Q&A: Journalist Tracie McMillan on how the "cash value of racism" benefits white Americans

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

"[I]f there is any story about white Americans that this country has left untold, it is the story of how we — how I — directly benefit from racism," the journalist Tracie McMillan writes in the introduction to her second book, "The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America."
McMillan, who grew up in Rose Township, Mich., near Pontiac, will read from "The White Bonus" at 6:30 p.m. May 8 at Literati Bookstore, 124 E. Washington St. in Ann Arbor. As a 2012-13 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, McMillan has spent ample time in Ann Arbor.
In her new book, McMillan points out that most analyses of the legacies of racism focus on what racism has taken away from people of color. These conversations have left white people out of the equation — and, conveniently, allowed white people to bypass responsibility and accountability for their own privilege.

McMillan traces the lives of five white families, her own included, to examine and ultimately tally "how race benefits people who are white."
It’s a deceptively simple premise, a fact she acknowledges from the start. "I cannot take a full measure of the material benefits of racism," she writes, "— and, as many economists have told me, it is likely that no one can. Racism is too complex, too slippery, too multifaceted to pin down its value in a definitive way."
McMillan instead breaks down some of the quantifiable ways in which white people continue to benefit from their race — even if, she writes, "any estimate [of material advantage] I offer will be woefully, dramatically, impossibly insufficient."
The families McMillan profiles come from different parts of the country, different generations, and different socio-economic classes. But each family has clearly benefited from their own race, usually without noticing it.
At the back of the book, McMillan includes a "White Bonus Index" for each person whose life is described, including her own. Here, she lists specific monetary values that can be directly associated with a person’s race.
Under her own "white bonus," for example, McMillan lists an inheritance she received from her grandfather. The inheritance, she explains in an early chapter, grew directly out of family wealth that itself grew from her grandparents’ early investment in a house with a racial covenant, a legal stipulation that once prohibited Black Americans from buying property.
In doing this work, McMillan writes, "My hope is that … I can better understand why racism continues to fester in my country, why so many white Americans treat racial hierarchy as a fact they cannot change rather than a problem they will confront, and whether there’s any chance that the benefits it gives are not worth what they cost."

McMillan recently hopped on the phone with us to discuss her research process and the challenges inherent to writing "The White Bonus." Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Could you start by telling me how you first got the idea for the book? I’m curious if it was an idea that came to you fully formed or if it was something that you worked over in your mind for a longer period of time.
A: This was an eight-year project for me and the first three years [were] just sort of stumbling around trying to figure it out, really. … I wanted to figure out a way to talk about race and class, and to figure out a way to talk about white economic hardship, without it feeling like I was using it as a distraction from the reality of racial justice, because we're so bad in this country at talking about race and class at the same time. And as a white person who hasn't had a whole lot of financial stability, and as somebody from the lower middle class who's often in upper-middle-class and elite spaces, I really felt like I wanted to be able to talk about whiteness and class without sounding like a racist, basically. And so I was like, "Okay, how do I figure that out?" 

Eventually I was like, "Oh, what I'm interested in is the cash value of whiteness, the cash value of racism. What I want is to figure out how to measure it." So that was about a three-year process to get that idea fully formed and then to pitch the book. I think initially I would have been happy to pitch it just as a memoir and basically do the book that I wrote but without the additional profiles. And as my agent and I worked on this … [we realized] what’s going to make the book really useful — and what will make the book useful in a broader, public sense — is if it’s not just [about] me, but [if] it’s actually about multiple white folks, because it lets you study so much more than what my family [story] can touch on.
Q: Was it difficult to find sources who were willing to talk openly with you about their whiteness or about the role that their whiteness had played in shaping their lives?

A: Absolutely, but the people I went with were pretty open about it. There's nobody in the book that really, really, really didn't want to talk about it. There was still a real challenge in terms of getting people to talk about race, and particularly their own races because we have so little language and vocabulary for that in this country. I'd be like, "Well, what does being white have to do with this?" And they'd be like, "Um, I don't know. Not much." And I don't think that that was people lying. I think they've never really had to sit down and articulate it. These were folks who were willing and were trusting enough to talk through it with me.

Q: It almost sounds like they had no framework to think about it.
A: Not really, no. I do think there's a generational shift [in thinking about race]. So the younger the person I was talking to was, the more comfortable they were in sort of talking about that stuff. It really struck me that both my parents and the Beckers’ parents [profiled in Chapter 4 of the book] were sort of like, "Well, yeah, I got stuff for being white, but … [it’s] not my fault that it wasn't fair, and I don't really have any obligation to do anything about it. So — what?" There's a different tone, at least, when you get down to millennials, who are like, "Oh, that's a problem."

Q: You mention late in the chapter that earlier generations of the Becker family had owned enslaved people. I was curious why you chose not to delve more deeply into that issue and talk more about the white bonus the family might have gained from that.
A: One of the rules I set for the book, when I started out, was that I was only going to focus on measuring things that I could get numbers for after 1900. I was not going to go back further than that. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Going back that far for five different families — it would be a lot. There [is] only so much you can do in one book. The second thing is actually a little bit of an intellectual and political point, which is that I absolutely understand that enslavement has had a massive effect on this country. You cannot understand life in this country if you don't understand our history of enslavement. I also don't think you have to go back to enslavement to find really solid evidence of the ways that our government has given financial advantages and built it out for [certain] people in a way that we haven’t for other people. I felt like focusing people’s attention on that and saying, "Let's just talk about what’s happened since the people you knew have been alive." This is not the distant past, 250 years ago. This is your grandparents.

Q: Over the course of your conversations with your sources, did you find any of them shifting their mindsets in either minor or major ways? I’m curious whether any of them started out thinking that their whiteness had no effect on their lives and wound up seeing things very differently, or maybe the opposite — if they ended up feeling resistant to the idea that their whiteness had affected their lives?
A: There were some people [who] definitely shifted their thinking. I don't know that they changed their mind a whole lot about the basic way that the world works. But I would say [that in] my conversations with Katrina, [I saw] something shifting around, particularly because part of my job as a reporter was to gather folks’ stories and then reflect back at them things where I was like, "Well, maybe race was working here. Did you ever think about that?" I think it wasn't so much changing people's idea about whether or not racism was a problem, and more about getting some sense of how insidious it can be even if it's to their personal benefit. But certainly, with the Becker parents, I don't think I changed their minds at all. I think they were like, "Yeah, [we have] a lot of money. And if any of it’s because we were white, we also worked hard. And that's just how it is." And that didn't really change their minds.

Q: What were some of the biggest surprises for you as you were working on the book?
A: With the profiles, I would say I was most surprised by how valuable whiteness is and just how insidious that racial advantage can be. I was shocked at how many layers there ended up being. With Jared [profiled in Chapter 6], [I asked], "Did you ever get money from your parents?" He was like, "No, not really." And that's true. However, his parents spent some money on him for legal stuff when he got in trouble with the law. They gave him a little bit of money for college. That ends up being not that big of numbers in the grand scheme of things. But then one of the numbers I included in his bonus, which Jared and I had worked out, is something like $80,000 that his father co-signed for Jared to take out a loan for. Jared wouldn't have been able to get that loan without his dad. His dad was in the position to be able to pay for that because he had this professional job as an engineer. His dad had a job as an engineer because he got a graduate degree. He got a graduate degree because he had worked at a company that paid for your education — which was Kodak, in [Rochester, N.Y.], which has gone through multiple generations of racial discrimination cases in this time.

In terms of my life, I was really shocked by how much history there was of racism, racial violence, racial discrimination, in the place where I grew up [Rose Township] that I had never heard about. And that is from everything as little as talking to a Black man that I went to school with about what his experiences were like in my community, all the way through to the story of the Black Legion, the KKK, the [integration of the] Ferndale School District. All of that to me was shocking, because I had never heard it. To see how racist the place I am from has been and how racist it probably continues to be, often, probably, in ways that I don't understand, was really transformational for me. It has given me such a profound anger, honestly, at my parents and grandparents [because] they knew this stuff and they didn't think they needed to tell it to me. How am I supposed to go through the world being raised to be "colorblind" and a decent person when you haven't told me the truth about what has happened in this place? That has been a really important observation for me.

Click here for more information on McMillan's appearance at Literati.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photo courtesy of Tracie McMillan.
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