Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rights and privileges

Today, checking out the Washington Post, I came across this article on the subject of "white privilege."  It's a concept I've encountered before--indeed, it apparently cost me one budding friendship with a reader here when I refused to "acknowledge it."  The author of the article is a white woman who shows the effects of elite higher education, where "white privilege" has become a favorite buzzword.  She argues that white people are more likely to get a second chance if they make a mistake in life, that white people are much richer than non-whites, and that they constantly benefit from connections to other whites.   Only white people, she quotes some one as saying, can benefit from unpaid internships that lead to better jobs.  And most white are unaware of these "privileges."

Now the data that she cites are valid, and white people, as a group, are the best-off ethnic group in the United States, without question.  Yet I am angry, frankly, to hear anyone argue that a good chance to advance in life, or freedom from profiling, or a job commensurate with one's abilities, can be regarded as a "privilege."  Those things should be rights, not privileges--things that everyone should enjoy.  The author does not specifically say that whites are better off because nonwhites are worse off, which I do not think is true, but she certainly implies that some sort of redress is in order, and she repeatedly says in effect that white people should feel guilty about their privilege.  And it is that that I cannot accept, because I don't think anyone should feel guilty about having secured the right to be treated like a human being.  From the standpoint of victimhood, I suppose, that's the beauty of the "white privilege" argument: a white person doesn't have to do anything to harm nonwhites to be guilty, they are guilty by virtue of being white.

I have just finished another draft of my book on the New Deal era, and I cannot help noticing another huge paradox about all this.  Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy generally used racially neutral rhetoric when discussing the need to broaden opportunities in the United States, and overt and legal racism persisted into the 1960s.  Yet the policies of those eras did far more for working people in the lower income groups of our society  than the policies of the last forty years, when we have bee obsessed with race, and when poverty, crucially, has been increasingly identified as a minority problem.  Poverty isn't a minority problem: there are still far more poor white people than poor black people in this country. (I don't know exactly what adding Hispanics into the mix would do to the numbers.)  Neither are drugs and crime, which go along with poverty.  The whole bottom half of our society is struggling and needs more jobs, higher wages, and better health care and services--rights, not privileges, which better-off people are more likely to have.  Meanwhile, it's a most undeserved privilege to pay absurdly low taxes on absurdly large incomes.  Yes, most of the people who do (though hardly all--see for instance the rosters of professional sports teams) are white, but they enjoy that privilege because they are rich, not because they are white, and it should not be a privilege of being rich.

The New Deal, I have found, had an extraordinary impact upon black as well as white Americans, not only because black Americans shared some of its benefits but also because it gave them that much more incentive to secure equal treatment.  They wanted to be part of the great national enterprise which Roosevelt and his Administration undertook.  Now there still are important ways in which the American system discriminates against nonwhites, most notably in the criminal justice system, and they very badly need to be fixed.  Even then, however, we would probably make more progress if we simply called for a broad, sweeping reform of our drug laws, which have imprisoned far too many people of all races, than by emphasizing racial issues.  Emphasizing white guilt is very effective in elite colleges and universities, but it plays disastrously in state and national politics.  Poverty, drugs, crime and the criminal justice system are national problems that in one way or another affect us all.  Recognizing that, I would suggest, is an essential step to reversing the economic trends of the last forty years, and asserting the rights of all citizens rather than complaining about the supposed privileges of one racial group.


Robert Martin said...

This pernicious notion of "White Privilege" is based on the assumption that the economy and, by extension, the society is a "zero-sum game": i.e., that nobody can become better off unless and until somebody else is made worse off. Such a notion, were it to take hold can only bring about the breakdown of our civil society without making anybody better off and a lot of people very much worse off. The consequences are, potentially, class war, race war, and civil war.

Zosima said...

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”-Gore Vidal

Yes it's a pernicious notion, that "society is a "zero-sum game": i.e., that nobody can become better off unless and until somebody else is made worse off." But evidence abounds that our plutocracy believes this, and in class war. Enriching themselves and at the same time increasing the misery of the lower classes is their strategy.

Bozon said...

Many thanks for this post and citation.
I took a look at the article you had cited. I found it to be quite perceptive. She seems to treat the concept of white privilege pejoratively as well, while describing how things have been rather well, wherein the term seems to describe things better than some others.

It reminds me of the analysis in "The Credential Society" at some points.

going way back, the English, and the colonists, it seems, had used rights and privileges, quite often, together, though the American rebels then dropped class and aristocratic privilege language from the new united federation, except perhaps in talk of rights and privileges of citizens of These United States.

(The English of course had the separate estates, etc., etc.)

all the best,