The Blue Revue: On White Privilege

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This is the second article in the Blue Revue series, in which I discuss a term commonly used by blues, and what it means to me. A response from a member of the Revue Council, my brother Adam, follows my piece.

At the 2nd annual Braver Angels Convention in St. Louis in June, one of the headline events was a conversation led by our president, David Blankenhorn, between Ray Warrick of the Cincinnati Tea Party and Hawk Newsome of Black Lives Matter New York. During a key moment in the discussion, when Warrick was asked to respond to Newsome’s perspective, he took issue with accusations that he’s heard of racism within the ranks of the Tea Party.

“You know, the Tea Party gets called racist all the time,” he lamented. “I have been to countless Tea Party meetings, gatherings, rallies, seminars. I don’t remember race ever being discussed. And that’s the truth. It wasn’t even a thing.”

It was a moment that many of the blues in the crowd had some discomfort with, and Blankenhorn told me later that it was a topic that came up several times when people talked to him about the event later.

When it comes to the ways in which reds and blues discuss racism, there seems to be such a stark disconnect, down to the level of what racism even is. Whereas reds seem to talk about it in fairly tangible terms—equating it with unambiguous examples like people using racial slurs, or explicitly exclusionary policies being codified in law—blues often talk about the intangibles. They cite examples of implicit bias making subtle—or not so subtle—shifts to the playing field that systematically disadvantage people of color, and the countless tiny advantages that they perceive white people to have in a country in which whiteness has generally been the default, the “normal.”

It fits the pattern of my own understanding of conservatism versus progressivism. I’ve sensed, and I’ve seen others cite this, that conservatives see the world in more black-and-white terms, while progressives tend to look for the shades of gray. This by no means universal, and there are issues where this dynamic is actually flipped, but the pattern is somewhat common within social issues, and even many reds have agreed with this idea.

This disconnect seems most fraught when liberals point out examples of racism, and conservatives receive this critique as a personal attack. It appears to me that many conservatives view the issue as “you’re either a racist or you’re not,” while liberals see it as a case of implicit bias across the board—taking pains to point out their own biases—which can be characterized as racism in various degrees.

Implicit in this more subtle definition of racism, which progressives see as hidden from the sight of those not looking for it, lies a related concept: white privilege.

Privilege is a highly loaded word these days. Whereas years ago I mostly heard it invoked about the trappings of wealth, or simply the joy of an experience, these days, particularly within blue circles, I hear it much more often used to refer to the unique condition of those who enjoy unearned benefits from society, stemming from their demographic status. It is most often invoked in the context of white privilege, though there are plenty of other types of privileges that progressives recognize exist at the intersection of any number of identities.

It’s also highly divisive, with most conservatives I’ve talked to feeling that it’s an overblown concept, if it has any legitimacy at all. I’ve also discussed it with a blue friend who hails from a much redder state, where she grew up surrounded by lower-income whites. In her mind these people were never steeped in any sort of privilege, struggling as they did against shifting economic tides, increased joblessness and addiction.

And I certainly appreciate this perspective. There are vast swaths of our country who feel left out of the advancements that we’ve made, and who have not had things handed to them in a way that suggests they are truly privileged.

And I got to talk to Bill Doherty, our lead workshop designer, about these ideas.

“There are a lot of white people who, whenever you try to convince someone you’re making a sociological generalization, take it personally,” he said. “They interpret it that way, and it doesn’t fit their life experience.”

For Doherty, an insistence on using the term can be counterproductive, alienating those with whom it doesn’t quickly resonate. If someone believes deeply in the need for social change, it would be much more effective to move beyond the language, and toward a direct examination of the concepts that underpin it.

When he ran a program that brought together police officers and black men to discuss the fraught dynamic that existed between the two groups, Doherty had a fairly illustrative experience. The white officers rejected the idea of including the phrases “white privilege” and “white supremacy” in the document that they were drafting together, many for similar reasons as my blue friend from the South.

Nevertheless, the final document did have versions of those concepts right up front, declaring that our country had a long history of people in power using the police to exert control on the black community.

While I acknowledge that labeling the concept in this way isn’t super productive in one-on-one conversation, we should also recognize that “privilege,” and particularly that of white people, is ensconced in the lexicon of progressives, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. So I thought it useful to give our perspective on what it is, and how it impacts people.

White privilege is a set of benefits, but also lower risks, that characterizes the white experience in general in a country in which the default ethnicity has, since our founding, been white. The concept may feel remote to some, which is why concrete examples can be instructive.

Let’s start with the issue we just touched upon, the relationship of civilians with police. While Warrick and Newsome disagreed on plenty at their convention appearance, they agreed that the treatment of black men in particular at the hands of police was a legitimate issue. It’s a factor that’s ever-present in their lives, one that makes them always vigilant in any situation where an encounter with police may turn deadly—which unfortunately even extends to their own homes.

As a white person, I’ve generally taken my safety around police for granted. I’ve never really been happy to see one behind me on the road, but if I do get pulled over it registers as much more of an annoyance than a threat. I would certainly count that as a privilege I enjoy, even if there are plenty of people who aren’t eager to label it that.

And it’s not just violence at the hands of those administering the law. Black people are much more likely to end up in jail, but this phenomenon starts even earlier than you’d expect. There’s a vast disparity of consequences that they start to suffer within the justice system, even for the same offenses, and this starts as early as pre-school.

Even within the realm of other disadvantaged populations, black people have unique challenges. Poverty tends to look different in the black and white communities, with black families tending to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which amplifies the burden. After all, those areas are much less likely to get resources than the mixed-wealth areas that poor whites tend to occupy.

Lest we get hung up on simply the disadvantages that black people face, and not the advantages that white people hold over most other groups, let’s talk about representation. Again, this starts early, from children’s books—among which people of color are vastly underrepresented—to the school system, where the history of most ethnic groups is taught more often as an elective, while the history of white people, like European and early American history, is the core story.

And it naturally extends to media, in which white people are over-represented compared to people of color in film and TV. And when there are characters of color, they tend to be portrayed more negatively than the white characters. It’s no wonder that white people tend to enjoy a reputation as less violent than people of color, despite the fact that most domestic terrorism—violence for the sake of violence, committed purely to create fear—comes at the hands of white people.

And let’s face it, living life is just easier if you’re white, from getting a job, to buying a home, to walking around a store without being followed.

There are benefits to being a white person in the U.S. It doesn’t really matter whether or not we call it by the term “privilege.” These benefits are tangible and impactful.

At many of the Braver Angels workshops I attend, I often hear reds cite their understanding of one of the biggest differences between themselves and their blue counterparts. Reds seek equality of opportunity, they claim, while blues want equality of outcomes. I would argue that this is a gross misunderstanding of the blue perspective. It would be foolish and futile for blues to even attempt to achieve equality of outcomes, and in any case that’s not the goal.

In fact, both groups seem to have a sincere desire to extend equal opportunity to all. The big disconnect is that blues see a system that inherently limits the opportunity of these who don’t occupy a seat of privilege, including people of color. We don’t equate equality of resources with equality of opportunity, since those people are starting from 50 yards behind the line before the race even begins.

When blues talk about white privilege—and any other sort of privilege for that matter—they simply want an acknowledgment that it exists, and for that to be factored into policy in the most basic ways. We would suggest that anyone who is truly seeking equality of opportunity should want the race to start from the same point for all.


A response from Adam Lioz, a lawyer who works on progressive policy advocacy in Washington, DC: 

Think about the person who has the most control over your life, outside of your family.  If you’re a student maybe that’s a teacher or a professor; if you work it’s probably your boss—or maybe your boss’s boss.

How similar or different is that person to you?  Do they come from the same background or culture?  Similar in age?  Same race or gender?  Do they understand the same jokes, watch the same TV shows?  Dress in a similar style?

How hard do you have to work to relate to them?  Do you just show up and act naturally, or do you feel the need to hide or alter the way you’d normally act in order to earn and maintain their respect?

Is that person from around the corner, on your block?  Or is she from Belarus, a place with different customs, traditions, ways of moving through the world?

Now, imagine if that person was from Belarus, and so were most of the people who controlled how much money you have, how far you go in school or your career, whether you can get a loan to buy a house.  Imagine that you had to constantly think and plan and strategize about how to relate, how to conform—not because they are any better or smarter than you, or vice versa; just because they’re different.

Now imagine that the nice folks from Belarus don’t just find the way you naturally act to be different, but markedly inferior.  They’re pretty sure they’re smarter than you, more likely to be “qualified” for many tasks.  They’ve defined your speech, your dress, your customs as pathological, as evidence that you don’t belong, don’t measure up.  So the price of slipping, of just for a few moments acting like yourself, could be a lost promotion or raise you badly need to make ends meet, or even termination from your job.

And imagine that the folks from Belarus kind of have to act this way, have to see your culture as pathological.  And this is because of the final and most important challenge you face.

It turns out that going back hundreds of years the far-back ancestors of those currently well-meaning folks from Belarus had created rules and structures that restricted opportunity for your great-great grandparents and your great grandparents and your grandparents and your parents and anyone who looked like them.  Some long-gone Belarusians may have owned your great-great-grandparents.  Or maybe your great grandparents just weren’t allowed to participate in certain businesses and so had to open a restaurant or laundry.  Perhaps their hometown was occupied by a foreign power and they suddenly faced extralegal killings, stolen land, and punishment for speaking their own language.  Or maybe they weren’t able to get a loan to buy a house or start a business.  They weren’t able to vote or effectively run for office most of that time so the Belarusians pretty much made all the rules.

The end result of centuries of exclusion from governance and the economy is that the average Belarusian family has ten times more wealth than yours.  So, your community tends to be poor.  And so just as their ancestors had to see yours as biologically inferior in order to justify their treatment, the folks from Belarus kind of have to see your community as culturally inferior so they can explain why you’re poor without having to face their own grandparents’ roles in making you poor.

To me, white privilege in the U.S. is the ability to walk through life without having to think or worry about any of the above.  It’s moving through a country, a neighborhood, a workplace, a store, a hospital that is constructed with me in mind.  Not having to worry about consciously adjusting to fit in.  Not paying a (sometimes steep) cost when I fail to adjust.  And, most important, not facing structures and institutions every single day that were designed for others to succeed and, at times, specifically for me to fail.  It’s a set of things we tend to not notice and take for granted but which nonetheless shape our lives every day.

I think Randy’s piece does a pretty good job at laying this out, and I would offer three suggestions for improvement.

First, in assessing how conservatives and progressives view racism, Randy characterizes the difference as between tangible versus intangible or clear versus subtle.  I don’t think that’s quite it.  I think the key difference is between focusing on interpersonal versus systemic or structural racism.

According to many people the paradigmatic example of racism is someone who is actively prejudiced against someone of another race and makes that known through word or deed—exemplified by name-calling.  According to this view, white people, black people, and anyone else can be equally guilty of racism.  And this is where we get the concept of “reverse-racism” supposedly experienced by white people.

Progressives, however, see racism as primarily structural.  We all have prejudices and biases—it’s not possible as humans to avoid them.  These all-too-human biases become racism when power is thrown into the mix and structures are created which give systemic advantages to one group over another.  So, white people can face prejudice from other people, like anyone else; but this prejudice is not the same as the racism people of color face when prejudice is combined with power.  Reverse racism is an incoherent concept under this framework because people of color don’t control the structures of power necessary to translate their prejudices (again, which we all have) into systemic disadvantages for white people.  In other words, white privilege is being white in a system that systemically advantages white people.

As Peggy McIntosh writes in her famous essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”  Randy is correct that these systems tend to be more subtle, less obvious, even “invisible;” but the more important point is that they are “systems” which operate at an institutional or structural level rather than between two individuals.

One more thought about invisibility, which is important because many conservatives believe white privilege is a myth, that it doesn’t actually exist: the thing is that one of the costs of privilege is blindness—we are uniquely badly positioned to perceive the ways in which we have a leg up.  This is the reason for the expression, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

One example from my youth springs to mind.  I remember a conversation I had with a few female friends in high school about a certain middle school science teacher that we all had.  According to them, he never called on girls.  I was shocked.  I was in that classroom, being called on, apparently more than my fair share, and I had no idea I was receiving any unfair advantage.  Similarly, in law school several of my women classmates, including people who had worked in Congress and other places of power, told me they’d never experienced a more gendered environment than our school.  Again, because I am a man, on the upside of the privilege, I was totally blind.

Second, Randy says that “I acknowledge that labeling the concept [as white privilege] isn’t super productive in one-on-one conversation.”  This is too quick of a concession.  Sure, starting a conversation with controversial terminology that may trigger defensive reactions is not a great way to organize people “where they’re at.”  But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term, which holds some essential truth.  It may just mean we have to work up to its use.  After all, if we finish the discussion and a person is still bristling at the term “white privilege” I think this is pretty good evidence that there’s still some fundamental disagreement about the concept.

Finally, Randy says that “[w]hite privilege is a set of benefits, but also lower risks, that characterizes the white experience in general in a country in which the default ethnicity has, since our founding, been white.”  This is a pretty solid definition with one important fault.  Whiteness is a racial categorization, not an ethnicity.  Italians and Irish are ethnicities within the racial category of whiteness.  This is an important distinction because it effectively demonstrates a concept that is very controversial, especially among conservatives—that race is in fact a socially constructed concept rather than a biological fact.  I didn’t believe this myself until I thought about the racial continuum that exists and how arbitrary it is where we draw the lines.  Somewhere between Russia and China people become “Asian”—can you tell me exactly where?  In the U.S., Italians and Irish were not always considered “white,” and now they are.  “White” isn’t a set biological category but rather a porous concept that embraces some people at some times and not others.  The people who qualify for the term get the privileges that come along with it.  Those who fail to qualify are left out in the cold.  In this way whiteness actually has no meaning without the privilege that goes along with it.

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1 thought on “The Blue Revue: On White Privilege”

  1. Erica Etelson

    I’m a Blue who is focused on outcomes in addition to opportunity. Ibram Kendi, an historian at American University, makes a very simple but (to me) compelling point — he says that when you look at all the ways blacks are not doing as well in terms of wealth, health, education, employment, etc, that there are only two possible explanations for these disparities — either there’s something wrong with black people or they’ve been held back by racist policies. Since I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with black people as a group, then it must be the latter. So in that sense, outcome is centrally important to me.

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