Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in a scene from "Fruitvale Station." (Ron Koeberer/AP )
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.