A White Author Calculated Just How Much Racism Has Benefited Her. Here’s What She Found / San Diego Voice & Viewpoint

If we could fix racism just by having Black people tell us how bad it was, we would have fixed it by now. As a White American, I felt like I needed to take some responsibility for myself and understand how things were working on my end.

Read on San Diego Voice & Viewpoint

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

(CNN) — Exactly how much has racism benefited White Americans?

Journalist and author Tracie McMillan did the math: The advantages she’s gotten over her life from being White, she estimates, amount to $371,934.30.

To calculate that number, McMillan tallied those benefits and divided them into two categories: A family bonus, which includes money her parents spent on her college tuition, educational loans she got from her grandfather and an inheritance; and a social bonus, which includes jobs, apartments and access to credit she’s gotten throughout her life.

Those resources and capital, she concludes, wouldn’t have been available to her if it weren’t for her race.

In her new book, “The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America,” which publishes Tuesday, McMillan traces just how much of her family’s modest wealth can be attributed to policies and practices that have systematically hurt Black Americans.

Through investigative research, interviews and personal recollections, McMillan examines how racism has shaped her life, as well as the lives of four other White, middle class families.

“It was the one story about White people that I didn’t know,” she says.

McMillan, who grew up in rural Michigan and now lives in New York, didn’t have a particularly privileged upbringing by most standards. As she details in the book, she grew up in an abusive household and an unfortunate accident left her mother unable to care for her. In college, McMillan juggled numerous jobs to support herself, and as a working journalist, she’s had her own brushes with poverty.

Despite those hardships, McMillan says the financial advantages she’s experienced because of her race are undeniable. Her grandparents benefited from federal programs that largely excluded Black people, allowing them to build wealth that was then passed on to the next generation. That enabled her parents to help her pay to attend an elite university, which in turn opened doors to employment opportunities.

But, as she writes in the book, those advantages also come with a cost — not just to Black Americans, but White people like her.

CNN’s conversation with McMillan has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to write this book?

I work as a journalist and have gotten pretty good at understanding — at least structurally — how racism hits people who aren’t White. I started to feel that just listening to people who aren’t White talk about racism and how bad it was was not sufficient to fix the problem.

If we could fix racism just by having Black people tell us how bad it was, we would have fixed it by now. As a White American, I felt like I needed to take some responsibility for myself and understand how things were working on my end.

What is the ‘White bonus’ you describe in the book, and how is it different from White privilege?

The “White bonus” is an estimate of the money a White person gets or saves because of White supremacy, public policies or private practices. For me, this was a really humbling exercise.

I’ve been on food stamps and had a stranger live in the bedroom of my one bedroom apartment to save rent through those periods. But at the end of the day, my family has spent about $146,000 to help me out since I left home. That’s money they’re not required to spend by the government. That’s extra money they have.

As I dug into my family’s story, every time I started to peel back the layers, I thought, “Would grandpa have had the money if he wasn’t White?” Well, no. He became a banker around 1930 when across the whole United States, there were a quarter million bankers and only 80 of them were Black. Then he bought a house with a racial covenant (a clause in many 20th century property deeds that explicitly prohibited Black people from owning or occupying real estate).

My grandpa on my other side of the family was a millwright. That’s a job that often was racially restrictive in practice for a long time. He got that job because he worked for his dad, who ran a welding business from his dad. (My great-grandfather) came up from the Ozarks in the early 1900’s and got a job in the foundry at a General Motors plant outside of Detroit.

Foundries are historically a site of racial segregation because it’s the worst, most dangerous, poorly paid job in the factory, and Black workers were not allowed to get out of those departments. My great-grandfather was allowed to get out of that department, got some skills and training, and was able eventually to start a business and buy a house with a racial covenant.

Both blue collar and white collar parts of my family were able to build enough wealth because they got that opportunity.

Our life experiences are shaped by a number of factors, race being just one of them. Can we really measure just how much our race has helped or hurt us?

All these are back of the envelope estimates. They are bare minimums. I don’t think there’s a way to have a definitive number, but I think there’s a way to have a meaningful number so that you can talk about this.

As long as we sit here and say we could never measure that, we don’t get anywhere. We’re just having these conversations about privilege that are like trying to grab onto a ghost. At least if we’re talking about this in material terms, the argument is over the scale.

When we talk about the advantages White people have had, we tend to think of people who are wealthy. Yet, the people you profile in the book aren’t extraordinarily well-off by many standards. Why did you focus your book on the White middle and working class?

The focus on the middle class started as an accident. I wanted to go up and down the class ladder and study how White advantage works through narrative, and then put everything into context. Frankly, I just was not successful in finding broke White people or really wealthy White people who were willing to talk to me.

But as the project moved forward, it just became really clear to me that the middle class is really the fulcrum for White advantage in the US. People in the middle class who were willing to talk to me understand how on the edge of falling into poverty they are.

The middle class doesn’t have enough wealth to feel comfortable. They’re always trying to game out how they and their family stay taken care of, particularly in a society where we have allowed the safety net to be eviscerated.

How did you understand race before “The White Bonus,” and how did writing the book change that?

Before I wrote “The White Bonus,” I understood racism as something that hurts people who aren’t White. I understood racism hurts Black people, racism hurts immigrants, racism hurts brown people. I could cite incarceration rates, and I could tell you about police violence and all of these things. But I did not understand that racism was something that actually actively benefits me.

It’s this thing that we all know, but that we pretend that we don’t. White people actually do kind of know this, but the whole trick of American public discourse is that we never say that it’s happening.

Not even being able to articulate that that’s what’s happening just completely ruins our ability to accurately address it.

Today, some White people in the US argue that they are being discriminated against by workplace diversity programsaffirmative action and other policies meant to address the legacy of racism. Given your reporting, do these feelings surprise you?

I don’t think it reflects reality. I also think the way that we usually talk about race in this country makes that a really predictable response.

Take the G.I. Bill (a post-World War II law that gave returning veterans free college, job training and other benefits). We created this benefit, that in practice, was only intended for White people. Maybe a few people of color were going to be able to access it and it was written as if it was colorblind, but everybody understood it was going to be implemented in a way that would benefit White people and nobody else. But we talk about benefits like that as if it is a natural right for an American to have.

White people today do not understand — because this history has been hidden from them by previous generations — that somebody in their family got something because they were White.

Historically, the US has been a lot more honest about the fact that they are denying things to people because they are Black. But the inverse of that is also true. If you’re denying something to one group of people because of their skin color, you’re also by default giving it to the other group. White people do not have tools for that. This is the sort of stuff that, if we were teaching accurate history, would be part of the US history curriculum and it’s not.

The idea that White people are now victims of racism appears to be a key pillar of Donald Trump’s campaignHow might your book help White people see things differently?

As somebody who grew up in a community that was decimated by a raft of trade policies and an economic shift, people act like the only reason blue collar workers are mad is racism. That’s not true.

People are mad because they lost a path to the middle class that they could afford, and they’re given this story that it’s because of people who don’t look like them.

So not only are they getting gaslit about their experience of losing this path to the middle class, but they’re seeing people suddenly talk with sympathy about the abuse that people of color have experienced.

There’s a lot of White people that are resentful because they’ve had stuff taken away from them and then told that they never got it in the first place. “The White Bonus” is about coming up with another way to tell that story.

If White people benefit from anti-Black racism, as you’ve documented in your book, will they ever have an incentive to change these systems?

We usually talk right about racism = bad for people of color, or racism = good for White people. That’s one way to do it, but it’s also true that racism impoverishes our democracy and undercuts our social safety net.

For most White people, unless you are Elon Musk, you or someone you love is going to need a social safety net. Maybe you are safe in your middle class position, but you’re going to know some young person that can’t afford higher education and ends up in a really bad spot. You’re going to know somebody who needs medical care they can’t afford, and they die because they can’t get it. That stuff happens all the time, and we act like it’s normal and it’s not. That hurts a lot of White people.

When you start looking at racism not just as something that only gives or only takes but as something that does both things, then you can ask yourself if it’s worth being silent about it.

I calculate $146,000 from my family that probably they had because of racism. I calculate $225,000 of money that I have had access to or equity I’ve gained probably because I was White. That’s almost $400,000. But I also lost my mother because we didn’t have public health care. And I had a really traumatic childhood because we didn’t have public health care.

Most of that money from my family and most of those bonuses I’m talking about with housing, I wouldn’t need if we had affordable higher education. I wouldn’t need them if we had affordable housing for everybody.

I think there are enough White people now who understand that this isn’t really working in our favor, but we don’t have language for it.

In the book, you explore the assumptions we make in the US about who is “deserving.” As your reporting details, when White people have historically received government help, they are assumed to have deserved it. Meanwhile, Black and brown people often have to prove they deserve those same public benefits. What did you take away from that? 

I came out of writing “The White Bonus” really convinced that the idea of “deserving” is a farce.

This idea of who deserves what is just about making sure that the people who already have something get to keep acquiring more, even when they don’t need it. It just lets people hoard power and money, and I don’t think that’s helpful for most Americans. We have enough resources that folks don’t need to be terrified of ending up without a house.

I think it’s really easy to point at striving, middle class families and all the effort that they put into making sure their kids can go to college and this and that. But we’ve basically created the Hunger Games to get into the middle class, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

When my grandparents got into the middle class, it was like stepping on an automatic sidewalk at the airport. My grandparents were not savvy financial investors. They weren’t moving money around. They weren’t gaming out return on IRAs for their five-year-old. They were just like, “Alright, I’m going to take care of my family. I’m going to get paid, I’m going to have a pension.”

America was much more comfortable talking about that like a broad right when it was just White people that they thought were getting this. So this idea that some people deserve more than others when it comes to basic sustenance is silly.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that folks who have had to deal with families that fell down in supporting them in the way they would have liked can feel seen.

I hope that readers who aren’t White feel seen, too — that somebody out there who’s White does see how this is happening. So much of the way that we look at race in this country is through this lens of oppression. That’s important, but if we don’t talk about the bonus, we’re not seeing things accurately.

What I want is for people to work to end racism because I think it’s in all of our interests. It is great and important to show up to things like Black Lives Matter protests. But it’s also important to do the hard, daily work in your community — talking to your friends and neighbors and trying to shift people’s understandings so that we can all take care of each other.


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