Racism Against Whites vs. Minorities: Is It the Same Thing?

A look at some conflations in the racism debate.

Posted Dec 01, 2011

Students protesting the bake sale at UC Berkeley

Just over two months ago now, the UC Berkeley College Republicans held a "Diversity Bake Sale" with tiered pricing: the same cupcake offered to whites for $2, for example, was offered to Latinos for $1 and to blacks for $0.75.  All women received a $0.25 discount. To the surprise of the organizers, the bake sale provoked hurt, anger, and hostility. The incident brought to the surface racial tensions that remain unresolved and continue to simmer silently across our campus and many others. 

The time is ripe for debate and discussion on affirmative policies in educational and employment arenas. As the debate rolls forward, however, it is clear that people are using words like "diversity," "racism," and "inequality" to refer to different things. These discrepancies contribute to impasses in dialogue and community building.

One significant conflation emanating from the rhetoric is the equation of the use of race with racism. The Berkeley College Republicans admittedly intended their bake sale to be racist because that's how they see the use of race in affirmative policy: in this view, any use of race to label and divide people is, quite simply, racism. How is deciding whether to admit someone to a school based on skin color any different, they ask, from deciding whether someone is criminal or unintelligent based on their skin color?

This comparison conflates two processes that are not analogous.

Assumptions about criminality or intelligence on the basis of skin color are tantamount to racial stereotyping—that is, assuming personal qualities about someone based on their skin color. Most people can agree that this kind of racial stereotyping is wrong. An analogous stereotype that we should all similarly disavow, yet too often don't, is the assumption that being white means that one is racist and has nothing positive to contribute to race relations. Sadly, this stereotype is often evoked in response to events such as the diversity bake sale, and it is aimed indiscriminately against both opponents and allies of affirmative policies, demonstrators as well as bystanders (see for example, some of the responses and comments resulting from this blog post).

However, it is critical to note that this differs from considering a person's background in admissions decisions. This process considers the pervasive structural inequalities that limit minorities' and women's opportunities to succeed. For example, schools that serve predominantly black neighborhoods fare significantly worse than those that serve predominantly white neighborhoods. Other societal inequities-minorities are more likely to be targeted for predatory loans, more likely to be targeted by cigarette and liquor businesses, more likely to live near toxic waste sites—do not have a directly comparable structural, macro-level analogy among whites. Additionally, unconscious bias continues to play a role in admissions and employment decisions. Research shows that given two identically qualified candidates for a job, for example, a white candidate is more likely to receive a favorable job offer than a minority candidate. And as I highlight in this post, other research shows that when a female applicant has children, perceptions of her employability tend to decrease, whereas when a male applicant has children, perceptions of his employability rise.

Conflating the use of race and racism and the use of gender with gender bias in these ways threatens to further entrench positions and provoke anger and hostility on both sides of the debate. On one hand, this conflation can lead some to feel that it is legitimate to level accusations of racism against whites only because they are white. On the other hand, the conflation also negates the racials ubjugation, structural injustices, and invisibility experienced by many minority students ("Don't UC us?" read one sign held by a minority student at the bake sale protest). It's thus unsurprising that the bake sale organizers underestimated the collateral damage of their event for the campus atmosphere. Confusing these processes propagates misunderstandings, not only of affirmative action policy, but also between the two sides, ultimately narrowing the potential for meaningful dialogue and perspective-taking.

Co-authored with Victoria C. Plaut, assistant professor of law and social science, UC Berkeley

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.