Does being white make you privileged?

I know I am fortunate to be white rather than black.  A black Phil Ebersole – somebody like me in every respect except skin color –  would face racial prejudice in applying for jobs or bank loans. He would have well-founded fears every time he was stopped by the police. He would constantly have to think about how he was being judged because of his race.  Whenever he encountered setbacks or rejection, he could never be sure whether they were or weren’t due to race.  The doubtful blessings of affirmative action or “diversity” would not have offset this; it would have given prejudiced people a new reason for prejudice.

I remember once I was doing interviews for the business section of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on what people were buying their children for Christmas.  I approached a well-dressed, middle-aged black man in a store, and I could tell exactly what he was thinking from the stricken expression on his face.  He thought I was some kind of security guard or detective about to harass him for “shopping while black.” I thought then, and still think, how glad I am that I can go shopping without having to prepare myself psychologically for things like this.

This is what is meant by “white privilege,” but I don’t think of it as privilege.  A privilege is something you have that you are not entitled to have.  Bankers who collect six-figure bonuses after driving their institutions to the point of bankruptcy are privileged.  Failed CEOs who retire on golden parachutes are privileged.  People who run for public office on the basis of their family names are privileged.  I don’t think I have that kind of privilege.

Everybody ought to be able to be judged on their merits in work and business, to be free of fear in routine encounters with the police, to live their lives without always being on the defensive.  The fact that I have what I ought to have does not take anything away from anybody else.  To speak of  “white privilege” implies that the aim is not to give black people equal rights with me, but to subject people like me to the same humiliations that black people suffer


I agree that, all other things being equal, anybody on any level of American society is better off being white than being black.  But I do not believe that all white people are privileged in relation to all black people.  As President Obama himself has said, his daughters are not under-privileged in comparison to the vast majority of Americans.  Two fast-food servers, one black and one white, have more in common with each other than either one does with a doctor or lawyer of the same race.

So is this just quibbling over language?  If I admit that being white makes me better off, what is the point of denying I am “privileged”?  The choice of words matters because it affects how we think and feel.  If I relate to people of a different race on the basis of our common humanity or, more practically, on the basis of mutual self-interest, I respect myself while respecting the other person.  If I relate to people on the basis of atoning for “white privilege,” I don’t respect myself and I make the other person an actor in my personal drama of sin and atonement.

“Privilege” is complicated.  When Eastman Kodak Co. began its big layoffs in the 1980s, there was controversy because some of the layoffs were based on racial quotas rather than strict seniority.  The idea was that Kodak had not hired black people in large numbers until about 20 or so years before, so that black employees hadn’t had an equal opportunity to accumulate seniority.  In this case, and others like it, the white workers thought the black workers were privileged.

In the end, it didn’t matter much.  The vast majority of Kodak workers in the Rochester area, and almost all the hourly workers, lost their jobs.  All the unemployed were in the same situation, and had the same interest in figuring out how to get back to a high-wage, full-employment economy.

I would never deny the reality of racial prejudice, male chauvinism, homophobia, “able-ism” and prejudice based on social status, but I don’t think you get very far by classifying people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities or social class and labeling them as oppressors or oppressed depending on where they fit into that matrix.

What matters is the structure of society.  What matters is how institutions – banks, corporations, legislatures, government administration, universities work, and whether they serve the common good.  If they don’t, the demographic characteristics of the people in the various parts of the structure matter little.

Click on Where White Privilege Came From for an explanation of “white privilege” by the sociologist and novelist Allan G. Johnson .

Click on Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege for a critique of “white privilege” by U.S. Senator James Webb.

Click on White Privilege? for my earlier thoughts on this subject.

To repeat – none of this is to deny that racial discrimination against black people is still a reality.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via Mother Jones. [Added 7/7/11]

Click on White ex-cons get jobs faster than Blacks with no criminal record for evidence that racial discrimination persists in American society.

Click on Study shows racial discrimination for evidence that people with typically white first names get hired faster than people with typically black first names.

Click on Overcoming Racial Discrimination for other studies of racial discrimination, including studies using paired black and white testers.

One of the problems with the way affirmative action is usually discussed is that there is an unstated assumption that even though minority groups receive equal treatment, they need more-than-equal treatment to make up for injustice in the past.  This assumption creates resistance, because almost all human beings, except for kings and aristocrats, are descended from poor oppressed people.  But the question is not which groups of people were most oppressed in the past, but the existence of racial discrimination and racial prejudice in the present.

[Added 11/29/10]

A new survey indicates that the following percentages of people believe racial discrimination against white people is as serious a problem as racial discrimination against black people.

Tea Party supporters: 61 percent

White evangelical Christians: 57 percent

Republicans: 56 percent

Independents: 49 percent

Whites: 48 percent

All Americans: 44 percent

Minority Christians: 38 percent (!!)

Hispanics: 32 percent (!!)

Blacks: 30 percent (!!)

Democrats: 28 percent

Click on Public Religion Research Institute Survey for the complete tabulation.

I am surprised that three out of ten Hispanic and black Americans see discrimination against whites as a real problem.  Race-based affirmative action with numerical goals can result in discrimination against white people, and evidently it looms larger in the minds of many Americans than the continuing discrimination against black people.

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