‘The White Bonus’: How whiteness pays off in cold hard cash / Reckon

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By R.L. Nave

Thinking back on it, Tracie McMillan wonders if one of her earliest lessons about racism came as a result of her mother’s illness.

“I understood, when I was a kid, that my mom was sick, and nobody was helping her,” McMillan tells Reckon. “When you are beating your head against the wall, trying to help somebody where there’s no system in place for them, and you’re also being gaslighted about it being a problem — that was really formative.”

In her newest work, The White Bonus, McMillan highlights the pathways of systemic racism and inequity through a compelling blend of investigative journalism and reported memoir.

At its core, is McMillan’s searing question: If racism penalizes people of color, what dividends does it pay to white people?

And most crucially, how much is that worth—not in nebulous notions of privilege, but in quantifiable dollars and cents? Or, in other words: power?

In her case, a back-of-the-envelope estimate shows that she received at least $372,000 that she would not have if she was not white and part of a family that was able to build wealth by taking advantage of government programs that were only available to whites.

McMillan’s journey begins within her own family history, tracing three generations of relatively modest wealth back to policies that explicitly advantaged whites. Through this exploration, McMillan assigns a minimal cash value to the advantages conferred by whiteness in her own life.

Reckon recently spoke with McMillan about that exploration.

Reckon: What are some of your earliest recollections that a white bonus was accruing to you?

Tracie McMillan: Honestly, it probably wasn’t until college or my professional life. In part because I grew up in a place that was so overwhelmingly white. The community I grew up in was like 95% white so it’s not like I had a lot of interaction with folks who weren’t white. I don’t think I had that conscious understanding that I was having a different employment or housing experience, at least until I was living in rent-stabilized housing in New York.

I moved in with two white boys who had moved to Bed Stuy. The joke in the house was, ‘Oh, if you get lost, just ask where the white kids live,’ because we were literally the only white people for several blocks. And then you start thinking, ‘Why would this landlord rent to us?’ Once I started understanding rent stabilization … because he thinks we’re gonna leave so he’ll be able to jack up the rent. My race is part of how people are looking at me for housing, which I had not understood before, in part because I hadn’t really looked for housing before in my life. I think … (my whiteness) is mattering, and it’s saving me money.

In your earlier understanding of things passed down through family, how did you think about that, if it wasn’t through a whiteness lens?

I had a really distorted understanding of my family’s financial situation because my mom was sick. And nobody’s talking to me about what’s really going on because I’m a kid. But the sense in my household was: Mom’s got to go in a home because we don’t have enough money. I was raised with the understanding that there just really wasn’t any money. I don’t understand — after all, we do live in a colonial house on two acres, so that’s not no money.

My parents are not pretentious people looking for signs of status. So I didn’t understand anything about the actual reality of the financial life I was being brought up in. It was a surprise to me, when I was a senior in high school, that my grandfather said he could help pay for some of my college. That had never been part of the conversation in my family.

I think that’s more common in middle-class white families than most folks let on. We just don’t ever talk about money at all. There’s no brass tacks conversation about money. And then all of a sudden, somebody’s like, oh, and there’s an inheritance. I heard this from a couple of folks like my subject, Jared. His family spent a little money to bail him out in a few spots, and his dad co-signed for a loan for him. That family has some money; they just don’t give it to their kids. And the Mississippi family (in the book) makes small and targeted investments in their kids.

But the way that they think about inheritable wealth is not, ‘We’re going to hand a bunch of money to our kids; we’ll do these targeted investments so that the public sector can come in, hopefully, or scholarships and things like that. The best thing we can do for our kids is take care of ourselves well, and then if there’s money to leave them when we die, that’s fine.’ My experience talking with white families about inheritance, there’s a lot of disavowal of whatever folks have just in terms of money, let alone talking about the racial roots of it. It’s a very weird thing.

There’s this part of white middle-class culture that it’s impolite to talk about money, about not having money. It gets back to the idea that they just made good choices and did the hard work

Right. We’ve made good choices, as opposed to we had good choices and selected from good choices. It’s really important to talk about the white bonus because so much of middle-class white culture relies not only on not acknowledging whiteness but not acknowledging that they even have unusual resources or that they’re tied to government investment. I think lower-income white families talk about it more. They’re more transparent about it. They’re less precious about it. But middle-class white families have this investment in the idea that we made the right choices, and we don’t talk about having money, and we don’t talk about how we got it other than we made choices. So it hides this whole thing from any conversation — not only the whiteness, but that government was part of it. It fuels this bootstrapped narrative.

I was thinking about this with my great-grandfather — and that’s not even the source of wealth that comes down to me — but on my mom’s side, one of my great-grandfathers was an …Ozark migrant, comes up in the 1910s, gets a job in a foundry in a factory. Then unlike Black workers who came out from the South and worked in a foundry, gets promoted out of the foundry. So he gets welding skills and starts working in a small business. He starts his own small business, goes from renting and moving every year … and he becomes a homeowner and buys a house with a racial covenant that was developed by a white supremacist terrorist, this guy that was in the [white supremacist organization] Black Legion.

Grandpa was on the line at Ford. Grandpa paid for this nice wedding, in a fancy suburban church on the shores of a lake. Really nice stuff. (I realized) grandpa inherited his dad’s racial covenant house and sold it. That’s how grandpa was able to give his baby girl this beautiful wedding.

We only had that because that great-grandfather was white. But we never talked about any of that. We don’t talk about housing being about people being white. We’re not talking about jobs. How many black millwrights were there? That’s a pretty high-level trades position that is not traditionally a very integrated job. My grandpa didn’t come up on the line. He had worked in his dad’s business. Probably — this is family history I wasn’t able to uncover — a friend helped get him a job to be a millwright.

That’s how that stuff works. And we don’t talk about that being about race or being about the government. So the bonus thing, to me, is really interesting because white folks not only believe whiteness doesn’t matter, but I think many middle-class white people think government hasn’t done anything for them. And that’s not true. The middle class only exists because of government intervention in the economy and policy. And so white folks have this idea that we’ve worked really hard, and it’s true. My grandparents all worked really hard. It’s just that it paid off for them.

It would have been very easy for you to grow up and just be a person who’s like, well, I didn’t have an easy life. Nothing was handed to me. There’s no such thing as white privilege. How did you not become that?

Some of that is whatever weird chemistry in my head, right? I was a Sesame Street obsessive from age 2. I just really took it to heart that we’re all equal, and we should share. I’m into that. I think a lot of it comes down to, some people go through hard things, and they just sort of tunnel in, think that was really hard, I’m just gonna get through it and never gonna talk about it again. Some people go through hard things, and they’re just like, I don’t ever want that to happen for other people. I’m in that latter group.

I became a Democratic Socialist in college, so I understood that there was a political element to it. I would say I probably am still roughly there. I’m not identified with anything politically right now, really, other than I will not vote for fascists. But I did a bunch of political work in college and did a lot of reading about our country’s history. I studied with Robin Kelley, this sort of lefty academic.

I will say that as I went through writing this book, and the more that I learned the specifics of what had happened in my family, like with my mother and healthcare companies, and my father’s decisions.Then growing up in a household where there was physical abuse. There’s all this stuff happening that was not cool. And nobody would even admit it was happening. My dad would never acknowledge that it had happened.

The first or second time that he was pretty out of line with me, I remember him apologizing. Then just nobody was paying any attention. There was nobody holding him accountable. So it just kept getting worse, and he stopped apologizing. Because there’s also a lot of shame that comes from treating your kids poorly so it just kept metastasizing. I came out of that just being like I don’t want to be hurting anybody. I don’t want to be making people feel like they’re not human or valuable ever. I really, really just feel like we should, generally speaking, be honest about stuff, so that we can make stuff better.

I want to be rigorously honest, not be scared of it and then work to make things better.

There’s also a lot in the book about withholding resources — your dad threatening to take the car away, saying you can’t go to work today…

An abuse of power, right? Having the privilege to spend time really studying some history and then becoming a journalist and being able to see that play out again and again: It’s not cool to be abusing power over people who don’t have it. I don’t want to be part of that. My training under Wayne Barrett … he was a total bulldog at fighting for people to be treated well and things like that. That training was formative for me because I could actually speak up about it because I felt these things and didn’t feel like I had a voice or any power or anything. Learning to be a journalist was (realizing) I could talk about this and maybe things would change, but at least I would speak up about it.

At least I would name it, be honest about it, and move this forward in some way. I had a right to speak up. I saw these things as messed up and thought I didn’t have a right to say anything about it because I just would get squashed down as a kid. But then, when I became a journalist, I thought, actually, I have a right to know. You can’t tell me I don’t have a right to know these things.

I’m curious about the reception of the book, and any criticism particularly from white people

I’ve gotten a few nasty emails. But it hasn’t gotten a single national review. It’s not been reviewed anywhere. I’ve also had a really difficult time placing essays. So, I mean, I’ve had four experiences of getting past a first editor, having them be like, ‘Yeah, this is good. I think we should run this’ then somebody else objecting and killing it. That’s national newsrooms. One editor did share that they thought that there was a lot of, I think the phrase was, discomfort with the idea of quantifying this. Okay, well, kind of the point. So I think to some degree, the fact that it’s not social science is what people are using to say we can’t talk about this, because this is not a perfect measurement. If we wait until we have a perfect measurement, we’re never going to talk about this.

It’s really important that we talk about it because we cannot resolve the racial divide in this country, which is really important if we’re going to make any pretense at continuing to be a democracy, or even have a functioning economy, if we’re not honest about the fact that a lot of the reason that there’s a racial wealth gap, and a lot of the expression of racism in structural terms, is because government made investments in white communities, and not in other people. That’s the root of it. We should just be honest about that. For me, as a white person, I actually feel like I would be better off with a strong social safety net than having to rely on my family for (paying for) education and making sure I could pay for health care. When I’ve gone to my family for money, that’s what they’ve been paying for. If we had that stuff provided publicly, I wouldn’t need this inherited stuff.

You do make the argument that your white calculated white bonus is the floor…

Yeah, this is bare minimum, rough estimate. Not at all comprehensive. So the white response mostly has been pretty quiet just because people are just ignoring it. I did three national podcasts right at launch, that were all white hosts but I think other than that, other than that and Teen Vogue, it has only been journalists of color or straight up Black outlets that have covered this, like all the interviews and stuff I’ve done. I did an interview with Alta Live, which is a California literary magazine, and that’s a white guy who I know from college. Who I think objectively believes the work is good. But that’s different because there’s a connection there. That’s also a smaller publication so easier to get through yet.

What should people do with their white bonus?

Fight racism, to work to end racism wherever you’re sort of able to put pressure. Certainly, if you’re engaged politically, if that is something that’s important, I think it’s especially important for white people to talk about racism not as charity, but as collective self-interest.I think it’s true that me personally would be better off if we had a better social safety net, but I don’t make much money. I think just making the point, wherever you can make it — that’s not cool because white people stay real quiet about a lot of racist shit, and just let it keep going. I think that’s really dangerous.

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