FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. We're in the first week of our month-long series on race in America. The topic is privilege. In the age of Obama, has the way race shapes our lives changed? By almost every measure being black in America today is still a net loss - loss of income, of security, of health, of even years on your life. But those numbers are only part of the story because the power of people like General Colin Powell, Oprah and yes, President-elect Obama mean that overall black folks are doing better. Could we even be privileged in some ways?
Joining us now are Jill Nelson, author of most recently "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island." She's also a contributor to the op-ed page of USA Today. We've also got Robert Jensen, author of "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege" and professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. And Paul Beatty, author of the "The White Boy Shuffle" and most recently, "Slumberland." Thanks for joining us everybody.
Ms. JILL NELSON (Author): Thank you.
Mr. ROBERT JENSEN (Author, Professor): Great to be with you.
Mr. PAUL BEATTY (Author): Hello.
CHIDEYA: So let's start with some cold hard numbers. Black men working full time, year round earn 72 cents for every dollar earned by white men with the same level of education. Black women get about 85 cents. During times good and bad, black unemployment is about twice that of whites. On average, white Americans live six years longer than black Americans. That's all very depressing. In his victory speech, President-elect Obama echoed the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech.
(Soundbite of a President-elect Barack Obama clip)
President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight, that we will get there. I promise you. We, as a people, will get there.
CHIDEYA: So Jill, you have these statistics and then you have this call to the vision of a better place. What do you think that does to the conversation about privilege, where on the one hand you have some rather grim numbers and circumstances in some people's lives, but you also have this idea that things are going to change.
Ms. NELSON: Well, I hope it reawakens the conversation and broadened those who participate in that conversation. This is the conversation we should be having as Americans across race and class and geography and gender, but it's a conversation that has largely been limited to the black community and those who represent us. I think Obama throws down a glove, in terms of saying, as the president of the United States of America, we are going to recognize and hopefully address some of these issues.
CHIDEYA: Do you think people think of the, again, sort of hard numbers issues as an issue of privilege?
Ms. NELSON: In what way?
CHIDEYA: I'm going to talk a little bit to Robert about this, but privilege can also be viewed as a psychological construct, feeling better than. But then there's the hard numbers of who has jobs, who lives longer. Do you think that Americans as a whole think of the issues that are really hard numbers about who gets to work, who gets to get decent access to health care as an issue of privilege, racial privilege?
Ms. NELSON: No, I think Americans, I think that we need to begin looking at these issues more as issues of privilege and specifically, of white privilege. I think, instead we think that - we seem much more comfortable as Americans in general with looking, as sort of just having a meritocracy declared, that hard work and merit and it's a level playing field and that privilege doesn't figure in. I mean, I think that's one of the most difficult things for Americans who are privileged by the skin color to grasp, is the issue of white privilege. What I would define as white privilege is seen as norm and numeric.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what about the other kind of white privilege - the psychological white privilege? Particularly in terms of how white Americans experience the world?
Mr. JENSEN: Well, absolutely. There is the reality of the data as you pointed out and I think that we should acknowledge that it's not just that there is still a racialized gap in wealth and well-being, measures like income, access to health care, high school graduation rates. The racialized gap in some of those measures has actually grown in the period since the great accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. I think we have to start with a recognition that that means we live in a white supremacist country. I think that is an appropriate term today, not in the same contours of course as past decades, but certainly, I think, the data suggest we still live in a white-supremacist country, and as you point out, there's not only a reality to that that's reflected in things like income, but a psychic reality.
I think one of the most important things white people can do, is actually listen to the experiences of non-white people. What is it to live in a country in which you are systematically defined as inferior? We've made gains. I don't think anybody wants to ignore that. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are meaningful. They were achieved by people who are willing to sacrifice, sometimes sacrifice their lives.
To not honor those gains, I think, would be irresponsible, but it would also be irresponsible to not recognize the white-supremacist nature of this society, which means that there is something very clearly called white privilege. It is not the only kind of privilege in the United States, there's also privilege attached to gender, privilege attached to being born into a certain economic status, and of course, the privilege that comes with being a citizen of the United States in a world dominated by the United States. All of those operate - they operate in complex ways...
CHIDEYA: Robert. Oh, I wanted to jump in just quickly, and get a little taste from you of - we've been getting more feedback than usual from people who say, you know, as white Americans they are afraid of a backlash against them, in this time when you've got this black president-elect and also where, you know, there's a lot of conversation about race. Just give me a little taste of what might allay some people's fears.
Mr. JENSEN: Well, that's a - literally a delusional state on the part of white America. White America has long been afraid that if black people got any measure of power, that somehow black people would do to white America what white America historically has done to black people. And I think, you know, black people usually chuckle at that idea, because it's based on the idea that non-white people or black people are as depraved as white America has been. Now, when you're in a position of unearned and unjust power and privilege, those kinds of delusions are very common, but I think we have to just get over them.
I think the main work of this is for white people, especially progressive whites, to you know, hit this head on and talk about the United States in these honest ways. By calling the United States a white-supremacist country, of course we're not saying it's a country run by the Klan. It's a complex question about how to understand the way that power really operates in this country, and putting a person of African descent in the top job in Washington doesn't fundamentally change the nature of that system.
CHIDEYA: Well, Paul, let me bring you into this. It's great to have you on. And I was struck when Robert talked about facing things head on. What you do as a novelist very often is to face things kind of at an angle, and to go through the world of culture, and even into the world of the fantastic to really address all these things we think about. So in "Slumberland," the opening passage says, the negro is now officially human. Everyone, even the British, says so. It doesn't matter whether anyone truly believes it. We are as mediocre and mundane as the rest of the species. What do you mean by that or what does - why did you put it in your book?
Mr. BEATTY: It's just, you know, me having fun with the idea of - I guess, of white privilege, white supremacy, and, you know, this - these myths that we - that you know, that there's this even playing field, whether it's mediocrity or achievement. But I want to address something that I think - we we're talking about this conversation that needs to happen, and I think the conversation is always existing. And you know, in listening to the victory speech I guess, Barack said something that I thought was really interesting in talking about white privilege and just privilege in general. When he was talking about this woman, this 106-year-old woman, Ann Nixon Cooper I think her name is…
Mr. BEATTY: And he was saying - and I was watching the CNN broadcast, and he was saying, and she was denied to vote, because she was a woman, you know, and then they cut to an angle of a black woman, like mouthing his words as he's speaking to them, and he's like, and he denied to vote because she's a woman, and she was also denied to vote because she was - and you could see the woman say, she was black, but Barack said, because she was a person of color. I thought that was really interesting.
CHIDEYA: Hmm. Hmm.
Mr. BEATTY: I know that I - you know, I had a conversation with a friend, so I mean she was therewith me, so I know I'm not the only one who saw that. But I thought it was a real interesting take on him trying to allay fears. I mean it could be interpreted in a number of ways.
It struck me as something that, you know, you do very intentionally, because that's almost like a - you know, that whole litany of when you go down about who has privilege and why you were denied. I mean woman - the woman thought she knew what Barack was going to say. You know, so did I. In my head, I was doing the same thing. And yeah, I'm going to stop there I guess. But I thought that was interesting.
CHIDEYA: Well, yeah, yeah. There's so much territory to talk about, but I want to reintroduce this in case anyone has just tuned in midway. We're talking about race and privilege. This is part of our month-long series on race, and this is NPR's News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.
We were just hearing from novelist Paul Beatty, author of "Slumberland." We also have Robert Jensen, author of the "Heart of Whiteness," and Jill Nelson, author of "Finding Martha's Vineyard." I'm going to go to a little bit more from Senator Obama. He gave this big race speech, and traced the legacy of slavery all the way down to how it affected his family and his daughters. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of Senator Barack Obama's speech)
President-Elect BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I've gone to some of the best schools in America, and I've lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I'm married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners, an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.
CHIDEYA: Now we had a chance in 2007, early in his race to ask him about comments that he made about affirmative action as it related to his daughters, and here's what he told us.
Senator OBAMA: The question that was asked was, do I think that my daughters are disadvantaged? And I said no, because their father is a United States senator, and their - both their parents are working professionals. But what I also said is that there's a strong and ongoing intersection between race and class in this country, that racism is still an issue that has to be battled. Affirmative action is an important tool - although a limited tool - for us to deal with these issues. I say limited simply because a large portion of our young people right now never even benefit from affirmative action, because they're not graduating from high school.
CHIDEYA: Jill, do you think he's renegotiating what we understand as affirmative action? And if so for you, is that a positive, a negative, and how does it relate to this issue of privilege?
Ms. NELSON: I'm not sure if he's renegotiating it for anyone other than - or than himself or speaking for himself. I think that affirmative action remains incredibly important for people of color. I - my read is that Obama - President Obama understands that as well. Time will tell you know. We'll see what happens as he moves into his administration. I wanted to jump back just a second. I want to talk about this issue of sort of backlash and payback. And there's the sense that once people of color or African-American people are in power, we will sort of do to white people what has been done - what they - what has been done to us.
And I want to say that I don't think that that will happen, but I do think that change is - we all know that change is painful, and people have to give up stuff when change come. So, I think just as when Barack gave his acceptance speech the other night and talked about the difficult road ahead, and the challenges that the country faces in terms of economics, and the wars, and other things that are going on, that there - it will be difficult to transition to a society that is different, that privilege is more of us, or privilege is fewer and is based more on in fact real merit.
I mean people will have to give things up. Change is never painless, and I think that this is going to be a real challenge, whether we're talking about the economic situation, public service, in the wars, the infrastructure, energy.
CHIDEYA: Just quickly, your book "Finding Martha's Vineyard" is about a group of black folks who have had privilege in at least some senses, but certainly we're not free from the slings and arrows of race. Do you think that that's going to become a bigger class of people as time goes by, meaning people who have access to building their own communities that are powerful?
Ms. NELSON: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean we see that happening in some ways already. You definitely see it when you look at the people who are supporters, and activists, and bundlers in terms of the Obama campaign. I mean you see incredible capital and growth of not only a black middle class, but a black wealthy class as well.
The challenge is those who seem stuck at the bottom. And there's been very - I was struck by the campaign from primary season on in terms of all the candidates, the lack of mention of working poor and of working-class people or lower-middle-class people.
CHIDEYA: All right. All right. I'm going to have to jump in, because we only have time for a short comment from each of you gentlemen. And what do we have to look for to that's good. For example, some people have said that arts are going to open up, and that what we think of as a black aesthetic will be brought in. Paul, what do you think? Is that going to happen?
Mr. BEATTY: That could happen. I have no idea. I mean, to me, I think, that we have to look forward to is that - you know, it's interesting. It sounded like Jill was saying that there's a perception. I think there is a perception that people of color are in power or something. It's a person of color is the president, you know. And I think it's not like this, you know, demographic-based, you know, sweep of, you know, the power structure or something that's happened.
CHIDEYA: All right, Rob. Sorry, Robert, do you think that is - that really there is not a lot of change overall broadly, but that this one person is simply a symbol for better or worse?
Mr. JENSEN: I think Barack Obama gave white people, liberal white people especially, a black man they could vote for President, but didn't threaten their sense of their own moral righteousness. And I think white supremacy is a system. It's not alleviated by the election of a person, so we have to keep our eyes on the system. We have to go beyond some of the false alternatives. We're talking about should affirmative action be for people of color, or for people based on class. Why can't it be both? Why can't we talk about real justice in this country?
CHIDEYA: Right. All right.
Mr. BEATTY: Yeah, why is privilege always just based on, you know, how much wealth, you know, you have the possibility to obtain or something. I mean you know.
CHIDEYA: All right, guys. Thank you very much. And I want to say that we were speaking with novelist Paul Beatty, wrote "Slumberland," who joined us from NPR's studios in New York City. Robert Jensen who wrote the "Heart of Whiteness," joined us from KBPR in Fresno, California, and Jill Nelson whose books include "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island." That's News & Notes.