White Supremacy and the Obama Legacy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World (2017)

Book Review

This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.

Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.

Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”

“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”

Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.

My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.

 

White Like Me

White Like Me

Scott Morris (2013)

Film Review

White Like Me is a frank examination of white privilege featuring long time white civil rights activist Tim Wise. Contrary to popular misconception, the political disenfranchisement of people of color didn’t end with the Civil War or the 1960s civil rights movement. The majority of black people attend poorly funded, segregated inner city schools, face massive job discrimination and have much poorer health status. Thanks to these historic structural disadvantages, they also bear the brunt of the 2008 downturn and growing inequality.

Blaming the Victim

Many white conservatives use Obama’s election to the White House to shift the blame to the African American community for their miserable economic and social conditions. If a black man can achieve the highest office in the nation, they argue, it must mean that racism has ended. By extension, it must be their own fault if African Americans remain at the bottom of the heap.

They conveniently overlook the fact that Obama lost the white vote by a 57% to 43% landslide. In some southern states, he only garnered 10% of the vote.

Examples of White Privilege

In examining specific privileges, white people enjoy Wise begins by discussing three important federal programs that blacks were excluded from until the late sixties: Social Security, Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loans and VA loans.

He traces how Roosevelt deliberately excluded domestic servants and agriculture workers (occupations employing 80% of African Americans) to win the support of southern Democrats.

At the same time, the FHA made it virtually impossible for blacks to access loan guarantees with the following language:

Areas surrounding a location are investigated to determine whether incompatible racial and social groups are present, for the purpose of making a prediction regarding the probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.

There were no specific laws excluding black veterans from VA-guaranteed loans – this was down to banks refusing to give them mortgages, even when the federal government guaranteed them.

White Affirmative Action

Other privileges whites have enjoyed include freedom from racial profiling by police and white affirmative action in education. This begins in elementary school when white kids have the option of attending well-funded non-ghetto schools. It continues at the college level, where white beneficiaries of affirmative action are called “legacy” students. On average, colleges admit twice as many white students whose parents or grandparents attended as minority students who qualify for affirmative action.

Whites also have the privilege of indulging in occasional marijuana use without losing their civil and human rights for the rest of their life. The film quotes from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow  to demonstrate how the War on Drugs deliberately targets people of color for mass incarceration.

The filmmaker also features University of Massachusetts professor John Bracey, who explains how structural racism hurts white people. As one example, Bracey talks about the millions of poor whites who have lost access to welfare benefits, thanks to the deliberate misportrayal of social safety net programs as primarily benefiting minorities.

Coming to Grips with White Privilege

Wise concludes with advice for white people who are genuine in wanting to conquer their unconscious racism:

Among other suggestions he calls on them to

1. make the conscious decision not to be colorblind and close their eyes to racial disparities and inequality. In order to address racial disparities, we must first learn to see them.
2. acknowledge that we all have unconscious racial biases that can affect our behavior in ways that maintain or exacerbate inequality.
3. study and honor the long tradition of white anti-racist activists who are our role models.

Wise also has a book entitled White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.