Review: Book Page (May 2024 starred review)

By Catherine Hollis

Acclaimed journalist Tracie McMillan’s muckraking, experiential methods have earned her prizes, acclaim and the special animosity of Rush Limbaugh, a sure sign of the power of her investigative work. With The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America (Holt, $32.99, 9781250619426), McMillan offers a powerful and necessary exposé of the financial benefits of whiteness in the U.S.

In a style reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich, The White Bonus spotlights five working- and middle-class white families, including a very revealing and honest look at McMillan’s own. The book examines how zoning laws, discrimination in trade unions and the failure of school desegregation have rippled into the present, giving white families what McMillan calls the “white bonus,” a multigenerational “societal and familial security net unavailable to Black Americans.” In chapters focused on school, work, poverty and crime, McMillan develops case studies of how individuals and families benefit from whiteness even when they are accused of crimes or are scraping by on minimum wage. McMillan’s quantitative analysis starkly reveals how American institutions continue to benefit white people at the expense of Black Americans.

Each case study is supported by extensive interviews and reporting, and presented with novelistic detail in a propulsive narrative. A chapter about the Becker family of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, illustrates “the steady reemergence of racially homogeneous schools after a few decades of progress toward racial integration” that followed Brown v. Board of Education. The Beckers bucked the trend of white flight and sent their children to local public schools that had predominantly Black student bodies. While the oldest sibling benefited from “gifted and talented” programs that primarily served white students in an otherwise diverse student population, the youngest sibling experienced a stark decline in educational quality at the same school after many of the white families left the district.

McMillan’s own family story is told with admirable honesty, particularly regarding the impact of her father’s abuse after her mother’s death. These autobiographical chapters not only provide a detailed financial accounting of her own family’s white bonus, but also brilliantly shape a central insight that analogizes its dangers: The silence surrounding domestic violence is replicated in our society at large when we avoid addressing the impact of structural racism. Remaining silent about either is incompatible with morality.

Read at Book Page here.

Page proof here.

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