Like the rest of us, I’ve been following the national protests focused on racial injustice. So many people are surprised, asking why this is happening. I realize that, even in this age of easy access to information, much of the country is racially illiterate. We are shocked because we don’t know who we are, lacking even basic information about our own communities.
As measures of where we live show, we are physically separated from each other. For some U.S. cities to become fully racially integrated, we would need 4 out of every 5 black residents to move. Ogden city fares better, with one quarter of black residents, and a third of Hispanics, needing to move. The concentration of these populations in central neighborhoods is a direct result of Ogden’s history of legally enforced racial divisions.
In my research on Ogden’s reputation, I found that residents separated “good” neighborhoods — with primarily white and higher-class residents — from “bad” places where poorer, minority, and immigrant residents lived. These same people complained about how others unfairly separated themselves from Ogden, defining the city as a bad place. We like these divisions, but only when we find ourselves on their good sides.
We also have divisions in our schools. While white students are about half of all public school students, the typical white student goes to a school where almost 7 out of 10 students are white. The typical black student, making up about 1 out of every 7 students, goes to a school that is almost half black.
Our separation even trickles down to our friends. We often think of minorities as sticking together (for example, sitting with each other at lunch during high school). Statistically, whites are actually more likely to cluster together. More than nine out of ten of their friends are also white, a higher number than other racial groups.
Not only are we separate, but we’re unequal. Hundreds of studies detail how whites receive clear preferences in hiring, home buying and financing, policing, and many other ways, despite all of this being illegal. The typical white family has 10 times the wealth of the typical black family ($171,000 compared to $17,150). While there has been much progress, multiple measures show our separation and inequality to be the same or even worse today than fifty or one hundred years ago.
Despite these deep social divisions (or maybe because of them), many of us think that inequality is a thing of the past. A majority of white people believe that whites get little or no advantage from their race, and about half believe that discrimination against whites is as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities.
These myths continue because many people benefit from believing them. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair: It is difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends upon them not understanding it.
Still, we waste so much time, energy, and money fearing our neighbors, isolating ourselves from them, and maintaining these boundaries. We can be better. Who we imagine ourselves to be can indeed be the same as who we are.