, because of *life*), have to put up with this a lot more than whites do. But, to blame this on the *system* (which I think is actually pretty enlightened in this country) is, I think, misleading.

    As far abekohen’s point, I think that even if a black person *does* make all the right choices (like putting in the effort to be educated) he/she can still expect to be more unfairly treated in a variety of ways than a white person can expect.

    But (and I think this is important) if a black person does *not* make the right choices (for example, if he/she makes no effort to be educated) then he/she is not really in a strong position to complain about the “system”. Sure, a black who gets educated will no doubt encounter more difficulty in life than an educated white. And that’s quite sad. But, it’s not because of the “system”. It’s because of the historical circumstance of slavery, the negative consequences of which are still manifesting themselves in people. But, the official “playing field” (as defined by law) is pretty level.

    I hope I’ve been able to somewhat clarify why I have problems with the very general statement: “But it is apparent that there is no level playing field in America today”.
    I believe it is clear there are many different sorts of “playing fields” and that the law is now written to ensure they are level. And in particular, it is obvious that the “playing field” of getting an education is not only level, but somewhat biased in favor of blacks, because of affirmative action.


    • Josh
      August 15, 2014 at 11:43 am


      Thanks for the comments.

      I do agree with you that it is worth distinguishing “stacking” that occurs at an organized governmental level from that which results from individuals or corporations acting independently and perhaps, rationally in some sense — I’ll return to that. I’ll use “the system” to refer to the governmental and “society” for the rest. Previously, my use of “system” referred to both..

      You say ‘I interpret “the system” to be the official “rules” of society, that is, our body of laws. And when we had slavery, our laws said slavery was okay. And, of course, this was horrible. But in 2014, we no longer have such laws. All the laws now say that blacks are “equal” to whites. That’s our “system” now.’

      You are defining “the system” very narrowly if you think it is just the code of laws. But even there I think there is bias though I agree it never explicitly says that blacks should be treated differently. When laws are put in place to punish similar behavior differently in a way that adversely affects blacks, such as crack v powder cocaine, I think it is discriminating against blacks.

      But, government is much more than the law. So, if a young black person has a much higher chance of being stopped and frisked by the police, I think that is “the system”. If he is not, objectively, more likely to be carrying something illegal, that is discrimination by the system.

      You say ‘And in particular, it is obvious that the “playing field” of getting an education is not only level, but somewhat biased in favor of blacks, because of affirmative action.’

      I think if you visited NYC public schools, you might doubt that is “obvious” or even true.
      While there is no law on school segregation, if anything the reverse as you note, nonetheless, the NYC school system is very segregated and facilities are worse in predominantly black schools than in white ones.

      But, I agree that what I’m going to call “society” is more responsible today. In part that is necessarily true because society could fix “the system” if it wanted to. Our collective willingness to tolerate the systemic biases and incarceration of the huge number of black people, and others, that we do is our responsibility, not the government’s.

      But, a lot of the “stacking” occurs outside of government. But, you say that it may be rational to prefer a white surgeon over a black one. Let’s examine that. There are hundreds of measures one could use to evaluate a surgeon, his/her race is probably one of the least indicative. First of all, I’m not sure of the sign. If the white surgeon were the child of a wealthy alumnus of the school, you should probably be more worried that he was favored by his professors than the black surgeon. I might also think that a black person would be more capable on the “has to work twice as hard to reach the same results” basis (you might think that’s not true because of affirmative action but I’ll get to that later). In any case, age, gender, handedness and many other things are probably at better indicators. All of them are very weak because the variability within any group is much greater than the average difference between groups. So, I think you are making a mistake by allowing race to affect your choice. If you really want the best surgeon, ignore race and look for more relevant indicators. I think we are much too prone to let race affect such decisions and this has harmful consequences — mostly to black people.

      But, there are business circumstances where race may rationally matter. If a company is hiring a salesperson for an expensive product, they may think that of two otherwise identical candidates, the white one will be more successful because, even though we are not racist, some of our clients may be. Or, even if they aren’t, they will feel more comfortable with someone “more like” them. The company may be correct in that assessment. But, that will still make it harder for black people to get good jobs. Or, succeed in them. That is societal bias that works against blacks.

      We can also overestimate the impact of affirmative action. Suppose that there is a spot that nine white people and one black apply for and the black person gets. The nine white people may feel that they would have gotten the spot if there had not been racial preference. But, at least eight of them are incorrect, possibly all nine. Given our ability to fool ourselves about our relative skills, it is likely that many more people feel harmed by affirmative action than actually are.

      Finally, as to effort, I just saw a black person on the street collecting discarded soda cans in a large plastic bag. I suspect that person works harder than I ever did (certainly, physically). But, if black students work less hard because they correctly believe that the rewards for their effort will be less, it is unfortunate because it is reinforcing the inequality that exists. But it is hard to lay the blame entirely on their shoulders.


      • Phil H
        August 15, 2014 at 11:39 pm


        I don’t have any serious disagreements with what you’ve eloquently expressed here.

        You make some interesting points which I appreciate, and with which I do have a slightly different perspective on, but I confess I simply don’t have the energy to get into all of them now. I just wanted you to know that the fact I’m not addressing all your points here is not because I don’t appreciate them. It’s actually because I’m on vacation, and don’t have as much time as I would like to respond.

        By the way, as I write, I’m about five miles from Ferguson, Missouri, where I once lived. And what’s going on there is relevant to some of the things we’ve been talking about here.

        You are quite correct that I am defining the “system” narrowly. But, that’s my point actually. I think we somehow need to revise the vocabulary we use to talk about these problems.

        Yes, one can think of the “system” to mean everything blacks (and whites and everyone else) must face in life. But, I think it would lead to less confusion and misunderstanding if the word “system” were understood more narrowly, along the lines of what I said earlier, that is, as the official “rules” for society, or our “body of laws”. If it were understood this way, people wouldn’t *make* statements like “the system is stacked against blacks”, because our laws are obviously *not* stacked against blacks now, as they were during the days of slavery.

        I think when someone *does* make a statement like that about our “system”, they are thinking of “system” in a more general sense, as I said above, as everything people must face in life, including mean-spirited, racially prejudiced, and just plain stupid people. And, as I said before, blacks *do* have to deal with this sort of thing more than do whites, not because of the “system” (meaning our laws), but because of the negative consequences of slavery.

        But, on the other hand, when people *hear* such a statement, I believe most of them *do* assume it *primarily* refers to our government and our system of laws. But that makes the statement sound like it says we’re living in a society that is “officially” out to discriminate against blacks. And, I don’t believe that’s the case, as it was in the days of slavery. In fact, for many decades now, our government has been passing laws designed to help black people.

        Also, the word “racist” is thrown around way too much these days. In my mind, that word evokes the image of “Bull” Connor, who became a symbol of racism back in the sixties. But these days, it would be difficult for anyone in a position of authority like he was to have the sort of attitude he had toward blacks. Also, as I indicated in a previous post, not every bad thing that happens to blacks is because of “racism”. It is much more complex than that.

        So, to summarize succinctly, I readily acknowledge that in our society blacks are still in many ways disadvantaged compared to whites. What I’m concerned about is the language used to *describe* this phenomena.

        Thanks again for your thoughts.


        • September 3, 2014 at 11:58 am


          Thanks for the reply. .I do appreciate the comments but I also need to move on to the rest of my life.

          I do want to make brief comments on a couple of your points.

          I agree that “the system” shouldn’t cover everything but I think you are being too narrow.

          Even by your definition that “the system” is the laws on the books, it is quite possible for the laws to enforce existing discrimination and biases even if there is nothing explicit about race (as mathbabe has pointed out about models in a more recent column).

          But, surely “the system” should include things like the people who enforce the laws and the funding for schools and things like that. I think an objective analysis of all of these things indicate that “the system” is strongly biased against blacks, despite the existence of things like affirmative action in some areas.

          Thanks for your thoughts.

          P.S. I am reading “Righteous Mind: Why Good People
          are Divided by Politics and Religion”. The author makes the point that we rarely change our own minds. But that we can change other people’s minds (and they can change ours). Which makes dialogue with people we disagree with very important. There is all too little of it these days.


    • Becky Jaffe
      August 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      How ironic that we’re debating whether or not there is a level playing field for people of color in academia at the sane time that unarmed black teenagers are shot and killed by white police officers in Ferguson, MO and in Oakland, CA. There can be no level playing field when our youth can’t even survive long enough to go to college.


  1. August 12, 2014 at 7:30 am
  2. August 18, 2014 at 4:44 pm
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: