I got vaccinated! Also, why racial privilege is not good for white people
by Rob Tiller
This week it was rainy and cold for several days, and then sunny and cold, and I’ve been on the comeback trail from my neck surgery. Dr. K directed me not to drive or work out until he gives the OK, but he approved walking. I’ve been taking some good walks through Raleigh along Hillsborough Street next to N.C. State, through Cameron Village, around Oakwood, and along West Street through the up-and-coming warehouse district. Walking helps you see things you wouldn’t otherwise. Several businesses had closed, but I spotted some new little ethnic restaurants that looked promising.
After waiting several weeks, today I finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a Covid-19 vaccine, and got my first dose today. I can’t remember ever being more excited about getting a shot! I got the Pfizer vaccine, though I would happily have taken any of the well tested options. It didn’t hurt at all! I encourage all to roll up sleeves as soon as manageable.
On another timely subject, I discovered Ezra Klein’s podcast, and listened to Klein interview Heather McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The transcript is here.
McGhee and Klein led with a discussion of thousands of municipal swimming pools that American towns built and enjoyed in the last century. Most allowed whites only, and when the anti-discrimination laws of the Civil Rights era arrived, the local leaders closed the pools en masse. McGhee explained that white people, indoctrinated with the false narrative of the supposed inferiority and dangerousness of Black people, chose to stop all that fun and healthy swimming, rather than allow Black people to use the pools.
McGhee found that this kind of nose cutting self-inflicted wound in response to racial fears explains a lot of our otherwise hard-to-explain sub par public policies. A drain-the-pool impulse led people of the higher castes to oppose public services that would have greatly benefitted themselves in order to avoid benefitting people of the lower castes. This helps account for Americans’ lack of affordable health care, lack of child care, poor public transportation, poor public education, rising student debt, lack of affordable housing, increasing inequality, and environmental degradation.
McGhee and Klein discussed how white Americans have been taught over generations to view groups in a hierarchical and zero sum way, so that any advancement of Black people threatened lower status for them. This view is nonsense, but deeply ingrained, and the fear of loss of status is real. That’s not the only problem. The zero sum mindset (that is, thinking that even when there’s plenty for everyone, there isn’t, so when someone else gets something that means there may not be enough for me) also divides lower status white people from even poorer white people. Thus we have the Hillbilly Elegy situation of white people barely able to pay their bills adamantly opposing government help for those whites who can’t make ends meet.
Our racial caste system is built on and perpetuates the myths of rugged individualism, racial inferiority, and fear of the Other. As the pool draining example shows, this mindset has been tremendously destructive, not just for Black people, but for everyone except the plutocratic elites.
But, as McGhee pointed out that, because our racial caste system gives a privileged position to white people, they are generally not strongly motivated to change it. With her book, she’s trying to show that white racial privilege carries with it enormous economic and social costs for white people, like the drained swimming pools. It’s possible that, even without calling on compassion, if more white people realized how the system hurts them, they’d support change.
Michelle Goldberg discusses McGhee’s book in her latest column in the New York Times. There’s also a new interview with McGhee on the Fresh Air podcast.
Speaking of hope, this week we saw three Netflix or Prime movies that were a bit off the beaten track and offered a welcome bit of calm and optimism. First, Paterson was about a city bus driver in Paterson, N.J. (played by Adam Driver, named Paterson in the movie) who writes poetry when he can. The movie seemed to be about the small joys of life (useful work, domesticity, love, waterfalls, artistic creation), and the inherent value that has nothing to do with fame or fortune.
We also liked Loving, a biopic about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage violated Virginia’s laws against interracial relations, and whose 1967 case in the Supreme Court resulted in such laws becoming unconstitutional. The movie makes its large points about discrimination and the possibility of racial harmony very simply, without hectoring. It was quietly powerful, and touching.
Finally, the new documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is about an upstate New York summer camp for disabled teenagers that seeded the modern disability rights struggle. Camp Jened brought together kids with all kinds of physical and mental problems, including limited mobility and coordination, severe speech impediments, deafness, blindness, and developmental issues. At the camp, these kids did ordinary summer camp things, like making campfires, boating, singing, and making out. It was a profound experience in normalcy for the campers. It led some of them to become activists whose protests helped achieve the Americans with Disabilities Act. The film was really cheering and inspiring.