When I bring up issues of white privilege, racial inequality, and discrimination, I often get negative responses, no matter how humble, specific or on-topic I try to be. This can be tough. It can lead all of us on all sides to be more arrogant than is justified. But as much as I do think these are matters of injustice, and as insensitive as people can get, I do get the negativity and the skepticism.
The average person who reads a lot of statistics that seem to undermine their worldview is likely to get angry. They’re worried that they may be being hoodwinked. They worry that some activist is trying to get their vote or try to make them support some kind of electoral politics that might harm their own interests by using guilt. They worry that they’re being insulted or attacked for things they had nothing to do with that happened decades before they were born. They’re afraid that their country and the people they love are being spat upon, even though every country has had its problems.
I understand that. It can be tough to keep track of the truth. It can be tough to sort out which statistics are relevant and which aren’t. It can be tough to listen to someone else who says something that is totally alien to your experience. I realize that, with all the writing I’ve done on this topic, I still haven’t discussed in one place my own history with this topic. I want to share this because I feel that I should be accountable to it. There was a time where I didn’t believe in white privilege or in racism as being a dominant social institution.
When I was in middle school and high school, I was pretty politically informed. My parents listened to NPR. I read lots of history books and political science books. As my friends started to get into Mumia abu-Jamal, Rage Against the Machine, the Seattle protests, and the other left strands in the 1990s, I found a lot of their arguments to be perhaps a little specious. They would point to the disproportions of black men in jail, for example, or disadvantages of sentencing. They would point to the poverty in ghettos and the ongoing residential segregation. My position until late into high school was that racism per se was of declining importance in America. (Growing up in a mostly white town and spending most of my time with people of left-leaning hippie persuasions, I was able to be unaware of black perspectives on this problem and how much people of color by and large report experiencing widespread discrimination). I viewed the state and corporations as being the dominant institutions, and saw that formal apartheid had been rolled back for what I believed to be long enough to have made it so that racist bias in particular was less important than usual. I viewed the problems that people of color faced in the U.S. as being primarily caused by an admixture of factors: Poverty due to prior inequality in the United States, the worsening of neo-liberal institutions that slammed the already poor, and individual acts of discrimination that, though only done by the minority of whites, still could block opportunities just enough times to lead all else held equal to people suffering disproportionately. After all, it only takes one racist DA to send a lot of people to prison.
So think about how poverty alone could explain a lot of the racial gaps that we seem to see if you don’t look carefully. Sure, a lot of African-American men are jailed, but being poor means you are less likely to have top-flight legal representation and that you are less likely to have political clout. Seeing the OJ trial, I found it quite clear that there was racialized resentment at play throughout the trial, especially with Mark Fuhrman. But OJ’s victory seemed to show that a black man with enough money and clout could indeed get away with murder, just like a white man with enough money. Because of my understanding of history and society, I could hold onto the idea that race per se was of declining importance and view race as secondary to resolving income inequality, brutal capitalism, and the damage being done by investor’s rights treaties like NAFTA.
In fact, a Chomsky book even helped contribute to this idea. Chomsky pointed out that a lot of sociology in the West takes into account race, but then cited a researcher, Vicente Navarro, who looked at class as a predictor of health and found it to be much more serious. (I should note Chomsky went on to make a very important point that stuck with me: “On the other hand, it’s certainly worth overcoming the other forms of oppression. For people’s lives, racism and sexism may be much worse than class oppression. When a kid was lynched in the South, that was worse than being paid low wages. So when we talk about the roots of the system of oppression, that can’t be spelled out simply in terms of suffering. Suffering is an independent dimension, and you want to overcome suffering”).
I should note that I never gave much credence to the idea that black poverty was a cultural failing. Even in middle school, I recognized that, if a group of people are doing worse in a broadly sociological sense, it just can’t be due to some characteristic they share as a group. Sure, rappers singing homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, or people wanting to be on welfare rolls instead of working, or people resenting whites instead of working on their own problems, do exist. But while individual people can be lazy, or ignorant, or unintelligent, or criminal, people as a group aren’t any of those things. If a people with a cross-section of skills and backgrounds are encountering barriers, it’s not because of them but because of the society they live in. After all, plenty of white folks also listen to music with destructive messages, abuse welfare, commit crime, or blame others for their problems. But these people just never seem to have it as bad.
I also recognized that people’s traits don’t emerge in a vacuum. If a group of people are resentful of another group, there’s some kind of reason why that reason is taking hold, whether that’s due to internal elites in that group taking advantage of and blowing out of proportion simmering rivalries or due to an actual pattern of abuse. If a group of people are more likely to be criminal, it’s because the opportunities to join normative social life are limited. There’s a reason why people turn out the way they do, and it’s because of other people before them. That’s why it’s so myopic and destructive to blame them exclusively for their decisions and thereby refuse to extend help or second chances, like the universe only came into existence forty years ago. There are no perfect human beings, so we all owe each other some help and opportunity to do better and be better.
Still, I would reject those who pushed forward an idea of racism as being incomplete or looking only at a narrow slice of the problem. I won’t deny that there was great arrogance in that view, and that if I had bothered looking into it on my own, I might have come around much earlier.
It took not only the work of Tim Wise and other anti-racist scholars on the left (including actually reading Mumia’s work) but also taking sociology classes and seeing the sociological evidence to realize that I had been looking at only part of the picture. Specifically, my awakening to the idea that race matters was from Tim Wise’s careful decimation of David Horowitz in an e-mail debate. As a high school debater, I loved reading great debates. Tim carefully laid out source after source after source, referring to both conservative and liberal scholars… I highly recommend people read it, as it’s a good primer as to both conservative and leftist views on the topic of race.
But that fascination with watching a conservative blowhard get decimated didn’t last very long when I actually took multicultural studies classes and talked to other people. Sure, I was angry conceptually at the injustice that Tim discussed, that I subsequently read repeatedly in Z Magazine. But it’s one thing to be conceptually mad at racism in America and thereby attend a protest against Israeli occupation, and another thing to see the face of someone you like and know that they got hurt because they encountered something I read in a book. Then it became clear to me that, in fact, these issues really matter. I saw so many white participants in these multicultural studies come to deeply regret how they had lost so much of their culture over the years, from their language to their names. I saw Asian participants struggle with balancing their American identity with their Asian names and heritage. They literally had to choose whether to be Rex or Renjun, Amy or Chun.
Most importantly, I heard African-Americans talk about being pulled over by cops, watched in department stores, ignored in classrooms, treated one way on the phone and another way in person. I heard my black Professor talk about how a white girl assumed that he was a valet in a parking lot. And I kept seeing how angry white folks got when black folks said that. Like some other guy being a jerk said anything about them. I never felt defensive unless someone said, clearly, “All white folks are racists”, which I may have heard less than five times in ten years of engaging with people on these issues. It was obvious to me that some cop or security guard that was letting subconscious bias guide them didn’t say something about me.
See, when I try to figure out if a social institution exists, I see if there are pervasive influences. I can say that America is “capitalist”, whatever that specifically means, and thereby classist, because I can point to classist patterns in health care, electoral politics, employment, foreign and domestic policy, and everywhere else.
I can say the same thing about racism, discrimination and white privilege. The evidence does not just say that it’s better to be white if you’re pulled over by a cop, or go to a department store. The evidence is clear: Being white (whether that is specifically being perceived as white or actually being of a European racial background) gives a person demonstrable advantages in wealth and income, employment, the criminal justice system, health care, housing, media representation, banking, and virtually every other institution in life. I did not come to accept this because I read one author or one article. It is because I have looked at every part of American life and found conservative (and mainstream liberal) claims that racism, discrimination and white privilege are no longer operant or are of declining importance to be demonstrably false.
So let me again say that I understand skepticism. I understand why people might view American history differently than I do. I understand why people may reject academics. I understand why people might be afraid to be bludgeoned by statistics, or may be afraid of being guilt-tripped. I can understand why it can be frustrating to be corrected by people about what one calls another group or about an opinion one has. It is absolutely possible to be skeptical about the existence and validity of white privilege without being a racist, or a jerk, or an idiot, or misinformed.
But there is something I cannot abide. Those of us who dismiss snidely the idea of white privilege, as if it were obviously false, are being arrogant. And they are dismissing the experiences of black people, and they rarely have any reason to do so. If you want to say, “There is no such thing as white privilege, get over it”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. If you want to say, “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. Well-meaning (i.e. non-jerk) people can disagree. But the idea that it is absurd that racism still matters in American life when we have just now elected our first black President to a second term even after African-Americans being in this country since before it was a country and when segregation and formal apartheid was a part of this country in the lifespans of a lot of still-living people is insane. It’s possible that America managed to really change incredibly rapidly in fifty years. But it is not so obviously the case that it justifies viewing others as obviously dishonest political opportunists for insisting that racism still matters.
Let me reassure you that plenty of scholars are very careful about what they say and don’t say. These issues are complicated. A lot of the people doing the work on this topic have no animosity towards whites; indeed, a lot are white. Researchers and activists in this field of all stripes struggle to find truth between the shifting sands of society. Those researchers who looked into subconscious bias using the Implicit Attitude Test, for example, were surprised and humbled to find out that decades of doing the work that they had done still didn’t make them less biased at a subconscious level.
And the reasons I have heard for why white privilege exists must be dismissed as laughably ignorant. They wouldn’t be offered by anyone with any intelligence, as they so often are, without a need to defend themselves. Like the claim, “It’s not a privilege to be white because there’s a lot of crime in my city”. (As if black-on-black crime didn’t exist). Or the claim, “Lots of black people are on welfare and don’t want to get off”. (As if white welfare abusers didn’t exist, and as if there weren’t plenty of middle-class black families that still lost their jobs in the 2008 recession or their houses and certainly weren’t welfare abusers prior to that while plenty of white middle-class families managed to weather the storm). Or the claim, “I see lots of white homeless people!” (As if there aren’t black homeless people, and as if a white homeless guy who cleaned up and dressed up wouldn’t find it easier to get an apartment or a job than a black homeless guy who did the same thing). In fact, I have yet to encounter a single claim against white privilege that passes muster. All of them were beating up a strawman.
So I ask that everyone, myself included, be a lot more willing to listen to other voices that they haven’t heard and be willing to do the research with an open mind to see if there’s anything to those voices. I hope that as many people as possible will pop over to Google Books or Google Scholar and look up “anti-black discrimination” or “racial discrimination in the United States”, and look at the bulk of the data. Don’t just cite the Heritage Foundation. (Or ignore it). Don’t just repeat memes you see on Tumblr. It is possible to look this data up and become informed. Because people who argue that white privilege exists don’t have to be totally right for it to matter to you. Maybe the only place that people of color still encounter discrimination is in housing markets. But if that’s the case, we should do something. Maybe schools and standardized tests are getting better about trying to deal with stereotype threat. But they should still be better about tracking blacks and Hispanics into remedial classes.
Living in a society that is striving to be free means we have to pay attention and learn. I fully suspect that in ten years I will have changed my opinions on a lot of topics, because I will have learned more and discovered more. Nothing stops you from being a conservative who recognizes that Hispanics aren’t all criminal parasites, or from being a liberal who recognizes that ostentatious consumption in the African-American community might be a pretty serious problem.
And let me close by pointing one thing out: However much of a problem we have with racism in America, it’s only us who can fix it, together. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American… We have to do a lot of work to forgive, to have truth and then reconciliation. And it matters. So I will hold everyone to the standard that they should care to make sure that, whatever they believe in, however widespread they view racism as being, they are sure that they are right beyond a doubt. I want people to have read the arguments, read the statistics, read the studies, and understood them. It’s just too important.