Book review: Unpacking the economics of racism in ‘The White Bonus’ / Caló News

By Roxsy Lin,
Read the original article on Caló News

The concept of racial colorblindness hangs in the air every day. It paints the idea of a society where race is irrelevant, and everyone is treated equally without regard to their racial or ethnic background.  But at this point in history, it implies downplaying or straightforwardly ignoring the enduring effects of racism in the U.S. 

In her new book “The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America,” published this year by Henry Holt, award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan writes, “Colorblindness is the willful refusal to acknowledge that racism has shaped our world, and an unwillingness to repair the harm it has done.” Like the disparities in wealth and home ownership between Latinxs and whites. 

In 2021, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) estimated that “the median wealth of a Latino household was $48,720, which is only about 20% of non-Hispanic White households’ median wealth of $250,400.” A Pew Research Center study also showed that Latinx households are “less likely than white households to own their own homes” 47% versus 71.9% for whites. 

McMillan’s book explores the economic benefits of being white in the U.S. “For a very long time, I thought race and racism ‘happened’ only to people who were not white… In this country, I am rarely expected to acknowledge the obvious inverse: That white people born rich are twice as likely as Black [and Brown] people to stay that way. That we are…less likely to be arrested on drug charges. That we have eight times as much wealth.” McMillan wrote. 

Wealth inequality and the legacy of the G.I. Bill 

In 1944, after WWII, the U.S. government implemented the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill. This act provided several benefits to returning veterans, helping them reintegrate into civilian life, preventing mass unemployment and avoiding another post-war economic depression. The Bill encompassed key areas like educational benefits, providing free tuition and living expenses for vets attending college, vocational schools and other academic institutions. The Bill also offered home loans free of down payment and low interest rates. 

“While the G.I. Bill was in theory available to any veteran, use of its benefits was deeply segregated. Today, many scholars regard the postwar G.I. Bill as a source not only of social mobility (for whites) but of racial disparity, too.” McMillan wrote. “One of the Bill’s initial cosponsors in the House, white supremacist and sixteen-term Mississippi Democrat John Rankin, insisted that the G.I. Bill be administered locally. This structure ensured that the new raft of benefits would be subject to local law and custom—particularlyJ im Crow.” As a result, the Bill’s abundant resources were virtually inaccessible for non-white vets

Government policies like this helped create a buoyant white middle class while non-white communities fought to survive. The benefits of these incentives trickled down to the present, and McMillan has tallied them in two categories.  The white family bonus, which includes educational loans, inheritance from her grandfather, interest-free loans, tuition and gifts from her parents, and the white social bonus that provides access to rent-stabilized housing, interest-free credit and affordable home buying.  McMillan estimates that her white bonus amounts to $371,934.3.  

In an interview with CALÓ News, McMillan reflected on those facts: “White people are not told the truth about our country. We do not learn that labor protections, that minimum wage, that the G.I. Bill, that all of those were explicitly created with the idea that they were going to help white people more than anybody else. You’re not told you were given anything because you were white, and nothing gets explicitly stated as being because you’re white, and by the time you get down to Gen X or millennials, most of those benefits like formal government policy get trickled down through inheritances and down payments and, just the comfort of your family that they can pass down. It’s back far enough that people are not telling their kids about it. Just like, ‘Well, this is just what we have.’ Well, why did you have that?”  

A question that many white Americans resist. For most, the answer only includes hard work. “If hard work were what translated into wealth, then every farm worker would be an extremely wealthy person,” said McMillan. Unfortunately, hard work has not translated as wealth for many Latino families, to whom employment and wage discrimination, among many other racist practices, dissolved their ability to build financial stability. This factor would be passed down to the next generation, who will need to support their aging parents financially, sometimes situating them at a crossroads between building a family or paying for the care their parents need. This reality differs from many whites whose parents have a legacy of financial stability. “I don’t need to be making a ton of money, partly because of affordable housing, but also because I don’t have a family that I have to support, and that’s its own form of wealth.” said McMillan. 

The taxes we pay 

When it comes to government aid helping Latinx, most white people are critical to whom should receive it. Many complain that undocumented people benefit from it, forgetting that many of those undocumented people have been paying taxes for a long time using an ITIN number. A 2017 analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy established that “California’s counties gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues from undocumented residents — collectively over $1.53 billion.”

In her book, McMillan writes, “[In the]1960s, Republicans began to talk about public spending as ‘welfare’— something that benefited only people of color, and for which taxpayers should not have to pay. They did not mention that Black and Brown Americans had long been paying taxes that funded programs overwhelmingly designed to benefit white people far more than themselves.” This historical fact, unfortunately, persists to this day, and the desire to control the system to restrict benefits for non-white communities ends up creating one with minimal capacity to help any individual. It is an inhumane practice that is evident in the profit-oriented healthcare system.  

This is an experience close to home for McMillan, whose family fought a long legal battle to get the appropriate care that her mother required after a car accident, a battle that wasn’t solved in time for her mother to access the much-needed care. “When you make a really cruel system, we’re all going to get subjected to it eventually,” McMillan said. 

Living in a state of denial 

For many white individuals, delving into the topic of racism can feel like navigating a minefield — an uncomfortable conversation that many choose to sidestep entirely. “On a broad social level, we don’t learn how to just be a little bit uncomfortable and push through it. There’s this real sense of being like, ‘Somebody is making me feel uncomfortable about my race; this is terrible.’ Is it that bad to feel uncomfortable? No, it’s okay. So, any acknowledgment of it being unequal where they’re benefiting from it or they’re on the winning side, they tend to run away from it,” explained MacMillan. In the current state of the U.S. democracy, conversations about the complex effects of racism are crucial. “I don’t see how we dial back racism in this country without being honest. I think that if we’re honest, that’s going to give us a country that lives up to the values in our founding documents,” she states. 

McMillan’s book is an engaging conversation starter that provides historical receipts, personal experiences and insightful interviews to understand better how racism is still shaping U.S. society. It can be a tool to facilitate deep conversations with family and friends exploring the roots of contemporary issues, an eye-opener for many readers and a confirmation of their lived experiences for others. This honest narrative is crucial for the historical moment that the U.S. is experiencing, where racism is informing the will of many people into division and violence. These very needed conversations can produce awareness and empathy. They are an invitation to accept discomfort and embrace honesty to inspire the changes that can create a more inclusive and fair future for all.

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