Joan Walsh – stop using the term “white privilege”

Over the past two days, Joan Walsh of Salon has published two pieces responding to a tweet by Nick Kristof about police brutality and an article by Jon Chait on intolerance.  Walsh concludes that both men are “clueless” because they have failed to come to terms with their own “white privilege”. 

Kristof tweeted that activists challenging police departments for shooting  unarmed African-American men might have had some success at changing law and policy if they focused on Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Cleveland boy killed by an inexperienced officer.  Instead, Kristof laments, protesters invoked the name of 18-year old Michael Brown, the Missouri teen who had just robbed a convenience store when he was gunned down by a Ferguson cop.

In contrast to Kristof’s brief tweet, Chait has written a detailed article in New York Magazine bemoaning how intolerant some leftist, feminist, and African-American academics are of speech with which they disagree.  He concludes that liberalism’s power stems from the compelling nature of its arguments not from suppressing disagreeable speech.

Walsh contends that Kristof wrongly identifies Brown’s anti-social behavior prior the shooting as providing some justification for it.  As for Chait, she believes his white maleness/male whiteness blinds him to the “micro-aggressions” of the privileged, who unthinkingly demean women and minorities, while railing against provocative speech by feminists and activists of color.

My advice to Walsh is to challenge Kristof and Chait’s arguments rather than to psychoanalyze them.  Either they make good points or they don’t.  You’re smart and articulate enough to explain where they’ve gone wrong.  For what it’s worth, from where I sit, Kristof’s tweet irritates while Chait’s article persuades.

Why do I have problems with the term “white privilege”?  First of all, it is divisive.  It implies the most significant problem in America is between whites who are privileged and everybody else.  But “everybody else” needs support from whites to change society.  Claiming that every member of the majority enjoys special unearned benefits is a recipe for intra-class warfare.  Plutocrats will waste no time riling up poor and working-class whites against those lefties who, from their ivory towers, have the nerve and ignorance to call struggling blue-collars folks privileged.  Those explaining society’s ills by reference to “white privilege” ironically are making it less likely that we will muster the political will to address them.

Second, “white privilege” isn’t an accurate way to describe the dynamic that the phrase’s users decry.  Often employed to contrast the evidently abusive treatment by some cops of some African-Americans with the apparently more respectful tone they use with white suspects, the word “privilege” connotes an unearned or undeserved benefit.  But the problem activists are or should be confronting is not excessive police deference to whites but rather overly aggressive policing of minorities.  Simply put, we should be striving to make police treat all of us at least as well as they treat some whites.  Our goal should not be to cajole cops into beating and shooting unarmed whites at the same rate as they brutalize blacks which would be the solution if whites were indeed unjustly “privileged”.

Third, the term “white privilege” doesn’t guide us towards solutions to society’s most pressing problems which include global warming and economic injustice as well as racism.  Acknowledging the existence of “white privilege” won’t cause liberals to vote any differently, or support different solutions, than we already do.  Moreover, and as noted above, the only whites who will acknowledge its existence are on the left.  A discriminatory society, policed by brutes, is the sad reality for many blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, that we must try to change regardless of whether all whites, some, or none are above-the-law.

In his memoirs, President Grant writes:

The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre–what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. (Emphasis supplied.)

Not only does Grant shy away from the term “privileged” to describe these poor whites, he goes so far as to write that they “too needed emancipation”.  Yet, some might claim they were indeed privileged and with some justification. After all, they could not be made slaves.

A rich person could not beat them with impunity. They were not viewed with suspicion by slave patrols.  It was not illegal for them to be taught to read and write.  So, maybe they really were somewhat privileged.  But how do you think they would have reacted to that charcterization by abolitionists?

Would they have said?  Gee, I never thought of it that way.  My land, what little I own, is rocky and poor. At picking time, my kids have to work alongside the planter’s slaves in order for us to have enough money to pay the mortgage.

Last good harvest, the price of cotton dropped so I lost money.  And two years ago, our farm was flooded over.  But, yeah I’m privileged and that ain’t fair so I’m gonna join the North to defeat the South.

Or, do you think a better way to persuade these poor folks who “needed emancipation” is to say to them: how’s this system working for you?  I know you’re white but do you feel privileged?  Do you vacation in Boston or London when it’s 95 in the shade in mid-July like the aristocrats do? When your wife got sick, could you afford to pay the doctor to take out her appendix or did it burst causing her to bleed to death?

When you need to take your cotton and tobacco to market, are the roads maintained or just a mess so it takes you twice as long to get them to town as it does the aristocrat who floats his barges down the river?

How’s this whole slave thing working for you?  Not so good maybe?  Then how’s about voting to abolish it?

Which argument do you think is more likely to work?

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