Last week I saw this announcement about a new study on race by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers from Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The general conclusion of the study is that basically, “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.”
Although some have heralded recent political and cultural developments as signaling the arrival of a postracial era in America, several legal and social controversies regarding ‘‘reverse racism’’ highlight Whites’ increasing concern about anti-White bias. We show that this emerging belief reflects Whites’ view of racism as a zero-sum game, such that decreases in perceived bias against Blacks over the past six decades are associated with increases in perceived bias against Whites—a relationship not observed in Blacks’ perceptions. Moreover, these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias.
The findings of the this report were no surprise to many I am sure, but it does raise a significant question as we think about any major social/cultural issue be it race, sexuality, gender, class, etc. What do we do when a vital member of the community holds a perspective that is more about perception that reality? While I get how White people can “feel” that this is their reality – they are targets of racism – we must not allow this perspective to drive the future of our conversations on race. Yes, there may certainly be instances where White folks are pained because of their race, but the idea that racism against White people should be taken seriously as a larger social reality does not hold water for me. Compassion and understanding for particular instances where White folks are harmed because of the color of their skin must be had, but as a norm that drives larger understandings of race in the United States, acceptance and agreement are simple not options for me.
What I think is really going is that as the perceptions of racial relationships get better, there is a social understanding that if it is not that bad for brown people anymore then certainly it must be worse of for White folks. This “if it’s better for ‘them’ it must be worse for ‘us’” mentality only exacerbates the problem of genuine racial harmony.
Now in business circles, where the primary matrix of success and relationships is financial profitability this may actually be true. There is a finite amount of resources that are available for people to attain and exploit. For instance, when I travel and board planes, I see that there are a limited number of seats in first class. There is not an unlimited space for people to be part of that part of the airplane, so IF equal access and opportunity ever does level the playing field, a few of the 90% of White men who generally occupy those seats are going to have to walk a few more rows into coach because there will be women and brown folks moving on up. The same goes for upper-management of fortune 500 companies, leaders of educational institutions and other places where White men still occupy a disproportionate number of high-level seats.
This notion that we each hold a finite amount of resources that must be protected at all costs, and even if those gains have roots in historic injustice and unearned privilege, is dangerous and will get us nowhere. This will be especially true if this posture of scarcity and protectionism is transfered to our understanding of dignity, compassion and community. We often treat our own ability to see people as complex and created human beings as some kind of commodity that is doled out based on merit and/or availability furthering the idea that if am going treat this person with a generous spirit, then I must have to take something away from someone. And even worse, we fall into the destructive trap of believing that if I see someone else being treated with a generous spirit, then obviously something is being taken away from me.
Again, while there is a finite number of seats in First Class and the CEO table, the same does not hold true for the household of God. Unlike our natural proclivity to ration our love like pennies in our pocket, God’s abundant love for another, does not mean less for you or I. As culture moves forward and race, gender and sexuality norms shift and change, those who have held a dominate role MUST not see or act out of a feeling that something is being taken away so it must be protected. In fact, society will only reach further into the possibility of a just and whole world if those who hold power and authority joyfully usher in a distribution that provides for the well-being of all God’s people.
So . . . all compassion to White friends and strangers for the emotional and physical struggles around your experiences of race, but the social understanding that racism is now worse for White folks than for others must be not only be shed, but challenged by you and the rest society as a whole if we are truly going to move forward to a place of genuine racial wholeness.