Sometime around 2009 I began to notice a waning of personal enthusiasm during discussions of race. I was no longer striving to be a WPGI, my anger had started to dull around the edges and I was beginning to wallow. In the intervening years since that email conversation with my friend, Janelle, I had slowly peeled away and peered into some of the deeper recesses of racism, both personal and cultural, and the result was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Like all American kids I had been taught in school that the Civil Rights movement had by and large eliminated racism. That’s the official party line. The unjust laws were overturned. Everything is now fair and square; the playing field leveled. But in reality, while the civil rights movement did change the rules of the game in an attempt to make things “fair” for all, the starting line is still substantially staggered, with white folks getting a rather hefty head start.
I was first introduced to the concept of a staggered starting line when I read an interview with NYU sociologist Dalton Conley on PBS. A staggered starting line is found when one looks at something like the racial wealth gap in the United States, for example. As Conley explains, “It takes money to make money. Part of the reason that there’s this enormous gap is because whites have long had higher wages and wealth to pass on from generation to generation.” In fact, he points out, 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is due to past generations. That’s a staggered starting line.
As of 2010 71% of whites owned their own home compared to 45% of blacks and 47% of Latinos. While most Americans might equate that with white folks pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps in pursuit of the illustrious American Dream, it’s much more deleterious than that. Following World War II, the government gave low-interest loans to returning veterans and other whites but excluded blacks and other minorities from taking part. I can directly trace my home ownership to the wealth and home ownership of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents (and likely much farther back). We used some form of money from both sides of our white families (via inheritance when our grandparents died) to help us purchase our home. My black friends don’t necessarily have those generations of wealth and home ownership to draw from because their ancestors were excluded. Staggered starting line.
The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that higher education is one of the most effective ways that parents can raise their families’ incomes. And children from a family with college-educated parents are nearly three times more likely to reach college than a person whose parents did not, according to the US Census Bureau. Both of my white parents went to college. My husband’s white mother went to college. They all attended university in the 1960s when discriminatory laws and attitudes excluded most blacks and other minorities from attending, thus putting both me and my husband in higher income brackets as children and then greatly increasing our odds of going to college ourselves. Staggered starting line.
Being white with white ancestors means that I have started several rungs higher on the proverbial ladder than my friends of color and that realization feels incapacitating at times. Demoralizing. Depressing. It’s tempting to just shrug, shake it all off and say, “I’m not responsible for the past. That was then and this is now.” But the truth is that we are all “inheritors of the past,” as Conley puts it, and our inglorious history has bequeathed us with this staggered starting line.
Only the person at the front of such a starting line wants to believe that everyone else is being given a fair shot. But the reality remains that every white person in this country, regardless of current or past financial status; regardless of educational status; regardless of their belief or lack thereof in white privilege; every last one of us benefits from the legacy of slavery that set us up with a system of such vast inequity that it continues to linger on to this day.
Ready for the Next Stage?
The Rest of the Series
Click HERE for Stage One: I’m Not a Racist!
Click HERE for Stage Two: Get This Thing Off of Me!
Click HERE for Stage Three: Look at Me! Look at Me! I’m a WPGI!
Click HERE for Stage Four: Awareness Fatigue
Click HERE for Stage Five: What Now?
And for the complete series all in one place, click HERE