Tracie McMillan on Her ‘White Bonus’ / Alta Journal

‘I didn’t understand how racism was helping me.’

By Matt Haber

While writing The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America, journalist Tracie McMillan sought to quantify the benefits of being born white in a country where racism has always persisted in one form or another. As in her previous book, 2012’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, McMillan looked at how structures work. White Bonus isn’t about racism as a cultural or political force, but as a network of interlocking and mutually reinforcing systems designed to disenfranchise some groups while benefiting others.

McMillan looked closely at her own family, which she says she always considered “to be on the border of the working and middle class.” By crunching the numbers, McMillan came to realize her family had been far more comfortable—and socially mobile—than she understood, thanks to decent free schools, programs like the GI Bill, homeownership, wage discrimination that favored her grandparents and parents, and the benefit of the doubt she experienced pursuing her career and finding housing. She also looked at the lives of four other people, including a resident of Vallejo, California, to see how their bonuses, large and small, had affected their circumstances.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about how the idea of the “white bonus” occurred to you.
Honestly, I was tired of stepping in it when I tried to talk about race. I tried to talk about race in class, with my friends or colleagues, and I felt like I would end up saying racist things without even understanding how that had happened. I understood how racism affected people who weren’t white, but I didn’t really understand anything about how it affected me.

When you framed it as an economic thing to people, did they understand what you were trying to do?
Yeah, I think eventually for everybody I talked with, there were varying levels of initial understanding about the white bonus. But we never talk about it, and so it just sort of stays hidden. So there’s this unspoken knowledge.

Does the invisibility of these mechanisms and systems serve their power?
The short answer is yes. The white bonus is so invisible to white people. That’s its greatest power, that it’s invisible.

After the 2016 election, I spent some time in the swing county outside of Detroit that had arguably flipped the state to Trump. I’m from that region, I’m from the Rust Belt, and it was the first time I really understood that until deindustrialization was happening in the ’90s—all the manufacturing moving out of Michigan, first down to the South and then later to Mexico—there was a social contract where you could get into the middle class for free. You weren’t going to live a bottomless brunch urban life, but you were going to have a house, you were going to be able to have a family. You were going to maybe be able to get a little crummy cabin somewhere five or six hours from where you lived, you were going to retire, and you weren’t going to be worried about being homeless. Now we don’t have that anymore.

We don’t acknowledge how much of that depended on public policies and private practices that were designed and intended to help white people. There’s no language for it: we had a bonus; we got help.

How much of the writing of this book was about really looking in the mirror?
I spent the first year and a half, two years of working on the book looking at myself and my family, being honest about how racial advantage had shaped my life. I think it was really helpful and powerful for me, and certainly changed the degree to which I feel really upset by racism, if that makes sense.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been like, “Racism is bad.” I understood that, but I didn’t understand how racism was helping me. And once I could see that, that was pretty upsetting.

Let’s shift to California. You talk a bit about Proposition 13. Let’s quickly explain what that is and then talk about how it’s an example of white bonus.
So Prop. 13 is a change in how California dealt with property taxes in 1978. It was the result of a grassroots movement of middle-class white people. It’s called the revolt of the haves in some circles. And it was just middle-class white homeowners whose families had already gone through the public school system, which at the time was among the best funded and strongest in the nation, were mad about their taxes going up. I will say taxes were going up a lot, and you would probably want to address something about how property tax was being assessed or provide relief in some way. The figurehead of this movement was this guy Howard Jarvis, who was actually a paid lobbyist for a corporate real estate organization. He sort of built this campaign around homeowners as the little guys, and they’re paying for people who don’t deserve to have resources.

For things like schools and streets and police…
And libraries! It was very racialized. And so that changed the way that property tax was assessed. It essentially freezes your property tax on your home at the time that you buy the house. Anybody who owns property understands how valuable that is. With Prop. 13, it freezes your assessment value. It can go up a couple percent a year or something, but it essentially freezes it at what you bought it at. So your taxation doesn’t reflect changes in market value, and then it limits it, I believe, to 1 percent of the assessed value. It’s a really significant savings, and it ruins the public funding.

What can be done about something like that? Do we have to repeal or rewrite a proposition like 13?
I mean, that’s not my expertise. That is totally a thing for policymakers to figure out. Obviously, there’ve been a number of challenges to Prop. 13, and I think politically it becomes a difficult question, because it’s also true that Prop. 13 benefited all those white homeowners, and now that the population of homeownership in California has become much more diverse, is now the time that you make it harder to own a home? That’s a really thorny political question.

What gives you hope that the white bonus will be diminished?
I think that the younger generation understands that the point isn’t exactly to get rid of bonuses in terms of using government money to help the people who live here. The point is getting rid of the white part—that stuff should not be contingent on your race. And I think that we do have a generation of folks coming up who just understand that much more clearly, and they’re not willing to try and game it out to gain access. They just want to fix things, and I think that’s really great.•

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