The term “white privilege” means that all or nearly all whites enjoy certain privileges in society. A privilege is defined as something an individual has that is unearned and undeserved. Are whites indeed privileged in America today?
On any given night, there are an estimated several hundred thousand homeless white people and many millions who are impoverished. Since the mid 1970s, the bottom 50% of American families, the majority of whom are white families, have seen no increase in their real income. These facts alone would seem to disprove the contention that almost all whites are privileged.
Besides its inaccuracy, I oppose use of the term because it is inherently divisive. It pits groups that should be working together to wrest wealth and power from the tiny few who are truly influential and powerful. It therefore makes it much more difficult for poor, working, and middle-class Americans to join across racial lines to take our nation back from the 1%. The more frequently progressive and Democratic candidates for public office use the term, the more likely Republicans will win elections across the country.
Those who champion the expression “white privilege” acknowledge there are poor and struggling whites, but argue that at any particular income level, Americans of color have it worse. One commented that homeless white panhandlers may get more handouts than black ones. Another argues that the disproportionate number of unarmed blacks killed by police is evidence of white privilege.
There are many other facts documenting the racial injustice that permeates American society. African-American college grads are paid about what white high school dropouts earn. Black men are more likely to go to prison at some time in their life than to graduate from college. The horrifying recent experience of the mostly black and Latino residents of impoverished Flint, Michigan, almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred if they were white.
Nevertheless, I reject these examples as collective proof of white privilege because I don’t believe whites are getting something they don’t deserve. Instead, I believe Americans of color are being oppressed. Why does this distinction matter? The terminology determines the solution.
If you believe whites are privileged because they are less likely to be shot by police, then a perfectly reasonable solution is to direct cops to start shooting more unarmed whites. In contrast, if you believe the problem is racism and unwarranted fear, you train cops better, you recruit more minority officers, you try body cameras, you take guns off the streets so police aren’t as scared, and you prosecute fearlessly killer cops.
If you believe white panhandlers are privileged, i.e., getting something they don’t deserve, because they are getting more and bigger handouts, you might direct people to stop giving to them or to give them less. While this might even things out among homeless people, it would not improve the terrible situation confronting homeless Americans of color. If, on the other hand, you believe the problem is racism and ultimately a criminal indifference to the plight of all poor people, you would fight for more funding for shelters and to help the neediest get back on their feet.
If you bemoan privileged white high school dropouts who are getting paid the same as or more than black college grads, you would insist that the 25-year old who worked her way up to being manager at a mall outlet be put back in the ranks of sales assistants. If you believe that what is keeping black college grads down is the absence of enough good jobs as well as nepotism, prejudice, and racism, you would champion programs and policies that lead to more good jobs in America and would take very seriously all claims of discrimination in hiring and the workplace.
If you believe the reason blacks are more than 6 times as likely as whites to be imprisoned is white privilege, you might support increasing 6-fold the number of white prisoners. If you believe this disgraceful fact results from racism and indifference, you would support ending the drug war, increasing funding for public schools in minority communities, and greatly reduced sentencing for all but the most violent crimes.
If you believe kitchen faucets in working-class white communities haven’t been delivering toxic water because of white privilege, you would call for a moratorium on water purification tests and safety requirements in every community. If you believe the Michigan governor and his crony were criminally indifferent (at best) to Flint residents due to corporate greed, racism and indifference to the poor, you would prosecute them criminally and demand every victim be afforded the opportunity to sue for compensatory and punitive damages.
African-Americans, Latinos, and native Americans are oppressed in America today. We have a collective duty to ensure that they live in safe communities and have complete access to all the things that make life worth living. To do this, we must improve their economic situation and the way they are treated not reduce the circumstances of poor, struggling, and working-class whites.