My 4.5 year journey as an undergraduate and the first five years teaching high school English were spent mostly in the Reagan era.
While this was many decades before terminology such as “fake news” or “post-truth,” I literally lived during those years a painful and now embarrassing conversion from white denial and ignorance (believing in reverse discrimination, for example) to racial awareness and seeking a life dedicated to racial equity grounded in my own awareness of white privilege.
I had been raised in racism and white denial that pervaded my home and community so when I returned to my hometown high school to teach, I felt compelled to help my students make a similar conversion as mine but not have to endure the stress of experiencing that growth as late as I did.
Reagan in part depended on bogus American Myths (such as bootstrapping and a rising tide lifting all boats) and thinly veiled racist stereotypes, such as the infamous welfare queen myth evoked by Reagan and Republicans with great effect.
No one called this fake news then, but I invited my students to investigate and interrogate these overstated and unfounded claims as we examined race through nonfiction in the first quarter of my American literature course.
That unit began with canonical American thinkers—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller—contextualized with Howard Zinn’s confrontation of the Christopher Columbus myth of discovering America. From there, we moved to race in the U.S. by reading and discussing texts by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Booker T. Washington in order to emphasize the diversity of thought among Black leaders throughout the early and mid-twentieth century.
The culmination of the unit was anchored by a consideration of the life of Gandhi (linked to Thoreau and King).
What was my agenda in this unit?
The writing goal was to explore nonfiction writing, specifically argumentation. But I also asked my students to begin to form their beliefs about the world based on credible evidence and not cultural myths and stereotypes.
One brief activity I used, and continue to use, is to have students brainstorm what percentage of the U.S. they believed to be classified as white before asking them to identify what percentage of the world was classified as white.
In the 1980s, students living in rural upstate South Carolina tended to wildly miss these statistics in their guesses; then, about 70% of the U.S. was white, with about 12% constituting Black Americans. The world statistic really forced them to rethink race, and whiteness, since I had found a chart that portrayed about 1 in 10 people in the world being white.
These statistics created a great deal of disorientation for students even as I helped them recognize that about 4-5 out of 10 people in the world were Chinese or Indian (a context they had never considered).
One of the most memorable moments of these lessons over the years was a Black student who grew livid with me, calling me racist, because she entirely rejected that only 12% of the U.S. was Black.
Her anger was grounded in a similar experience I was highlighting for students in general; for many people, the U.S. looked then very white ( a gaze that allows people not to see that the world is not as white), but this Black student believed that the U.S. was fare more Black than it was because she was hyper-focused on SC, where 25-30% of the citizens were Black (significantly disproportionate to the entire country).
The anger and disorientation grew for my students as I asked them to research data on welfare; they discovered that the average person on welfare was white and that people on welfare tended to have fewer children than the general population—all of which contradicted the myths they had lived by, heard from their parents, and witnessed in the political propaganda of the Reagan era.
These teaching experiences with mostly rural white and Black students very much like me are now about three decades behind me, but I think about this teaching often—and it is discouraging.
It is discouraging because I watched and listened as Lindsey Graham and others refused to extend jobless benefits during the pandemic because he framed that as a handout, a disincentive for working.
It is discouraging because I am watching the move to forgive student loans begin to crumble against a similar mantra about fairness and the usual “handout” rhetoric.
There are two ways that people (mostly white) need to investigate the handout myth, just as my students confronted race and racism in the 1980s.
First, the arguments against student debt relief are grounded in misinformation and racism in similar ways that arguments against welfare have been since Reagan (and including the Bill Clinton era).
Just as antagonism against welfare by white people was rooted in false perceptions that it was a handout to Black people with lots of children, the specter of student loan relief being a handout to Black people cannot be ignored in white rhetoric against that relief:
According to the Department of Education, Black college graduates have nearly twice as much student loan debt as the typical white grad. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the typical Black borrower owes 114 percent of their original student loan debt 12 years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. White students, on the other hand, usually owe 47 percent of their original debt.
Not only is this crisis exacerbated by higher Black unemployment, wage disparities and the racial wealth gap, but loan companies charge Black students higher interest rates. So, Black grads have less money before they attend college; earn less money after college and have to pay back loans at higher interest rates.
Second, as Harriot adds, “There’s no such thing as a ‘government handout.'”
Student debt relief would address a failure of public funding, a lack of political will that decides how tax money is spent.
There is no shortage of money in the U.S. for social programs such as fully publicly funding K-16 education for all, but there is a lack of political will to allocate money for the common good as opposed, for example, more military spending or militarizing the police forces across the country.
Allocated tax money is not a handout since it is the pooled money of all Americans that then must be designated in ways that serve those Americans.
A final point that cannot be emphasized enough, however, is that those most enraged by anything they deem as a “handout” are mostly White conservatives who like my students before our lessons on race and racism have failed to interrogate the truth about their white privilege: Being white is a handout.
The white handout looks like this:
The anti-handout beliefs and rhetoric from white Americans is a painful paradox exposing the lack of awareness and active denial among white people.
Privilege is an unearned advantage, starkly displayed in the data above. But for many white Americans that handout of being white is invisible since they cannot experience life in any way other than white.
White privilege, the handout, is no guarantee of success or a perfect shield against pain and suffering (or even inequity), but struggling while white is almost always less severe than struggling while Black.
This discussion here, however, is not white bashing; I understand that white people have not asked for that advantage, but I also recognize that a great deal of white anger is grounded in an unexamined fear of losing the handout, of having to live in a world of racial equity—ultimately a fear of achieving the meritocracy many whites falsely believe exists.
If in fact handouts erode people’s work ethic, the ultimate paradox is that for the white people who believe that their white privilege, that handout, must be eradicated.
I, again, think about the hard lessons my white and Black students wrestled with in rural SC throughout the 1980s and 1990s; they often grew into smarter and kinder people. They always gave me hope.
That hope is weakening for me however under the weight of 70-plus million Americans choosing the myths, the lies, and refusing to investigate the evidence.
If handouts aren’t good or fair for America, then it is well past time to end the greatest handout of all, white privilege.