By David Barr
My sociologist friend, Sam, has a great illustration about the persistent effects of racism: he asks his students to imagine that they are watching a game of Monopoly and one player (let’s say the Thimble) is not allowed to buy property for the first five turns, but does pay rent, while everyone else plays under the normal rules, snatching up several of the best properties. Sam asks his students to imagine they are put in charge of the game after the fifth turn and asks them to think about the best way to make sure the game will be fair going forward.
Now, under normal conditions, fair play would mean that everyone plays by the same rules; there are no advantages or disadvantages given to any players. Since that is what's normally fair, maybe you should just end all special treatment when you take over. But if all you did was make sure that everyone is treated the same from now on, have you really made things fair for Thimble? Can she hope to catch up when all the best properties are already taken? Wouldn’t it be more fair to treat her differently from everyone else for a while longer, to give her money or properties until things are more even? How else can she hope to compete?
The application to racism is, I think, pretty obvious. White people in the U.S. were quite literally allowed to take several turns before everyone else. We took all the good properties. Those racist policies are gradually being eliminated and (even though racial prejudice is still a very serious problem) we have gotten better at applying the rules more equally. However, little has been accomplished in addressing the massive advantage in ownership and economic power that white people were able to accrue throughout most of our history. The wage gap between whites and blacks has shrunk somewhat (it was still $58,000 for white households to $35,000 for black ones in 2013), but the wealth gap remains enormous ($113,000 to $5,600). In other words, white households still out-earn black ones by something like 70%, but they out-own them by 2,000%. This imbalance, as in Monopoly, reinforces itself over time. Owning property confers advantages in real life, just as it does in the game. There are so many benefits to having money (stability, access to different schools and social networks, earning interest, mobility, avoiding tragic choices, etc.) that, even if income were to become perfectly equitable, we have no reason to think the gap will ever close on its own.
I think one reason there has been such a backlash against affirmative action-type programs to address that gap is due to a vocabulary problem. There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the word ‘racism.’
For a lot of people, ‘racism’ just means treating people from different races differently. As definitions go, this isn’t that bad. Certainly, that sort of differential treatment can be racism. It describes the situation at the beginning of the Monopoly game, when Thimble was singled out. However, it is clear from the Monopoly example that this definition can’t do all the work we want it to do. In that analogy, that Thimble was singled out for mistreatment was ‘racism,’ according to this definition, but so were your efforts to help her. If differential treatment is all the word ‘racism’ means, then the other players would be perfectly right to claim (reverse?) racism if you gave help only to Thimble and no one else when you took over.
Likewise, if ‘racism’ just means different treatment, then all efforts to address the legacy of racism (diversity programs, scholarships, voting protections, asserting that black lives matter, and others) are, by definition, racist. This is why so many white people chafe at those things, I think: by singling out certain groups for benefits, those efforts fit precisely the definition of racism that we were taught. White people get indignant that other races get to do things that would be called racist if white folks did them, like have their own scholarships or pride groups. Why do we have to play by different rules? If making distinctions along racial lines is what caused the problem, then shouldn’t the solution be colorblindness? Shouldn’t we judge all people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin?
Maybe, but isn’t that a pretty one-dimensional definition of ‘racism’? Don’t we usually take ‘racism’ to mean unfair or unjust treatment of people of certain races, not just different treatment? If that’s the case, then it seems to follow from our Monopoly example that making race-based distinctions is not always racist. If you treat Thimble differently than everyone else when trying to make the game fair after the fifth turn, you aren’t being racist; you are being anti-racist, trying to undo the injustice of the initial racism. If we think of racism as unfairness (and remember our Monopoly example), it helps us see how the shape of life in the U.S. will remain ‘racist’ (in the sense of being unfair to certain races), as long as property and social structures remain unfairly tilted against minority groups, even if prejudice were to be completely eliminated. It means that a society can be ‘racist’ (in the sense of being stacked against people of color), without ‘racists’ (in the sense of prejudiced people). Fixing that structural racism means attempting to address the legacy of past prejudice by singling out formerly oppressed groups for assistance.
'Racism' only means treating people of different races differently under normal conditions. Our post-slavery, post-apartheid condition is not normal. In the U.S. today, treating every race exactly the same is like making Thimble play by the same rules as everyone else after starting from a huge disadvantage. Insisting that everyone be treated the same, regardless of race, supports a racist (structurally unfair) status quo. In an ideal world, the answer to racism is race-blindness; in the real world, ironically, ignoring race is itself racist, because it cuts off the possibility of addressing our current racial injustice.
In other words, fairness demands that we continue to make some distinctions between black and brown Americans and white Americans (‘racism’ in the first sense, differential treatment) in order to address the injustices in our economy and society ('racism' in this second sense, unjust structures). You might say that we need racism to fix racism. Of course, to understand the situation better and avoid the need to say ridiculous things like that last sentence, we should listen to the folks telling us to stop using the word ‘racism’ to refer to the making of racial distinctions of all kinds, and reserve the word for situations of injustice. This might be the first step toward accepting the need for proactive efforts to address the unjust structural legacy of our past.
Of course, you might think that, given time, society will tend toward racial justice automatically without intervention.
I think you’re wrong. It’s at least clear you’ve never played Monopoly.
 Now, a lot has been written, more eloquently and forcefully than I could ever match, about affirmative action, reparations, and the like. I don’t pretend that I have something new to add here. I will say, quickly, that these issues would be contentious, even if we all knew our history and agreed that something should be done about inequality. I know that if I took over the Monopoly game after round five, I would want to help Thimble, but I can’t claim that I would know the best way to do it. Maybe the person using the Shoe has had a terrible set of rolls, the Car has made stupid decisions, and Battleship is dominating. Do I take property from all of them equally to give to Thimble? Or do I take the most property from Battleship because he can afford it? What if Car and Shoe were the ones who voted in the unfair rules, and Battleship is innocent, perhaps even had campaigned for equal rights for Thimble? How much help should Thimble get and in what form? Answers to these are not obvious, and real life is (obviously) no simpler. I don’t want to minimize the challenges here, even for those in agreement that we should do something.