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What's the cash value of being white? A white woman poses the question about herself

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If the subject of racism happens to come up, what comes to mind? Presumably, it's the idea that in America, at least, it's something that keeps nonwhite people down. But what if it's also something that lifts white people up and keeps them up? And what if you could put some numbers on it? Writer Tracie McMillan decided to do the numbers for herself. She estimates that she has had advantages that total $371,934.30 so far. McMillan calls this the white bonus. And that's also the title of her new book, where she looks at how her family and those of other white Americans benefit from policies and practices that disadvantage nonwhites, but particularly African Americans. And she is with us now to tell us more about this. Hello.

TRACIE MCMILLAN: Hey.

MARTIN: What made you step back and think about being white per se?

MCMILLAN: The more I thought about it, the more I was like, well, why don't I just look at what money I have and whether I would have it if my - me and my family weren't white?

MARTIN: I'm imagining that some people are going to be like, oh, come on, you know? Like, I've got student loan debt. My mortgage is crazy. Give me some examples of the way you say it works in real life.

MCMILLAN: Employment and housing discrimination are things that are still real problems, wage discrimination, right? There's solid social science that that stuff continues today.

MARTIN: Although you do use your own story as an example. But you interview, as the title tells us, five families. But I wanted to talk about the two nurses that you interviewed. They were actual besties. Talk about how you think race played out in their lives.

MCMILLAN: Jasmine and Katrina, right? So this is an interracial friendship. So the sharpest example is that Katrina drops out of college, starts working at a nursing home on the night shift as a CNA, and she's really pleasant with folks and good at her job. And somebody from HR is like, do you want to go to nursing school? We have a scholarship program that's going to catapult her into the middle class. Whereas Jasmine - right? - Black girl in public high school - figures out to go and get into CNA while she's in high school, so she can earn more money to save to go to college. And then her guidance counselor says, why would you need to go to college? - and gets sort of pushed aside. So Jasmine has to fight so much harder to get catapulted into the middle class with something that Katrina kind of got, like, led into and helped with.

MARTIN: And there are people even now who will say, oh, no, it's white people who are being discriminated against; it's Black people who are getting scholarships handed to them and opportunities handed to them. What do you say to that? Who - people who think that?

MCMILLAN: I'd say for a long time, we've had affirmative action for white people, particularly when you look at the 20th century, right? So when you look at the postwar period, which is, you know, for my family, where most of our wealth comes from, the GI Bill, which essentially was designed to go to white folks - I mean, it was not written that way, but it was implemented that way, it was understood by everybody that that's the way it was going to play out, and then you could get help with your mortgage and things like that. And we didn't give that to Black communities and other communities.

MARTIN: And the people who said, well, that was a long time ago, that's over now?

MCMILLAN: Because it keeps mattering, right? I mean, I would not have been able to get help from my family to go to college if my parents and grandparents had not had that help earlier in their lives, and that came from actual active policy. Like, there's a real way in which white advantages this compounding interest on this early investment that this country made in white families, right? And then it just keeps on trickling down.

MARTIN: But why do you think it is that these - sort of the benefits of government policy are so invisible to people?

MCMILLAN: I think they're invisible because we've sort of convinced ourselves that this is a meritocracy. The government does this for us, and then I work hard and I get over because of my efforts.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I think that your story is compelling is that you've experienced personally some of the things that can be real drivers of poverty - you know, your mom's significant health issues, what you describe as abuse in the home. And I have to say here that we have not called your father to verify this information. But part of what struck me is that you said that the abuse you experienced made you more likely to ignore the abuse of others and that this was at the source of white privilege. Can you say more about that?

MCMILLAN: Yes. So when, like, we were having these difficult times in my household, other adults, including, like, teachers, could tell that there was really rough stuff happening in my household, right? And nobody said anything. And if I tried to speak up about it, I was told, you just need to be quiet and get through it and endure it, right? And so the lesson that I learned was that anything difficult - I just needed to shut up and get through it and not complain and not expect anybody to stand up for me. And so you learn, well, if something is hard, you just suck it up, and you get through it, and then things will be fine later. And so that sort of trains you not to speak up about anyone else 'cause why would I do that? Nobody ever spoke up for me.

MARTIN: There are a couple of shockers in your book. Let me just ask you about one of them, which is that sometimes people who dig into their own family stories find things out they didn't want to know. And it also is very painful to other people in the family. Both of those things happen in the course of your reporting this book. Your father did not appreciate your undertaking this inquiry.

MCMILLAN: Yes. So, you know, for me, this project required me to be brutally honest about both my family and my country. I have forgiven my father for those things.

MARTIN: But you also attribute it, in part, to the incredible, like, financial pressure, financial and...

MCMILLAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Emotional pressure that your family was under because your mom became so ill...

MCMILLAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...When you were such a young child.

MCMILLAN: Yeah. So my dad had a real rough time of it. I think some of that got taken out on his kids. Happens a lot. And when I was clear with my dad that that's what I wanted to talk about -right? - he immediately was like, I don't want to talk to you. Get out of my house. And then a few months later, I got a letter, you know, basically being disinherited and told terrible things about myself and - you know, and to not come to his funeral.

MARTIN: But you tie the whole - the story about being disinherited to your larger thesis. Would you say the price of kind of complicity in this racial compact of advantage is silence? Would you say that that's what it is?

MCMILLAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that when we stay silent, we can't address any of the things that are causing us problems, right? Like, we have to face the truth and be honest about our country and, for me, about my family, if we're going to move forward in a way where we're all equals, you know, 'cause that's what I want with my father, and I probably won't get it. But I think that that's something we can move forward towards in this country, sort of treating other people as my equal in a way that I wasn't raised to do. And I think we can reach that, but we have to sort of dig in and be honest about where we're at before we can get any further.

MARTIN: That's Tracie McMillan. Her latest book is "The White Bonus: Five Families And The Cash Value Of Racism In America." It is out now. Tracie McMillan, thank you so much for talking with us.

MCMILLAN: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANTLERS SONG, "DIRECTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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