Do white Americans really benefit from racism?

THE DERRICK BELL READER edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (2005)

The late Derrick Bell, pioneer of critical race theory, was of two minds about whites and racism in the USA.

He frequently wrote about how white racial prejudice hurts whites as well as blacks, and how whites have actually benefited from advances in civil rights, but that, despite these facts, racism is so embedded in the psychology of white people that we will never be able to see this.

At other times, and at least once in the same article, he wrote that the reason racism will never disappear is that white people benefit from racism. 

Which is it?  In his terms, if the first is true, there is a possibility, however dim, of waking up white people to our self-interest so that we join forces with black people for justice. 

If the second is true, there is little hope for African-Americans.  Demographic trends show black people remaining in the minority in the USA, and history shows white people can stay in the majority by expanding the definition of white.

The answer depends on how you look at it.  If there had never been plantation slavery, never been lynch law, never been a black underclass, all of us Americans, white and black, would be better off.

On the other hand, if all Americans had been white, but we still had plantation slavery, lynch law and an economic underclass, then white people would have taken the places historically filled by blacks.

Prior to our Civil War, many writers reported on how a slave economy hurt white people.  They contrasted conditions on opposite sides of the Ohio River.  On the Ohio side, they could see well-built farmhouses and barns, fields full of grain, thriving small towns and businesses, all the product of enterprising white people. 

On the Kentucky side, just opposite, visitors saw whites living in poverty and decay, ramshackle buildings, poorly-fed children.  This was the result of the inability of white workers to compete with slave labor, and the belief that physical labor was degrading and only black people should do it.

The heritage of slavery to this day affects white people as well as black people.  The poorest white people in the USA are the ones living in the areas where slave labor was most predominant.

Derrick Bell argued that just as slavery and racism held back the South in comparison to the rest of the USA, so the heritage of slavery and racism holds back the USA in relation to the rest of the Western world.  The USA is the Mississippi of the OECD nations.

In his essay, “Wanted: a White Leader Able to Free Whites of Racism” (2000), reprinted in The Derrick Bell Reader, Bell remarked on how the USA lags behind less affluent countries in terms of health care, housing, child care and care of the aged, and on how the USA refuses to abolish the death penalty or improve prison conditions.

The reason, he wrote, is that white people, consciously or unconsciously, are convinced that efforts to promote the common good will help black people at our expense.  So we cut off our noses to spite our faces.

In his essay, “Reconstruction’s Racial Realities” (1992), Bell pointed out how civil rights gains benefited both whites and blacks.

Civil rights precedents that improve the plight of disadvantaged whites include: fairly apportioned electoral districts; the protection of freedom of speech as against powerful public figures; elimination of non-job related criteria from civil service tests, other job qualifications, and of college admission standards; elimination of poll taxes; and the protection of criminally accused whites from a trial by jury selected on a racially discriminatory basis.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has extended the protection of an 1866 civil rights statute to white groups discriminated against because of their Jewish religion or their ethnic affiliation as Arabs.

All true.  Here’s another example.  Black Lives Matter leaders refuse to say “all lives matter,” but in fact police in the USA have killed more unarmed whites than they have blacks (although proportionately more blacks) and any effective police reform would benefit whites as well as blacks.

Here’s more Derrick Bell, from his White Leader essay:

Although difficult for me to imagine, being white in this country means you represent the norm and you need not think of race all the time, and almost never about racism.  Certainly racism is not something most would conceptualize as constantly disadvantaging their lives.

Again, all true–certainly true of me!  He went on to write:

The problem, though, may extend beyond these forms of racial thoughtlessness.  Just as I know that all whites benefit from racism, I know that not all whites are evil or guilty in any normative sense.

Consequently I wonder whether factors more fundamental even than white racism, more essential than good government to a civilized society, cause the plight of black people in this country.

While some racial reforms stem from financial considerations, disaster, threat, guilt, love and, yes, even education, a primary barrier to racial reforms may nullify all these.

I wonder whether here, as seems the case in many other societies, the melding of millions of individuals into a nation requires some within it must be sacrificed, killed or kept in misery so that the rest, who share the guilt for this monstrous wrong, can forge out of their guilt the qualities of forbearance and tolerance that are essential to group survival and growth.

I’m not sure I rightly understand what he’s getting at here, but I’ll take a stab at it.  What Bell implies is that in all societies, there is an outcast or scapegoat group, and the contempt that the majority hold for outcasts and scapegoats is part of the cement that holds society together.

The niche that is filled by Untouchables in India and Burakumin in Japan has been filled by African-Americans in the USA.  And, according to Bell, this is never going to change, because the need for an outcast or scapegoat group is unchangeable.

Never going to change?  It has changed a lot in my lifetime. 

When I was a young man, the predominant view was that good Americans defined ourselves by their hatred and contempt for Communists.  In 21st century America, the predominant view is that good Americans define themselves by not being racists! 

Nowadays being branded a racist can cost you your job and make you a social outcast.  Nobody outside a tiny fringe admits to being racist.  Ex-President George W. Bush said the low point of his presidency was when he was called a racist. 

For liberals and progressives, the out-group is the “deplorables,” the kind of people who used to be called white trash.  For conservatives, the out-group is lazy people (often but not necessarily black) who depend on government benefits.

Of course Derrick Bell, who died in 2011, can’t be blamed for not foreseeing the “woke” revolution.  My guess is that, if he were alive, he would say that, for all the anti-racism talk, African-Americans are just as unequal as they ever were, and there is little hope for change. 

He might say that wokeness is an example of racial fortuity, a temporary situation in which elite white people fomd it in their interests to advance the interests of African-Americans.

Even though he gave examples of how the interests of black people and average or working-class or poor white people coincide, he never advocated an alliance between them against the white elite. 

His writings mentioned a couple of failed attempts to make this happen—Georgia populists in the 1890s and Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition of 1988, but, so far as I know, he never commented on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign or the contemporary interracial American labor unions.

The question that Bell and other critical race theorists posed is this:

How should African-Americans think of themselves?  Should they think of themselves primarily as American citizens who are denied equal rights?  Or should they, like Bell, think of themselves as an oppressed nation which is being denied self-determination?

If the former, disadvantaged blacks might join forces with disadvantaged whites for their mutual benefit.  If the latter, black people should stick together and depend as little as possible on whites. 

The critical race theorists talk primarily to African-Americans and also to other minorities.  They are not talking to me.  It is not within my duty, right or power to tell black American citizens how they should think of themselves.


Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation by Derrick A. Bell Jr. for the Yale Law Journal (1976)

Racial Realism by Derrick A. Bell Jr. for the Connecticut Law Review (1992)

Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory? by Derrick A. Bell Jr. for the University of Illinois Law Review (2000)

The Conspicuous Absence of Derrick Bell—Rethinking the CRT Debate by Patrick D. Anderson for the Black Agenda Report.

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