Monday, March 16, 2009

think that white people in trouble matter more than other people in trouble

Late last year, the TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" did a segment that I found both sympathetic and voyeuristic. The cameras and the reporter got up close with people during one of the most painful moments of their lives, right when they were being evicted from their homes.

I noticed as I watched that NBC's people apparently tried to include a racial cross-section of evicted homeowners and tenants. I also noticed that although minorities are being hit much harder in the current housing crisis, the families focused on in this segment more intently, and thus more sympathetically, are the apparently white ones.

Last night, "Dateline NBC" did a shorter follow-up on some of these families, and the family that receives the most attention here is again an apparently white one:

What can be said about whiteness in this context? How about, "Hey, you've got it bad, but at least you're white!" That would go over just great, wouldn't it?

Still, one thing worth noting here in the interest of fairness is the implication made in these two "Dateline" segments by the disproportionate coverage granted to apparently white families. As with the Missing White Woman Syndrome, the implication is that white suffering matters more than the suffering of non-white people. An unstated message I get from these two segments goes something like this: "Minorities have always been poor, but when a lot of white people are suffering too, it's time to really start paying attention!"

Generally, sympathetic media attention to any victims of predatory housing practices seems like a good thing. However, framing white suffering as the suffering that matters most makes white people seem like the people who matter most. An underlying message of such disproportionate coverage is that white people are the ones who are most fully human, and thus, the ones who are least deserving of such degrading, humiliating treatment. And again, if a lot of white families are joining minority families on the street, well then, that's when it's time to sound the alarms.

This disproportionate attention to white financial hardship becomes especially galling in light of another fact, which is that white people in general are suffering less in this economy than other racial groups are:

As Algernon Austin, a leading researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, puts it: "When white America is in recession, black America is in an economic depression."

The same is true for Hispanic communities, said Austin, who directs the Washington, D.C.-based institute's program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

Typically, black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people. . . "The level of unemployment whites consider a high level is what blacks experience even in the good times," Austin said.

The reasons for an ongoing racial disparity in economic well-being are many, including different educational levels, job discrimination, wage gaps, differences in health-care access, discrimination against convicted felons who have already served their time, and on and on.

Because of these multiple and entrenched inequities, minorities have more trouble than white people do accumulating wealth, which would cushion a fall during an economic downturn. In times like the present, minorities tend to find themselves on the edge, and literally in the street, sooner than white people do.

And speaking of literally being put outside and on the street--that's happening to a lot of people because the ticking time-bomb that was their adjustable-rate mortgage blew up, and that too is happening to minorities at a disproportionate rate. That fact makes the unstated white racial frame through which "Dateline NBC" covers the housing crisis in the above segments especially infuriating.

Just last week, the NAACP filed another lawsuit in an effort to rectify this racist disparity, this time against two of the biggest mortgage lenders, HSBC and Wells Fargo, for "systematic, institutionalized racism" in their subprime lending practices.

According to CNN,

Under subprime lending, people who don't qualify for lower interest rates can borrow money at higher rates. The NAACP argues that the companies gave subprime rates to African-Americans who qualified for better rates and gave better rates to white customers with similar credit histories.

The lawsuits note studies showing African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by subprime lending. But that's not solely because of intentional efforts to target African-Americans, according to the lawsuits.

"These statistical disparities are not mere happenstance, but instead result from the systematic and predatory targeting of African-Americans, as well as facially neutral lending policies and practices that have a disparate adverse impact on African-Americans," said the lawsuits, which were filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The corporate media's heightened focus on and empathy for white people with housing problems, as exemplified by the lopsided reporting of "Dateline NBC," does more than just perpetuate the notion that minorities somehow deserve harder lives. Such a whitened focus also ignores something that "Dateline" never even mentions, which is the greater likelihood that minority families are suffering this way.

Given that fact, minority emiseration deserves not only equal time and attention; the usual scenario, with the plight of minority families on the margins and those of white families at the center, should actually be reversed.


  1. It is a sad state of affairs to be sure, but it is the present state of affairs. Hardship and suffering are not hardship and suffering if white people aren't going through it. So maybe its good (and bad) that white people are now going through it (though not in the numbers the MSM would like us to think) because maybe something can be done for everyone going through it (not holding my breath 'cause I don't want to pass out).

  2. Yeah I understand what you're saying but I do think this crisis will have greater empathy if the face of it is white. Maybe laws will be changed faster or stimulus packages to the middle class created quicker if their is a white face in front, preferably one that is also in the military.

    If dateline did a special where the majority of people affected by this were black, did you think white law makers would watch it? I haven't seen this special but I bet you there is a little blond girl or boy crying somewhere in it.

    If that's what it takes, then so be it.

  3. Hey,
    I'm a white woman and I see this crap every day. People think that if racism goes underground we have made so much progress.(it's still there just less noticeable).People can be so ignorant.

  4. Given the nasty, antagonistic attitudes of many prominent whites toward people who are under threat of eviction (Rick Santelli is a f*cking hero to a huge group of white conservatives for calling these people "losers"), I'd be wary of portraying the evicted as being made up mostly of people of color. As Moviegirl says, there's probably a better chance of laws being passed and politically supported if people don't think of this as a predominately black/brown problem. As a matter of political pragmatism, I really don't want housing relief to get tagged with the same image that welfare eventually did. So long as the white majority of our society and our government thinks that lots of white people are suffering, they're more likely to do something to alleviate that suffering. Once eviction gets labeled as a black/brown problem (as conservatives desperately are trying to do, with their constant refrain that the Community Reinvestment Act's ban on housing and lending discrimination really is to blame for the whole crisis), forget about anyone's getting any help.

  5. Like you said, this probably comes from the thought that if hard times are actually starting to effect white middle class people then the times must be bad.

    I think it may also mean that deep down every white person knows there is such a thing as white privilege in America, just that some don't want to consciously admit it.


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