Ann Hornaday is the chief film critic for The Washington Post.
As a drama about the needless death of a young, unarmed black man, the shattering new movie “Fruitvale Station” has found particular resonance with audiences in the past few weeks. The film stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, who was shot by a white Oakland, Calif., transit police officer in 2009. But the scene from the film that has most haunted me does not address racial profiling or any of the events directly related to the shooting.
It’s New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. On a crowded street, while waiting for his date to go to the bathroom, Oscar strikes up a conversation with a white man around his age, who, like Oscar, has committed a crime. Unlike Oscar, he has clearly rebounded. After they chat about the women in their lives, the stranger confesses that he was so broke when he married his wife that he had to steal her ring. He issues a warning about going down the same road, then cheerfully tells Oscar that he now owns a business and gives him his card.
That brief but eloquent scene deftly illustrates the subtleties of white privilege — a reality too seldom portrayed in film and too often ignored by its beneficiaries in life.
When Hollywood tackles race directly, it’s usually by way of uplifting allegories like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Crash” and “The Help,” each of which, in its own way, perpetuates the consoling idea that eradicating racism is simply a matter of purging our negative prejudices.
Rarely do films ask audiences to grapple with the deeply embedded, race-based habits that give white Americans an edge in everything from housing to employment, or the positive racial profiling that grants white people countless free passes.
Indeed, far from being confronted with the pernicious legacies of official discrimination, white audiences tend to have their assumptions about race reinforced. Black people are far more likely to go see movies with majority-white casts than vice versa. And whereas movies about African Americans have tended to be confined to comedies and urban dramas, the white experience has long been represented across a diverse range of genres, stories and characters.
That worldview conditions not only the stories we see but the ones we tell ourselves. For years, when speaking to journalism students, I’ve explained that I got my start in the business by snagging an entry-level magazine job just out of college. What I’ve conveniently left out is that I learned about the job — and obtained an interview — thanks to someone I met through old friends of my family. Although I’ve long adopted the classic bootstrap narrative that I got to where I am by dint of luck and hard work, the more complicated truth is that I also benefited from an intangible form of social capital.
In her book “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism,” Rutgers Business School professor Nancy DiTomaso explains how whites, who tend to hold jobs with higher pay and status, also tend to help people they know — most often other whites. The resulting disparities in income and advancement are less grounded in outright discrimination or racial animus than in “in-group favoritism” that’s far more difficult to quantify or eradicate.
This aspect of white privilege has bubbled under the surface of recent debates about college admissions policies and unpaid internships. As a recent post on the Web site Journos of Color noted, for instance, “The only people who can afford to work full-time for free come from wealth, and generally, if you’re wealthy in America, you’re white.”
But many people, especially white people, don’t realize the extent of the disparities that persistent structural privilege creates. According to some estimates, whites on average possess six times the accumulated wealth — in the form of home equity, savings and retirement accounts — of blacks. That discrepancy is explained not by financial savvy or luck, but by the legacy of now-illegal practices in housing, education and employment that formed the foundation of America’s enduring — and widening — wealth gap between non-Hispanic whites and minorities.
As mortified as some white people may be at the suggestion that we’ve enjoyed career advancement at someone else’s expense, we need to acknowledge that one can benefit from privilege even if it isn’t explicitly claimed. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate marker of privilege is not having to be conscious of it.
Thanks to other people’s positive projections and expectations, I’ve often been able to view the world as a welcoming, or at least benignly neutral, meritocracy. I’ve never been followed in a department store by anyone other than an aggressive perfume lady with a spritzer. I haven’t had to pay an “anxiety tax,” expending untold physical and psychic energy managing other people’s reflexive fears.
Obviously, gender, geography, economic and social class, and temperament play a part in my outlook as well. No one’s experience, positive or negative, can be reduced to just one characteristic. But it didn’t always occur to me, nor was I ever taught, to consider race as part of my personal bundle of x-factors.
This is where popular culture can be particularly helpful. Granted, the 1947 film “Gentleman’s Agreement” didn’t eradicate anti-Semitism. Nor did “Tootsie” stamp out sexism or “Philadelphia” erase homophobia. But each of those films reframed its subject matter in ways that galvanized audiences into reaching “aha” moments about prejudice.
Perhaps it’s time to make a modern-day “Black Like Me,” the 1964 film based on John Howard Griffin’s memoir of impersonating a black man in the Jim Crow South, this time for the 21st century: a story that throws the condition of whiteness, with its myriad unseen, unspoken advantages, into clarifying relief.
The challenge is creating characters that can transcend polarized and entrenched perceptions of race. This past week, a Washington Post poll found that a sobering 86 percent of African Americans say blacks and other minorities do not get equal treatment under the law, whereas a majority of whites — 54 percent — say there is equal treatment for minority groups. In a recent interview about their book “Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites,” political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley described a “gulf” between African Americans, who largely lack faith in the criminal justice system, and white citizens, who consider it essentially color-blind.
Just as the roots of blacks’ mistrust of the system lie in their unfair treatment over generations, the roots of whites’ optimism can be found in our own history. Like compounded interest from an investment we never made, the advantages white people enjoy derive from past racist practices and present-day unconscious behaviors that create channels no less wide, deep and real for being largely invisible.
If movies are equipped to do anything, it’s to make those channels visible. And the best films can show viewers how to navigate them. “Fruitvale Station” does that, in just one brief encounter. The San Francisco street scene may begin with an acute observation of separate realities, but it ends by suggesting a possible bridge, in the simple act of a black character taking the business card of a white man he’s just met.