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The Ups & Downs of the Concept of ‘White Privilege’

To have a chance at a just future, let’s find ways to push back against the raging tides of racism that have driven too much of our nation’s history and are now re-emerging in stridently blatant forms.

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The concept of white privilege helps white people grasp the depth and pervasiveness of racism in American culture and society.  For starters, let’s be clear about what the concept entails and what it doesn’t.  White privilege has both material and psychological components.  It confers wealth benefits, but also serves as a balm for ‘fragile’ white egos. The following is partially drawn from an Educator Institute organized by the we are (working to extend anti-racist education) group in North Carolina. 

White privilege is—being perceived as normal; being considered real Americans; thinking one is color blind; not having to think about race; not needing to have The Talk about how to survive an encounter with the police; being criticized and not having to wonder if it’s related to race; believing hard work will yield success; believing you have a seat at the table; benefiting from government programs while stigmatizing them; being connected to a good ol’ boy (or girl) network; having easier access to credit, education, housing, and jobs; being the beneficiary of historical wealth disparities; a continuing gap between White wealth and Black wealth.

White privilege is notWhite people escaping suffering in their lives; being necessarily richer or more successful than people of color (White people with privilege can be poor too); freedom from oppression; all White people coming from Leave it to Beaver homes.

‘Whiteness’ is thus a form of property providing access to myriad forms of power.  White privilege as a concept effectively communicates racism’s centrality and ubiquity in our lives. It infuses and distorts inter-racial interactions by keeping racism invisible for those who benefit from racial hierarchy.  Further it highlights and helps explain an extremely effective mechanism of social control.  The concept can prompt Whites to engage in needed internal reflection concerning control issues, arrogance, and the inability and/or unwillingness to hear/understand/appreciate the voices of People of Color.

But white privilege does not serve as an all-purpose concept.  Partially because it critiques white consciousness so effectively, it does not necessarily aid in providing an incentive for Whites to be active in the struggle against racism. If racial privilege is so pervasive and fundamental, the struggle against racism can be expected to be protracted and entail real risk.  How does the concept of white privilege contribute to the motivation of White people to engage in such a daunting struggle?

When we treat “white privilege” as an all-purpose concept, it is as if we invite Whites to partake in the struggle against racism as only an act of moral virtue or even atonement for the unearned benefits they have gained from a destructive and divisive privilege. In doing so, we may forego opportunities to expose the illusions of white privilege altogether, and to make the argument that we are all harmed by the toxicity of racism and have a common interest in dismantling it.

That white privilege is both real and illusory is a consequence of its role as a means of counterinsurgency:  a mechanism to keep potential allies apart and to wed non-elite White people to those in power.  Privilege has to be real enough to have a chance of winning over significant numbers of White people, but not so real that the power of the political, corporate, and financial elites—who dole out the privilege- might actually be threatened.   The strategy behind white privilege is to construct difference so as to suppress and divide potential opposition.

Privilege assumes two advantaged groups: the privilege provider and the privilege receiver.  How privilege is doled out through our institutions is a subject for another essay, but it is obvious that what is given can be taken away by those in control.

To move beyond essential moral concerns, it may be useful to employ a concept from critical race theory—interest convergence.  If properly conceived, where do the interests of non-elite White people and People of Color converge—moving beyond alliances of momentary convenience to a more profound connection in overcoming a system bent on disempowering both?  Have we reached a moment where Whites can question the privileges that have been proffered?  Or will they, as a group, be content with ensuring that there remain groups more disempowered than they are, pursuing a self-destructive politics of resentment?

When the powers that be are doing well, they can be more generous in material privilege provision—witness the post World War II period of economic expansion where many Whites were afforded the privilege of suburban life and GI bill access to higher education.  When matters are more challenging to the powers that be—as in the decline in US global power beginning in its defeat in Vietnam--then privilege begins to assume less material and more psychological forms.  Real wages stagnate; deindustrialization accelerates; the welfare state is disassembled; social inequality is magnified.  People of Color are disproportionately affected, but Whites are less insulated and increasingly vulnerable to these indices of decline.   The material wage of whiteness is increasingly replaced by a more evanescent, if still powerful, psychological wage. ‘Whiteness’ becomes more public, generating a community based on resentment rife with barely repressed as well as more open violence.  Some Whites fret about becoming a ‘minority’ group in the near future.  This is not a happy way of life.  As economic desperation has increased, previously marginalized white supremacist groups enter the mainstream egged on by a white nationalist President.

While such white anxiety maintains (with some exceptions), even fortifies the physical distance between racial groups, the symptoms of oppression that people face tend to cross racial boundaries, especially for those not part of the elite. Environmental, health, and infrastructure problems cannot be easily confined to the ‘ghetto’.    Drug addiction comes to undermine White, as well as Black and Latinx communities.  Whites, too, are sacrificed in failed imperial wars and suffer PTSD in their aftermath.  They also suffer from foreclosures, loss of health benefits and of food stamps, a generally diminishing social welfare.  The suffering of people of color can be the warning canary in the coal mine and a signal of the chickens—to offer mixed avian metaphors--of social inequality coming home to roost.

There are numerous studies demonstrating the relationship between economic equality and social satisfaction.[1]  Non-elite people perceive growing inequality as unfair and as undermining their hope for social mobility.  But when inequality is in large part racialized, many Whites resent affirmative attempts to address racial inequality, fearing that such attempts undermine their relative privilege.  White society becomes less trusting and more fearful.  The society as a whole becomes more militarized to protect some and control others.  Racist violence becomes increasingly normalized whether by the state or by non-state actors.

The future will play out in one of two ways.  Either white resentment at presumed loss of status will dominate, morphing, into American-style ‘fascism’--for lack of a better term to describe a dangerous racist authoritarianism--or alternatively an authentic alliance against racist, authoritarian capitalism can be created.

There is desperation in the white panic that buttresses Trump.  Moving beyond ‘dog whistles’ to a strident bullhorn is belligerent, but also betrays weakness.  The manipulative psychology of white privilege is both more aggressive and also more vulnerable.  Our moment offers an opportunity to articulate a vision and practice of a common interest in social transformation--social transformation that is truly anti-racist, as well as anti-sexist, and of benefit to most people, including Whites, in creating a caring, trusting, truly democratic and just society. 

To have a chance at a just future, let’s find ways to push back against the raging tides of racism that have driven too much of our nation’s history and are now re-emerging in stridently blatant forms. Trump seems eager to run on his exclusionary policies in an attempt to invigorate a white, Christian, male-dominated America.  We are called upon to offer a compelling alternative, powerful enough to halt this dangerous trajectory.  To effectively counter Trump’s open white nationalism, it is imperative to untangle the contradictions surrounding white privilege: understanding the centrality of race in our society so that the change we call for will be anti-racist upending a deeply entrenched system of white supremacy, and at the same time expose the illusory nature of white privilege, contending with its temptations as we expose the flimflam at its core.