There’s a cash value to white privilege. This author calculated hers to be $372,000. / Yahoo! Finance

Venessa Wong for MarketWatch

Tracie McMillan grew up in Michigan “on the border of the working and middle class.” Little about her upbringing suggests financial privilege: Her mother became ill when she was 5 years old, and her family worried constantly about medical debt. McMillan has worked since age 14 and supported herself financially since college.

Still, for all of the difficulties in her life, “whiteness has buoyed me up in my hardest moments,” McMillan writes in her new book, “The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America.”

McMillan, an award-winning journalist, not only describes white privilege through her own family’s story as well as the narratives of five other white American families, but attempts to estimate its cash value.

“Some of the benefits of my race are hard to measure: my ability to blend in among white people with more power, to safely express anger in public, or to prompt sympathy with my tears,” she wrote. “Others are easier to quantify: Racist policies in housing let my grandparents build middle-class wealth that was denied to Americans who were not white; racist administration of the GI Bill gave them access to college that was largely denied to Americans who were not white; and racism ingrained in the publishing industry gave me advantages that led to the contract for my first book — and the contract for this one, too.”

McMillan breaks down this overall advantage into a “family bonus,” or the intergenerational wealth white people enjoy as a result of racist public policies, and a “social bonus,” meaning the “intangible privileges” that stem from racial bias and “facilitate access to material advantages.” She estimates her own family bonus is $146,354 and her social bonus is $225,581, adding up to $371,935 in total.

The estimated “white bonuses” of the other subjects in her book range from $77,000 on the low end, which accounted for family help with car insurance, an interest-free loan and student-debt payoff, to $370,000 on the high end, which included college tuition, a trust, a house and an inheritance.

These are imprecise, back-of-the-envelope estimates. Yet laying out privilege in this way provides a tangible way to understand why by 2021, the median wealth of white households was $250,400, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — 10 times the $24,520 median wealth of Black households.

In the book, McMillan shares her shock at having learned that her grandfather “had a Black parent, but was considered white.” Even if race is a social construct, she writes, “the stakes we attach to it are [real].”

McMillan, a former colleague of this reporter, spoke with MarketWatch about her book; measuring white privilege even when you’re not wealthy; and how she’s processed the sizable value of her own bonus, despite the financial difficulties that shaped her life. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

MarketWatch: People are familiar with the concept of white privilege now, but how did you come to view this privilege, which you call the “white bonus,” as something you could quantify?

McMillan: Because of my career, I have had the opportunity to be part of fairly elite institutions and spaces: New York media, food media, things like that. So much of the conversation about white privilege in those spaces confuses racial advantage with white wealth. They’d say things like, “Well, white privilege is Mommy and Daddy paying for college and sending you to Europe.”

My parents didn’t do that; most white families don’t do that for their kids. There were these conversations in 2015, 2016 about white privilege that I didn’t know how to participate in because I don’t have the kind of privilege that was getting talked about. But I also understood enough about the world to know that I’m getting something for being white.

The privileges I got did not become clear to me until my 30s, when I had enough capacity for reflection to notice when people were being a little nicer to me than they might otherwise, or when doors opened for me because I was white. It was part of what made people interested in helping me. People could see me as being their daughter or their niece, and they wanted to help me. I don’t think that that makes those men [in positions of power] racist, but it’s probably true that being a young-presenting, slender white woman was part of what made me empathetic.

But I wanted something more concrete — a way for me to get a handle on the degree to which whiteness has given me an advantage in terms of dollars and cents that takes feelings, intentions, your analysis of the world out of it. What do I get?

I developed the “white bonus” calculation as a way to get at that. It is a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate, not social science. An economist would never sign off on this for policy. But it’s a meaningful way to game out how important being white has been to my ability to move forward in our economy and in my life.

White Americans aren’t taught how to see that or understand that. We’re raised to be colorblind, to not see ourselves as having a racial identity. And so we can’t see when we get something for being white, because we barely even understand that we’re white.

MarketWatch: Millions of white Americans who come from backgrounds that aren’t financially privileged might challenge the premise that their race confers any financial benefit. I expect we will hear more of this perspective in a presidential election year. How can someone have racial privilege but not wealth privilege?

McMillan: White folks have plenty of reasons to be mad about their financial position. You can earn a median income and not be able to afford a middle-class life. People have every right to be upset about that. But if you’re white, your race isn’t making it any harder for you. Black and brown folks, generally speaking, have a harder time in all these economic situations. It doesn’t mean that there’s not white hardship.

I have a grandfather who was an Ozark migrant and got a job in the foundry — the nastiest, most dangerous part of a car factory. But he was white and he got promoted out, and he got training as a welder. He started to work for a small business outside of the factory. And then he started his own business. It can be seen as bootstrapping, but there’s very clear history and social science showing that Black workers did not get out of the foundry; they were trapped in those jobs. My mom’s family has not had an easy time of it financially, but the things that got easier for my family have usually been tied to being white.

I understand white people, particularly broke white folks who are struggling in this economy, saying, “What do you mean that I have white privilege? This is so hard.” And it is really hard. It just probably would be even harder if you were not white.

MarketWatch: Can someone estimate their own white bonus? What factors can they think about and how do they quantify it?

McMillan: I’m working on an interactive online calculator. There’s a description of the White Bonus Estimator on my website now.

Look at the racial wage gap: How much were your parents earning, and what would they have been earning if they were Black?

There was a real disparity in who got help from the GI Bill or an FHA mortgage. The GI Bill was free college. What did that open up for your parents, and how did that trickle down to you?

If your family was able to help you after you turned 18 without needing to charge you rent, if they helped pay for university, a down payment, your cellphone, your car insurance or any of that stuff, add up what those numbers look like.

Have you ever had an interaction with a police officer where you could have been arrested but they let you go? There is money associated with being involved with criminal justice. One of my subjects in the book was looking at prison but was given a second chance. That’s part of his white-bonus calculation. The state of Connecticut started charging room and board to incarcerated people. Today, they charge $90,000 a year to people who are incarcerated.

MarketWatch: How did you process your own bonus, the tangible value of your race, which was about $372,000?

McMillan: Everybody’s life is different, and everyone’s bandwidth and capacity to do things outside of taking care of yourself is going to be really different. But we cannot demand a government that actually takes care of us as long as racism is so strong in this country. If what we want is a country where we’re actually using tax dollars to help “normal Americans,” the quickest way to that is to be forthright about trying to end racism, wherever it shows up.

A lot of the reasons that it has gotten so bad [for poor white people] is white voters have signed on to more punitive policies that prevent the government from having responsibility … and that usually is facilitated by racism.

If the thing that you feel you can do is consumer advocacy, make racial equity part of that. On a small scale, it’s: How do I want to spend my money? If you live in a diverse place and notice a restaurant where you never see groups of people of color dining together — without being part of a majority white group — that is because that restaurant has not made it a priority to make sure that they feel comfortable.

For white folks in professional spaces, it’s really important to speak up about racial equity to show that it’s not just people of color complaining, but that it’s important to me too. That gives cover for people of color to ask for more, and it shifts how white folks are thinking about this.

I tried to write this book for anybody who believes America should be a place where we’re all equal. I think white readers will hopefully learn a lot, because we don’t learn in this country how to think about whiteness as an advantage — even though that is absolutely a historically accurate fact.

MarketWatch: Do you think white Americans are prepared to have a conversation about privilege, as we approach the fourth anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and the pendulum on allyship seems to have swung back with rising conservative backlash?

McMillan: I don’t know what most Americans are interested in talking about. When I sold the book in 2019, I believed that my country needs to be honest about how racism works here. I still believe that today.

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