Monday, August 4, 2008

White by the Numbers

Several months ago, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz challenged me to consider the question of what it would mean for white people to experience liberation from oppressing. That sent the chapter I was working on into a deeper place, which was a good thing.

I had been writing about Latina calls for liberation, and was about to document the white response so far. As I developed that section, I also began to address the question from Isasi-Diaz about liberation from oppressing, and as a result ended up with a 100+ page chapter, which I have now split into two chapters, one on Latina calls to liberation, and another on white liberation(s).

The chapter on Latina calls to liberation is about 25 pages. The white liberation chapter is about 80 pages. Hmmm. Maybe that's as it should be? Maybe that's what it looks like when white people do their own work? To be determined.

At the moment, I want to share a few numbers. One of the points of the chapter on white liberation is to illustrate the reality of white privilege (historical construction and present reality). Along the way, I did some research on white representation in certain job types. I was recalling a photocopied article I saw some years ago called "Blinded by the White," which noted the heavy preponderance of white people in positions that count, either by virtue of being highly salaried or societally powerful or both.

While the representation of women and men of color has risen in many positions, white people are still heavily over represented in the positions that count. We white folks represent about 66% of the (census) population. Hence, any position where we hold more than 66% of the jobs is a position where white people are overrepresented, in my simple way of thinking. So, here's what I found:

White representation in higher-salaried positions of power (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey 2007*)


Percent held
by whites



Chief executives




HR managers




Education administrators




Medical/health service managers




Property/real estate managers




Business/financial operations
















Education/training occupations




Post-secondary teachers




Health-care practitioners
















By the numbers, white people still hold a preponderance of the positions that count, out of proportion to our presence in the population, from which I would argue we are able to maintain white-privileging control over the systems and institutions that shape our society, including business, legislative and judicial systems, property sales and management, education and health care. (Note that the percentages of non-white, non-male legislators was considered too small to be tabulated.)

Of course, not all white people are employed in positions that afford economic power and privilege. Whites represented 44 percent of the 37 million U.S. citizens living below the poverty line in 2006. The (historically constructed) sad thing about that is that most of the white people living in poverty think they have more in common with wealthy white people than they do people of color also dealing with poverty. And that keeps folks from banding together and working together to insist on change in an unjust reality.

Tim Wise put the point admirably his book, White Like Me:

"I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that all whites are well-off, or even particularly powerful. We live not only in a racialized society, but also a class system, a patriarchal system, and one in which other forms of advantage and disadvantage exist. These other forms of privilege mediate, but never fully eradicate, something like white privilege. … But despite the fact that white privilege plays out differently for different folks, depending on these other identities … whiteness matters and carries with it great advantage. … [A]lthough whites are often poor, their poverty does not alter the fact that relative to poor and working class persons of color, they typically have a leg up. No one privilege system trumps all others every time, but no matter the ways in which individual whites may face obstacles on the basis of nonracial factors, our race continues to elevate us over similarly situated persons of color." (ix-x)

More on all this later ... at the moment I have a honker of a chapter to get closer to done.

* Sources of data include "Household Data Annual Averages: Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Detailed Occupation and Sex," Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as personal calculations.

** Although women outnumber men in HR management positions, men are compensated more highly, earning a median weekly wage of $1581 compared to women’s $1073, as reported in “Median Weekly Earnings.” A similar discrepancy exists for education administration, where women hold 64 percent of the positions, but receive less compensation than men, $1371 to $960.


Jack Stephens said...

Great post. I myself am pursuing a Masters in Divinity over at Berkeley for the Episcopal Church. Hopefully after a few years or so I'll be able to pursue my PhD that melds some type of Marxian and anti-racist thought together with theology.

Counsel said...

Facts often are painful to see are they not?

I wanted to ask some questions.

Do you think most people today discriminate?

Do you think the numbers provided in your post are due to discrimination?

Is the lack of non-white people in those categories due to "white privilege" or to the number of suitable applicants in that field?

I ask because I am part owner of a firm, and our employees are equally divided--we employ 50% men and 50% women. We have had more female applicants than male, and we have had one applicant who was not "white." He did not get hired because he:

1. Had no experience in our field;
2. Had held over 5 positions in 1.5 years; and
3. Stated he did not expect to stay with the firm for more than 6 months until his "other" job, internet business of some sort, took off.

I don't care if my employees are white, red, black, brown, orange, have tattoos, piercings, or etc. so long as they can dress within a certain bell-curve and can do the job well. 50% of our employees have tattoos and/or piercings--another set of numbers that continues to increase in the workplace.

I think correcting inappropriate past action (rights for those that did not have them, women and other minorities in the workplace, etc) will take time before we see any type of bell-curve in the hiring numbers and in the management numbers. Certainly it appears to take more time than I would like...

Tammerie said...

Thanks for your comment, Jack, and for cross-posting me to Blog and Bullet (a friend sent me that link). It's been good to see your blogs and I wish you the best in your studies.

Tammerie said...

Greetings, Counsel. My thoughts on your questions ... Discrimination is a loaded term with multiple meanings and implications. But if I answer briefly, and in the spirit of what I think you're asking, I'd say:

1) Most people who've grown up in the US have preconceptions about others based on race and ethnicity.
2) More white people have the ability to act on negative preconceptions in their hiring decisions.

I think the disproportionate number of white people in jobs that matter has to do with historical and present-day reasons: there is an abundance of information available that shows how white privilege has been constructed in Europe and the US, and how it has been maintained.

It may be the case that "only" white applicants tend to be qualified for certain jobs today, but what has gone into the construction of that present-day reality? What histories of exclusion from educational institutions? What histories of exclusion from neighborhoods where good schools are?

You are right, it will take time to undo historically constructed wrongs -- we all need to be doing our part (and then some) to understand and take responsibility for the way things are now.

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