Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Heather C. McGhee notes (as heard on the radio) that racism has a cost for everyone.


Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.

The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.

Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.

“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”

Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.

No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?

The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.

But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.

Not One of Us

I started watching a confused video at The Atlantic about a purported End of White Christian America, and then leapt through the computer and throttled the person at the other end for not using the words “white” and “Christian” consistently. It’s almost as if those were shorthand.

Because they are. He means WASPs.

Image may contain: text

Robert P. Jones doesn’t seem to be intentionally fear-mongering–his other articles on the subject are, as is his book, more measured. Yet his book’s title and this video irresponsibly play right into the white replacement trope with over-simplification. His audience lumps themselves into his categories because they think that they are a) white, and b) Christian–even if they aren’t using the same definitions–and are thus tricked into thinking their group is threatened.

The population of the United States of America is, statistically speaking, primarily white and primarily Christian. The U. S. Census Bureau, a nominally reliable source, says that those self-identifying as white are 76.6% of the population, which is NOT a minority. The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study records 70.6% overall, and 70% of white respondents, as Christian, which is NOT a minority.

His numbers are arrived at primarily by eliminating the “white and hispanic” population from the definition of “white,” though removing Catholics, Mormons, and others from the definition of Christian also helps. The confusion here and elsewhere may simply be a difference in how social scientists and the rest of us define membership in a group: the former considers to be members of a group those who consider themselves to be members; the latter considers members those whom the members of a group consider to be members. Or it may lie in the decision to conflate race and ethnicity–that is, using Hispanic origin as an alternative to white. Despite attempts by the Census Bureau to insist that race and Hispanic origin are distinguished from each other, we do tend to see checkboxes as radio buttons, and so they become practically identical.

In any event, the distinction is being made between British North America and the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies–a distinction where the French and Dutch colonies (and Canada) exist only as rounding errors. So despite an Iberian obsession with race as intense as America’s in places such as Mexico and Brazil, many Americans just consider them all not our kind of people.

One aspect of our national project is the continual attempt to define exactly who is really American. We do that with statistics. They aren’t neutral.

Words matter.

So do numbers.