Detroit journalist examines the cash value of racism in new book / Bridge Detroit

By Micah Walker, Bridge Detroit

In 2016, Tracie McMillan wrote an essay for The New York Times reacting to the news that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States. 

Titled, “White Resentment on the Night Shift at Walmart,” the piece referenced the journalist’s stint working undercover at a rural Michigan location of the superstore, an experience chronicled in McMillan’s first book, “The American Way of Eating.” But the essay focused more on the idea of white resentment, the belief that white, middle-class people work hard to earn things like jobs, homeownership and education, but become resentful when they think people of color have received bonuses in life. 

This idea laid the foundation for McMillan’s second book, “The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America,” which comes out Tuesday. The book was the product of an 8-year process that examines the way people have benefited financially from white privilege in areas such as homeownership, the prison system, the public school system and health care. 

Photo credit: Henry Holt & Co.

McMillan starts with her own life growing up in Holly, Mich., tracing the modest wealth three generations of her family were able to accumulate while relying on American policies that mostly benefited white people. Even though McMillan’s family was able to live a middle-class life, there were still struggles with those advantages, such as her mother’s death at the age of 44 in a nursing home due to insufficient health care.

“White Bonus” also explores the stories of four other subjects across the country: Katrina Rectenwald, a nurse in Pittsburgh raised by a construction worker during the city’s industrial collapse; Jared Bunde, a petty teenage drug dealer in small-town Connecticut who avoided prison after being arrested for selling acid at school in 1994; Lindsey and Maryann Becker, whose parents resisted white flight and kept their daughters in the majority-poor, majority-Black public schools of Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Barbara Nathan Katz, whose upper-middle class, mid-century Jewish family in Houston offered more than $332,000 in support in adulthood—but could not keep her out of working poverty. Katz, an undiagnosed diabetic, died of ketoacidosis in 2015, a serious complication of diabetes where the body can’t produce enough insulin.

McMillan’s nationwide tour to promote the book includes a stop at Detroit Public Library May 7. Nancy Parker, the executive director of the Detroit Justice Center, will lead a discussion with the author during the visit. 

BridgeDetroit spoke with McMillan, who now splits her time between Detroit and Brooklyn, about the book’s concept, the writing process and sharing her family’s story. 

Editor’s note: This transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.

BridgeDetroit: How did you come up with the concept of measuring racism in dollars? 

McMillan: I came up with the idea of “The White Bonus” through trial and error. This is a project that really started to feel like the more that I was paying attention, specifically to conversations regarding race and equity, that I didn’t actually know very much of what I was talking about.

I just thought, if I can come up with a way to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for what materially racism and white supremacy has given me, maybe then I can see what I’m working with and figure out how to respond from there. “The White Bonus” was about coming up with a way to take responsibility for myself, in my country, and try to have an honest conversation about how racism and white supremacy work, so that hopefully we can push our country to live up to its ideals.

BridgeDetroit: How did you track the “white bonus” for yourself and your four subjects? 

McMillan: I was trying to estimate the white bonus for everybody as a two-part process. The first part is looking at what money you’ve gotten from your family and that’s something that’s fairly easy to put a dollar amount to. I say ‘How much money has your family given you since you left home or turned 18?’ For me, that number is around $146,000 in inflation adjusted dollars. 

The second part is looking at a social bonus. So, it’s ‘What kinds of financial benefits have I seen because the door was opened for me because I was white?’ Things like getting the job that got me through college where it seemed pretty clear that getting hired depended on being a white girl that could look like I might be a family member of the girls that I was working with. And then all the benefits that come from that. I get this job that pays me over the course of three years, $12,000 or $15,000 above minimum wage, so I have that as a benefit. But then (the benefits) also helped me get my first rent stabilized apartment in New York City, which saves me a few grand each year. I just started tallying that up over time. 

BridgeDetroit: How did you find the subjects for your book? 

McMillan: I found the subjects through the same strategies I use as a reporter, which is advocates and professional connections and personal connections. Jared is somebody I’ve known since my 20s. I knew I was hoping to write about criminal justice as I was starting to develop this book, and I sat down with him for a beer when I was in California and he was like, ‘Did I ever tell you about what happened to me when I was 17?’ I already had enough trust with Jared that he was willing to open up to me because this is a really scary conversation. 

When I started reporting on Katrina, it took me six weeks or so to find her. I ended up finding her through her union (Service Employees International Union). So, it’s a typical journalist thing, you find an advocacy organization that wants to invest some interest in what you’re doing. I knew some folks in Mississippi, but it took a few months of calling around before I found somebody who would talk to me. And in Texas, I know one of Barb’s sisters professionally. 

BridgeDetroit: How’d you get your subjects to admit that systemic racism played a role in where they are today?

McMillan: The fact that I was doing the same project on myself and my family helped a lot. I don’t know that I would have gotten very far if I was going up to white people, whether I knew them or not, and said, ‘Hey, you want to talk about this really sensitive, complicated thing?’ 

My publisher was generous with me, I was able to take sufficient time to really report these stories. It gave me time to sit and think about the interviews I’ve done with people, what other questions I might want to ask, how I might want to ask it. 

BridgeDetroit: Why did you decide to share your own story, too? 

McMillan: My upbringing was actually really difficult. There were a lot of hard things that happened when I was coming up and I didn’t understand any of it. My family didn’t talk about things. I hesitated to do something that was a memoir because for me, as a reporter, that just felt too self-involved. I felt like if I should do a memoir that was actually deeply reported, it’s about the social context I grew up in. And then it’s useful, not because somebody might read my story and see themselves in it, but it’s useful because it might help people understand our world and our politics. That felt worthwhile. And I certainly learned from working on the first book, that having a central narrative and character to follow really helps people understand big ideas.

BridgeDetroit: How did home buying in Detroit open your eyes to racist homeownership practices in the city?

McMillan: In 2014, when the city announced the land bank, I was paying attention to that as a possible way to make an investment and to buy a place that I could live in if I decided I didn’t want to be in New York. Because the housing in Detroit was so cheap, I was able to buy a Victorian house in Hubbard Farms for $27,500. But the more that I dug into this, there’s a reason why the house was that cheap. The subprime crisis in 2008 really decimated Detroit’s housing stock. Housing values plummet and put it on super sale for anyone who wants to make an investment. And certainly, a bunch of institutional scale investors have done that, but it also meant that white people, like me, who are looking for a way to make an investment in some mobility suddenly could afford to buy a house where I could not have done it in almost any other major city. 

It has been transformational for me financially, but it’s also rooted in structural racism. And I think it’s important to understand that when you’re looking at racism as a financial transaction, it can be something that benefits anybody, but it can also be something that hurts anybody.

BridgeDetroit: What do you hope readers take from “The White Bonus?” 

McMillan: I hope to see an honest conversation about how racism works in this country. I would like to encourage white leaders who are up for it, just spend a little time thinking about racism and not as a personal choice or a personal failing or trait. Racism isn’t always interpersonal. Sometimes it just shows up in money. I think it makes sense given how much damage racism does to our democracy and to the government’s capacity to take care of its citizens. 

I love this country, but I don’t like how it’s been treating me and my neighbors. If people can see that, I think we would go a long way towards making us the kind of country it was raised to think it is. 

Tracie McMillan is the author of “The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America” and the New York Times bestseller, “The American Way of Eating,” which won the Books for a Better Life Award and the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism. McMillan oversees national coverage of worker organizing for Capital & Main. Born and raised in the exurbs between Flint and Detroit, she splits her time between Brooklyn, NY and Detroit.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct McMillan’s estimate for how much money she has been given by family since she turned 18.

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