Let me raise an uncomfortable topic: We all know that in some fundamental way, this presidential campaign is in part about race.
Supporters of Donald Trump are more likely than other voters to tell pollsters that blacks are “lazy,” “violent” and “unintelligent.” Four out of five Trump backers say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. And only 39 percent of Trump supporters believe that President Obama was born in the United States.
Polling and analysis by The Economist found that Trump is propelled in part by a wave of white “racial resentment” that blacks are coddled whiners, protected by a stifling political correctness.
As for Trump himself, we shouldn’t lightly call anyone a racist, but he has compiled such a comprehensive record of discrimination and bigotry over 45 years that I don’t know what else to call him.
I started this “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series a couple of years ago because I thought many whites were in denial about racial inequities. That impression has only been reinforced by Trump’s rise.
A widespread white delusion goes like this: We elected a black man president, so let’s stop using past discrimination as an excuse for black failures today. The age of discrimination is over.
In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that racial discrimination remains ubiquitous in America.
Take something as simple as crossing the street. In one study by scholars at Portland State University and the University of Arizona, three black men and three white men played pedestrians trying to cross a street at a crosswalk. On average, a black pedestrian was passed by twice as many vehicles before a driver yielded.
As I see it, the biggest problem with racism in 2016 is not old-fashioned white-robed segregationists (although white supremacists are lining up to promote Trump). Rather, the central problem is well-meaning white people like the drivers at those crosswalks: Many probably believe in racial equality, yet they unintentionally act in ways that perpetuate inequality.
Researchers find this kind of unconscious bias almost everywhere. A Stanford study found that teachers reviewing discipline reports in some cases were more likely to favor harsh punishment for a student named “Deshawn” or “Darnell” than one named “Greg” or “Jake.” And black children with appendicitis are less than half as likely to get strong pain medication at an emergency room as white children with appendicitis.
Businesses that discriminate seem to hurt themselves, but they still do it.
Devah Pager of Harvard conducted a study of racial discrimination in New York City in 2004 by sending young black and white men to apply for jobs at 170 businesses, bearing fictitious and carefully matched résumés. She found that white applicants were more than twice as likely to get a call back; indeed, a white applicant purportedly just released from prison did no worse than a black applicant with a clean record.
This year, Pager published a follow-up based on what had happened to these businesses in the 2008 recession. She found that the companies that had discriminated were significantly more likely to have gone out of business – which may suggest a price tag for discrimination.
Inequities are not just about individual discrimination, for the larger problems are systemic. I was just in Detroit, where 9 percent of children suffer lead poisoning (more than in Flint); if this were happening to rich white children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, there would be outraged demands for a national commission and reparations.
When opioids were primarily a black problem, America’s instinct was harsh prison sentences; now that it is mainly a white problem, we’re more compassionate and are improving treatment programs. America’s education system is structured so that white suburban children often get an excellent public education, while inner-city black kids disproportionally get a third-rate education.
The Supreme Court is now taking up a case called Buck v. Davis involving a murderer named Duane Buck who was sentenced to death after “expert” testimony that he was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he was black. What can that be called but racism?
Many whites object that race gaps are the result of irresponsible behavior by blacks themselves, such as teenage girls’ having babies. Sure, self-destructive behaviors are a strand of poverty (of every complexion), but blacks are cleareyed about this: 86 percent of blacks say that family breakup is a reason for difficulties of blacks today. And black churches and opinion leaders like Obama have addressed this head-on with initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper.
In contrast, we whites seem curiously unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for our own part in racial inequity. If we’re so concerned with “personal responsibility,” shouldn’t we show some?
If Donald Trump wants to make this election in part about race, then let’s really talk about race problems in all their complexities. And we whites could spend less time pointing fingers and more time looking in the mirror.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof.