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Racial Inequality Without Racism: An Interview with Nancy DiTomaso

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
April 3, 2013

racial inequalityNancy DiTomaso is Professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School—Newark and New Brunswick. She is also the author of our latest book, The American Non-Dilemma, which provides a comprehensive examination of the persistence of racial inequality in the post-Civil Rights era and how it plays out in today's economic and political context.

Q: Let’s start with the title of your book, a reference to the landmark text by Gunnar Myrdal, The American Dilemma. Myrdal argued that white Americans would eventually face the contradiction or dilemma between their belief in American values such as equality and fair opportunity on the one hand, and the growing attention to racial inequality on the other. You argue, however, that for many whites, no such dilemma currently exists. Why do you believe whites are "uncertain allies in the struggle for civil rights"?

A: Myrdal’s argument, contrary to the way it is often portrayed, is that white Americans would experience a moral dilemma because of the contradiction between the foundational beliefs held by all Americans toward equality before the law and fair play and the growing evidence at the time he was writing of racial inequality in the politics of the 1930s, as well as in the racial dimension of World War II (i.e., a fight against an ideology of racial supremacy in Germany and Japan), which he claimed was understood around the world. He believed that this moral dilemma would lead some whites, especially in the North, to use both law and social movements to bring about an end to the racial caste system, especially in the South.

I found in my analysis, however, that in the post-Civil Rights period, the framing of racial inequality in terms of racism and discrimination, that is, of some whites doing bad things to or holding back nonwhites, especially African Americans, contributes to an American Non-Dilemma. Because whites do not have to actively exclude or do bad things to blacks in order to benefit from racial inequality, they do not experience the kind of moral dilemma that Myrdal believed would move them to support social change. Thus, in the post-Civil Rights period, I argue that it is whites helping other whites that may be as much a factor in reproducing racial inequality as whites discriminating against or expressing racist feelings towards blacks and other nonwhites. Indeed, most whites say they believe in civil rights, believe that equal opportunity is the standard of fairness, and believe that everyone should be rewarded for their efforts. They do not readily think about the extent to which they drew on the social resources and help from family, friends, and acquaintances in order to get their own jobs. Yet, I found that this is how the interviewees in my study found most of their jobs throughout their lifetimes.

Q: One of your main arguments is that the national conversation on racial inequality remains too focused on racism, or racial discrimination. Instead, you say we should focus on “in-group favoritism” in terms of whites helping other whites. Explain how this dynamic works, and why you think it’s a better frame for thinking about racial inequality.

A: Because whites disproportionately hold jobs with more authority, higher pay, more opportunities for skill development and training, and more links to other jobs, they can benefit from racial inequality without being racists and without discriminating against blacks and other nonwhites. In fact, I argue that the ultimate white privilege is the privilege not to be racist and still benefit from racial inequality.

In my study, I found that 99 percent of the interviewees found 70 percent of the jobs they had held throughout their lifetimes with the added help from family, friends, or acquaintances, who provided them with inside information not available to others, such as when a job was available, used influence on their behalf, or actually offered them an opportunity or a job. That is, although all of the interviewees said that equal opportunity is the standard of fairness, almost all of them actively sought "unequal opportunity” in their own lives. The last thing that they would want was to have to compete equally in the job market, when finding a job that paid a living wage, provided benefits and some job security was so important to having a decent life. Given this, most wanted to find ways to “get ahead” or to “gain advantage.”

Q: Interestingly, your interviews – conducted with almost 250 whites in New Jersey, Ohio, and Tennessee – show that very few people acknowledged the role of their connections or networks in helping them build successful careers. In fact, many of your interviewees said they worked hard and that their individual effort explained most of their success. Why is this language of self-reliance so widespread in America? How does it complicate the discussion about racial inequality?

A: After getting detailed job histories that started with high school, I asked my interviewees what contributed most to their having the sort of life that they have now. A very large proportion said it was because they had worked hard, persisted, were honest, moral, etc. Even though 99 percent of the interviewees used help at some point in their lives for almost all of their jobs, only 14 percent of the interviewees mentioned that they had received help of any kind. In other words, the help itself was not salient to the interviewees. Most of the interviewees said things like, “I did it on my own” or “Nobody helped me.”

I argue in the book that there are perhaps two reasons why individualist thinking is so pervasive in American culture, not only among whites, by the way. The first explanation is the psychological tendency to see one’s own actions as more important to outcomes than the circumstances that one is in. So the interviewees readily thought about how hard it was for them to get the opportunities that they sought, how uncertain it was in terms of the likely outcomes, and how important getting these kinds of opportunities were for their lives. But they seemed to also think that the very fact that they sought and used help was a demonstration of their own motivation and hard work, not that it was an example of their being embedded in networks of social capital that might not be available to everyone.

The second explanation that I give for the pervasive individualism that the interviewees expressed is more speculative, but I think worth considering. Because some jobs are not so desirable and others require people to develop scarce talents, there is a cultural incentive for communities to encourage people to work even if the jobs may be dirty, dangerous, or unpleasant and/or even if the training might be long, arduous, and highly competitive. To keep people from giving up, opting out, or falling into addiction or crime, we create a strong cultural ideology about the importance of individual responsibility and hard work, so that we can keep the pressure on for people to take whatever jobs are available, and this seems to be especially true for those whose options are not as favorable as others.

Q: Many of your interviewees expressed hostility to the idea of affirmative action, and in fact blamed it for putting whites at a disadvantage in the labor market. But when you tried to systematically assess the impact of affirmative action on hiring outcomes among your sample, what did you find?

A: Because of the hot button nature of affirmative action as a policy, I did not ask the interviewees directly about their views of affirmative action. Instead, I asked them about what they thought about the “changes in the educational and job opportunities available to women, minorities, and immigrants” (in three separate questions). This question did seem to tap into views about affirmative action, even though I did not use that terminology. In general, those interviewees who felt that the civil rights movement might interfere with their ability to use the help of family and friends to find jobs were much more antagonistic toward affirmative action, while those interviewees whose own jobs would probably not be affected much by affirmative action, were more favorable about the need for the policy. I did ask one direct question on the short survey that I asked the interviewees to fill out, and there I found that while all of the interviewees felt that affirmative action has helped blacks, most of the interviewees with either conservative or moderate politics felt that affirmative action has hurt whites.

These views were strongly felt by many of the interviewees, even though when I asked the interviewees if they had ever been discriminated against in their careers, there were only two clear examples where the interviewee might have lost out on a job because of affirmative action for African Americans. This was out of almost 1500 jobs that the interviewees described to me in the interviews, so it is a very, very small proportion--almost nil--in terms of actually having an effect on their own career experiences.

Q: Your sample contained whites from different class backgrounds. How did the opinions of working-class whites differ from those of professional, higher-income ones?

A: There were some clear differences across the interviewees in terms of how they responded to the questions I asked of them, but the differences were not entirely based on class. In fact, in terms of the use of social capital, networks, or help from family and friends to get an inside edge on a job, there were no differences by class among my interviewees. There were also no differences by state. Across these categories, the interviewees on average found about 70 percent of their jobs using the help of family and friends. There was a slight difference by gender, with men more likely to use help over their careers than women, probably because women’s jobs, on average, pay less than jobs held primarily by men.

There were political differences in the views of the interviewees, however, and these reflect some class differences, although not clearcut ones. Interviewees without college degrees who were working in jobs that paid relatively good wages, often in unionized settings, were especially antagonistic to public policies like affirmative action that they felt had a direct and adverse effect on their job prospects or their ability to help their sons or family members get jobs like theirs. The group of interviewees with college degrees and mostly professional jobs were more likely to express liberal views and support for civil rights policies, including affirmative action. These interviewees, however, were also ones who had the most marketable skills and dense social networks from which they could draw if they would happen to lose their current jobs. In a sense, as I argue in the book, these interviewees could “afford to be generous” in terms of their views about public policies regarding inequality.

But, there were two other groups among my interviewees who cut across class lines and who do not fit into either of the above two categories. Those with strong religious identification, whom I labeled the religious conservatives were also very conservative in their politics and opposed to welfare state-type policies and especially to policies associated with civil rights. I attribute their views to their being embedded within the social movement of the religious right, and I talk about the origins of this movement and its role in the resistance to desegregation. In this discussion, I try to show how racial politics became religious politics.

Another group of interviewees, whom I labeled the apolitical majority are similar to the growing group of political independents in the country. They do not think of themselves as affiliated with either major political party. In fact, they do not think much about politics at all. When asked to express an opinion about various public policy issues, however, these interviewees tended to side with the conservative groups rather than with the liberal ones.

In the book, I endeavor to trace historically the factors that have contributed to the current competition between the Republican and Democratic Parties and to show how the competition between the two parties to gain support of various groups of white voters, such as those in my study, helps us understand post-Civil Rights politics.

Q: It seems like a major problem we have is our political rhetoric – we talk, for example, about “equal opportunity” and say that a particular job should go to the “best qualified candidate,” but we know from our personal lives – and from your research – that job hoarding, networking, connections, assistance from family and friends are just as, if not more, important in getting ahead in life. Do you have any ideas on how we can change the frame of our national conversation on this subject?

A: I have obviously given this question a great deal of thought. One of my primary motivations for writing the book was to help make us more aware of how the use of favoritism or advantage of whites toward other whites contributes to the reproduction of racial inequality, without whites having to be racists or having to engage in discrimination in order to enjoy such advantages. Of course, every group tries to help their own, but drawing on social networks and social capital produces a greater advantage for whites, because they are already in more favorable positions on average than are other groups within the society. In a sense, drawing more attention to how the use of favoritism or advantage contributes to inequality may help create the moral dilemma that Myrdal envisioned. As he said, most people want to be fair and decent, and if they understood better how what seem to be innocuous processes in which people may think they are being good family members or friends by helping people around them can, in themselves, contribute to a perpetuation of inequality, it may cause the moral dilemma that may spark broader support for political and social change.

The reason that people, including whites, are so intent on using inside help and extra advantages to “get ahead” (i.e., to place themselves in a more favorable position than others with whom they think they are competing) is because getting jobs that are protected from market competition, where there are decent wages, benefits, and some level of job security, is the only way to have a decent life in the U.S. Given the lack of a stronger social safety net and the continual efforts of employers to erode the job protections of workers and the welfare state, white workers, like all others, are very intent in trying to find ways to gain an inside edge and to gain the advantages that allow them to get “ahead.”

In this circumstance, we find that it is favoritism or advantage that enables people to seek to gain an inside edge without thinking of themselves as racists or as bad people. It is what enables them to avoid the kind of moral dilemma of which Myrdal spoke. At the same time, while they claim to believe in equal opportunity as the standard of fairness, they actively seek “unequal opportunity” in order to gain the kinds of jobs that allow them to live a decent life. And in doing so, they hold to a strong ideological belief in individualism, namely, that they did it on their own without help from others, and especially without help from the government. People are decent and want to be fair, but they also want to protect themselves. We need to understand the political aspects of these dynamics as well as the moral ones if we are to find a way forward where everyone can live a comfortable life in which they are contributing and responsible members of society, without doing so at the expense of or in place of others.