About My White Privilege

People like me tend not to think of ourselves as privileged by our race, but we are.

I am rich. Not in the usual American terms, of six-figure annual bonuses, Porsches, and eight-bedroom houses. I am rich in global terms, where the average income is a rather small fraction of mine.

First, let me mention some of the reasons I was never rich in American terms of income or wealth, and why that doesn’t matter.

People like me
tend not to think of ourselves
as privileged by our race,
but we are.

My father had a couple of years of college, and had a decent job as a college administrator that did not pay well. We never owned a home, but lived in a number of pleasant places. But I never felt downtrodden by poverty.

After high school I spent four hated years in the Navy (service was pretty much mandatory at the time), but my educational benefits from those years helped put me through eight years of college.

All that education did not translate to a good salary teaching college, though, mostly because college teaching jobs were scarce. We struggled to put shoes on the kids, just like everyone else. Later, I spent 17 years in the medical field, where my pay eventually made me reasonably comfortable, and left me with enviable retirement benefits.

So now I’m rich, in my own terms. But was I privileged? Am I? The answer depends on whether you define the word in terms of sheer wealth, opportunity, or something else. Much of the answer also depends on whose point of view you take.

White privilege from the viewpoint
of African-Americans is quite different.

By the typical white middle-class point of view my life has been quite average, not privileged with private schools and the like. But suppose you are an African-American looking at my life, even a very wealthy African-American. Then the answer is that I have unequivocally been privileged. Not that all doors were open to me; they weren’t, but I was never systematically excluded, nor did a police car ever came skidding up to me, cops jumping out. The worst I’ve had is security people “shopping” near me in a department store.

All this begs the point, though. The terrible scourge of slavery is a century and a half behind us, but the remnants hang on and on, in the form of bad schools and rundown neighborhoods that are difficult to escape, and virulent racial hatreds that became more obvious and unguarded in the Obama years. These social conditions are not everywhere, but they represent a failure to correct longstanding social injustice, and the surprisingly nasty racism represents a type of immaturity of far too many Americans.

Not long ago, the NYT columnist Charles M. Blow wrote about an incident his son had at Yale, where he was in his junior year. A campus cop stopped him with drawn pistol. Thankfully, the son had been carefully instructed about how to behave if stopped by the police: move slowly, do exactly as ordered. But it could easily have ended with his death, as it has so often with unarmed young black men doing nothing out of the ordinary. The son was shaken; the father was livid.

African-Americans are presumed
to be criminal solely because of
the color of their skin,
and others are not.

I recall another item from some years ago. A black senior partner of a big law firm was literally prevented from going into his own law office by a young, white junior partner who kept moving in front of him to block his way. Mind you, this was a dignified man in his fifties, wearing a suit, carrying a lawyer’s briefcase. I seem to remember this episode ending with the senior partner ordering the junior partner to appear in his office in fifteen minutes.

This is what African-Americans talk about when they speak of white privilege. Neither young Blow nor the law partner posed any threat. They were stopped because they were not white. There is scarcely a black man in the country who cannot report being confronted in some manner solely because of his skin color.

Now, the cops might have treated any of us badly—white crooks get arbitrarily beaten up too, although that is also inexcusable—but the fact is, quite literally more than once a week, some cops somewhere have brutally beaten, and often murdered, unarmed black men, with absolutely no reason for it. We’ve all seen the shocking videos. They were stopped because they were black men. They were assaulted because they were black men. They were arrested because they were black men. And far, far too often, they were killed because they were black men. Or black women. Or black children. It seems endless.

Even the Great Texas Motorcycle Shootout of hundreds of biker thugs who had a thousand weapons between them did not end in a police bloodbath. Was it because none of them were black?

African-Americans are presumed to be criminal solely because of the color of their skin, and others are not. These kinds of things are what they are talking about when they speak of white privilege.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Well said as usual, passed on to some friends.

    I was stopped a few years back by a police patrol car while walking in the neighborhood – no I did not match very close the description of the person they were looking for – but I did not worry about getting beat up by the police.

    But I am not all that comfortable sometimes in the gas station when the gang bang lookalikes are being loud jerks, feel sorry for the clerks in the store


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