US & World

Money doesn't protect black people from bigotry

Phillip Thompson sits in the living room of his Leesburg, Virginia home.
Phillip Thompson sits in the living room of his Leesburg, Virginia home.
Brakkton Booker/NPR

Phillip Thompson lives in an exclusive gated community with a golf course in one of the wealthiest exurbs of Washington, D.C. Inside his spacious home, African artwork decorates the walls alongside framed pictures of his children's high school graduation and an American flag by the front entrance.

He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, a Gulf War veteran and a lawyer with his own practice. But when Thompson, 55, moved to his Leesburg, Va., neighborhood 12 years ago, many of his mostly white neighbors made assumptions about how he could afford his house.

"You couldn't have gotten here on your guile, on your knowledge, on being capable. I had to be a football player," Thompson said.

Thompson, who is also president of his local NAACP chapter, has a sharp retort to those questions he felt were meant to size him up about his worthiness of being in this well-off neighborhood.

"I just play into it, like no, I'm a rapper or I'm a pimp. I'm a retired pimp," Thompson deadpanned. "I'm going to play on your stereotypes because then it makes you look even stupider."

It is a widely-held notion that for many African-Americans who have "made it" — those who earn a good salary, live in a neighborhood with good schools and low crime, that maybe, just maybe, being the target of discrimination would be minimized.

A new poll, by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed more than 800 African-Americans and found that for prosperous blacks, money does not shield them from bigotry.

Thompson's wife, Tanja, said discrimination plays out in subtle ways.

"Even living here in a gated community, there's definitely racism," she said. She is a former senior master sergeant in the Air Force and now works as a mediator in the federal government.

"You see people, maybe in a professional setting, but when you see them in the street, they turn the other direction. And then ... they wonder, 'Why are you here? Or how did you get here?' "

The survey found more than half of African-Americans overall say they have personally experienced slurs or that someone has made negative assumptions about them because of their race.

But when broken down by income, of blacks folks who are high earners — those making $75,000 a year or more — 65 percent say they were the target of racial slurs compared with 40 percent of blacks who make $25,000 or less.

High-income African-Americans outpaced their lower-income counterparts once again on the issue of people making negative assumptions about them, 73 percent and 45 percent respectively.

We're not just going to solve this problem by having more black college graduates.

"The numbers are just staggering in the share of people who report sometime in their life they were discriminated against because of their race or they were treated very unfairly, and that is significant," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard's School of Public Health and who worked on the study.

"We're not just going to solve this problem by having more black college graduates," he said.

Tanja Thompson has her theories about why high-income African-Americans may face more discrimination.

"When you make $75,000 or more, $100,000, you are dealing with more educated individuals and probably moreso people who don't look like you," Thompson said.

Algernon Austin is an economist at the think tank Demos and the author of the book America Is Not Post-Racial.

"I think what sometimes people miss is, what are the comparisons?"

He points out that college-educated and high-earning black folks are in many ways more likely to be better off than black people who earn less.

But Austin, who did not work on NPR's poll, adds there is overwhelming data showing that when comparing educated and high-earning blacks to their white counterparts, the gap is substantial.

"The college-educated whites are going to have significantly more wealth, going to be less likely unemployed, they're moving further in terms of their careers," he said, "So in that comparison, what African-Americans see, reinforces the sense of inequality in American society."

It's a sense shared by Phillip Thompson.

"I should probably be in a better position. I think if I were a white guy, I'd be in a better position."