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“Structural Discrimination” Video

March 7, 2016

Last month, as part of Black History Month, Glen Allen High School, outside Richmond, Virginia, held a special forum for students to better understand racial issues. Part of the presentation included a four-minute animated video, “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race.” That video provoked a strong reaction from some white parents–so much so that the Henrico County School Board apologized for the showing of the video and promised it would not be shown again. What was so inappropriate about the video? According to reports in the local newspaper, the complaints were these: the video caused racial division, claimed that whites don’t have to work hard to succeed, promoted the concept of “white privilege,” and fostered white guilt. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Did the video cause racial division? It might have. But, more likely, it was pointing out serious racial divisions in our society that many whites would prefer we didn’t talk about for the sake of “harmony.” The fact is, blacks and whites do not voluntarily mix very much in our society. The division is painfully obvious. There can be no real racial healing and harmony until we acknowledge the divisions and understand their causes.

Did the video claim that whites don’t have to work hard to succeed? Yes, and in this regard the video was overly simplistic. But the point of the video is that, in general, whites do not have to work as hard as blacks to succeed. This, I think, is quite true. Let me offer just one piece of evidence: In 2013 the median household wealth for white Americans was $141,900. In other words, after factoring in all debts, the average white household still had a total accumulated wealth in savings and pensions and property and possessions of $141,900. But the median household wealth for black Americans was an astonishingly small $11,000. White Americans have thirteen times as much wealth to draw upon as black Americans. This means it is far easier for a white young adult to get started on a solid footing in life. White teens and young adults have far more resources for going to college, or purchasing a dependable car, or owning a house, or living in a nice neighborhood. If my young adult children find themselves in a financial emergency, I can easily bail them out if I need to. Black young adults rarely have that safety net.

Did the video promote the concept of “white privilege”? Yes, and what’s wrong with that? This is not a weird theory but a demonstrable fact. White privilege is a type of unintentional discrimination and disadvantage for blacks that is often unnoticed by whites. For instance, because whites make up the majority population and culture in American society (and have the most wealth), products and entertainment are mostly geared to pleasing them and fulfilling their needs–not those of blacks or other minorities. Because whites and white culture are viewed as the “norm,” all other cultures and races tend to be judged by a “white standard.” And if a police officer pulls me over for a questionable reason, or if a shop keeper seems to be following me around in his shop, I–as a white person–never have to wonder if I’m being treated this way because of my race. I can go through every day of my life without ever thinking about my race and how people will treat me; but an African-American does not have this privilege. These are some examples of white privilege, and whites ought to be aware of it so as to try to minimize its impact.

Did the video foster white guilt? It may have, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to educate and illuminate. The goal is to work at making changes in society that will result in a more even playing field. But guilt is an appropriate response if we are part of the problem but we’re doing nothing to change it.

I was particularly annoyed by parents calling their high school youth “children.” They are not children. They are teens who are about to become adults. This is precisely the time when they must confront the realities of racial bias.

However, the video also contains some serious distortions, and these should also be pointed out in a high school discussion. Jails do not simply fall from the sky on a large number of African-American youth (as the video depicts). Although there is racial profiling by some (most?) police, and there are drug enforcement efforts that unfairly target blacks, it is still a fact that blacks commit far more crimes than whites in proportion to their population. There are all kinds of historical and sociological reasons for this, but the best way to not go to jail is to not commit crimes.

Similarly, the video implies that standardized tests are a significant reason why blacks drop out of high school or do not educationally succeed as well as whites. I think a more basic reason is that, on the whole, black youth value education less than white youth, sometimes making fun of their peers who are trying to succeed.

The video also makes what appear to me to be historical errors and some false comparisons; it also fails to list too-common behaviors that are self-defeating. But, it’s only a four-minute video; it can’t tell everything or be fully accurate.

It’s been interesting to me to see how the black commentators in Richmond have all rallied behind the video, saying, “It just tells the truth,” while white commentators have all said or implied that the video is seriously flawed. This, in itself, reveals just how important it is for us to have a lot more structured dialogues on race-related issues. Churches, as well as high schools, need to be actively involved in facilitating this.

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2 Comments
  1. Noah Denman permalink

    What motivation do black youths have to succeed if they see their communities discriminate against them regardless of social status? Or the fact that crime, especially violent crime and drug related crime, is statistically more likely to be performed by people of a lower socioeconomic status and our society in a lot of ways conspires to keep black people in those roles. Or the fact that a white person is less likely to go to jail for the same crime as a black person? Jails do in a way fall out of the sky onto the black community. This doesn’t condone crime, however we need to address the root causes of it.

  2. Thanks, Noah, for filling out some of the factors and questions that need to be addressed. The obstacles are real. The self-defeating responses (understandable as they are) are also real. The whole complicated mess–that we are all responsible for–needs to be cleaned up.

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