The myths and realities of America’s continuing struggle with race and class privilege

Photo by The Daily Beast

The white privilege debate is about each American’s slice of the pie and the color of the baker who cut the slices. The mistake is assuming that the baker and the pie are the same thing.

White privilege is the most polarizing topic in American politics today. Part of this is due to its intersection with major issues like the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as the perceived white male dominance of Trump’s administration and agenda. But the importance of the debate over white privilege in America goes beyond all these issues to hit at the core of American culture itself. It begins with the argument that white Americans have advantages in society that others don’t enjoy which in turn has led to significant inequalities in the country. The primary cause is a history of racism and discrimination that built social, economic, and political systems of privilege for white Americans. The result is a contemporary America where even if a white American is not rich or connected, well-known or highly respected, they inherently enjoy privileges that nonwhites of relatively equal standing don’t get. For its proponents the white privilege debate is critical because it is the starting point for almost all other issues of inequality and injustice in America.

The problem is that the narrative, and the defensive reaction of whites to it, are both out of focus. Like many issues in our age of political volatility and social media the issue of white privilege has been twisted and distorted to such a degree that it no longer resembles a rational discussion. Initial misunderstandings and misuse of concepts become married to self-interested narratives to the point that anyone honestly trying to engage the topic is left with only extremes and hyperbole as their basis of judgment. And so, most of the people in the middle have checked out leaving the battlefield to the truly dedicated who fight for their causes with no intention of listening to the other side, let alone compromising their perspectives. In terms of the white privilege debate this has meant the drawing of two successive lines of battle: 1) arguing over the existence of white privilege, and if it does exist 2) should white Americans today bear some guilt/responsibility for it?

Heidi Younger, New York Times

Because of misconceived definitions and understandings for question number one however, the answer for number two becomes conveniently obvious to nonwhites in America, as well as a growing number of “woke” whites.

Of course, there’s white privilege in America!

The absolute certainty with which we answer the first question means the answer to number two is ‘just’ a matter of determining how much guilt white Americans must bear for inequality in America. This of course should be accompanied by a tangible demonstration of their acceptance of responsibility for it. What drives the debate is some version of a response by most white Americans that either denies the existence of white privilege altogether, or accepts the existence of privilege while denying a racial component to it. Either way, the debate immediately puts white Americans on the defensive ensuring that like all human beings they will be less likely to consider accepting guilt and responsibility, especially if they did not directly participate in and do not condone it.

The tangible structure (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow, etc.) that enabled white privilege is gone, along with most of the individuals that created it. Slavery has been gone for more than 150 years, civil rights in America are fully protected and promoted, and systemic racism is all but a thing of the past. And because there are fewer and fewer members of the generations that did support those things alive today it is difficult if not impossible to draw direct lines of responsibility for inequality in America associated with our legacy of racism to white Americans today, regardless of whether they are directly benefiting from that inequality.

Thus, many white Americans can plausibly deny the existence of white privilege as defined by minorities or “the Left”, or at least explain how they as a white person are clearly not benefiting from some hidden economic or social privilege in America. This creates a reinforcing cycle of recriminations and deflection that has led to where we are today. On the one side is a white American community that is largely exhausted and increasingly angry over what they see as unfair claims of racism against them, their lineages, and America in general. While on the other side is a minority population that is growing in size, wealth, and power, and which is also increasingly angry over what they see as white apathy towards, and thus perpetuation of, a system that is inherently unfair for everyone but white people. And all the while both sides fail to recognize the three hard truths of white privilege in America: white privilege is not one wordmost whites don’t enjoy white privilege, and we as a nation really don’t want to change the privilege part.

White privilege is not one word

The most widely made error in considering white privilege is beginning with the assumption that the concept is one word, or at least hyphenated. Put another way, people on both sides of the discussion tend to operate with the belief that privilege in America is inherently connected to whiteness. It is a fundamental mistake and one that seriously damages the ability of everyone involved to discuss the topic in an honest and open way. Privilege as the reward of wealth is an inherent component of the American economy, just as it is throughout every developed society in the world. More importantly, the relationship between privilege and wealth predates domination of the American economy by white Americans. If in some alternate universe Blacks represented 60% of America’s population and had practiced cultural and systemic discrimination against whites for the first 200+ years of the country’s existence I assure you, we would be having the same conversation about black privilege in America. Privileged America does not exist because of white America. The question is how much of white America exists because of privilege?

To understand white privilege, we must separate the racial history of America from the development and evolution of our economic system. It is true that previous generations of white Americans discriminated against people of color by developing social, political, and legal systems that kept minorities from equal opportunities to fulfill the American dream. It is also true that this resulted in significant economic inequality between whites and nonwhites relative to the ability to enjoy the privileges of wealth. But the key assumption underlying every resistance movement in American history is that economic success and the privileges that come with it are separate from the white males that dominate it. Minorities and the underclass have been fighting against the idea of white privilege since the founding of the country. But it has never been the intention to eliminate privilege as much as to ensure a more equal and fair distribution of it beyond whites. This is because privilege in all its forms is the last stop for every American dream.

Minorities are legitimately angry over white domination of privilege in America. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a much larger group of Americans, white and nonwhite, who are in fact more jealous of the privilege than they are angry over how it’s been acquired. In the end, one of the greatest sources of power and stability privileged whites have been able to exercise in America is determining how and when to share that privilege. From the end of the Civil War and slavery to the #MeToo movement white male dominance of economic privilege in America has faced a steady erosion in strength. That said, most of the erosion has taken place around the edges of society with many of the core issues (e.g. economic and political leadership, land ownership, etc.) continuing to be extremely unequal. It’s the continuing strength of “the good old boys network” at the core of America’s economic culture that perpetuates certain truths of white privilege, and the broader debate that surround those truths. But over the last 2 to 3 decades there has also been an increase in the number of women and minorities accessing and taking advantage of privilege. It is the Oprah Winfrey’s and the Barack Obama’s, the Lebron James’ and the Neil deGrasse Tyson’s that most directly illustrate the need to separate whiteness from success and privilege in America. There is certainly a LONG way to go in terms of creating greater racial equity in the distribution of privilege in the country. But regardless of what it was in the past, privilege in America today is not defined simply by being white.

Most whites don’t enjoy white privilege

It is only logical that if you begin with the assumption that privilege in America is inherently tied to being white that you conclude all white Americans enjoy some form of privilege. The only way to maintain this belief is through forcibly combining America’s history of racism and inequalities associated with all capitalist economies to the point that they become one in the same: things are only unequal economically in America because of white people. Once assumed this perspective creates a broad if not universal disdain towards white people and American culture in general as they are now one and the same. Every injustice and inequity must be the result of white privilege and whether implicitly or explicitly every white person is a co-conspirator. But we don’t need to do much digging to prove that this is not the case. It is the nature of America’s economic system and indeed capitalism in general to create inequity, and by association the potential for injustice. Throughout our history the majority of the people who have succeeded within the American economic system have been white, with some of them using racism and discrimination to achieve that success. But none of this means that just being white in America guarantees some form of privilege.

Perhaps a better way to consider the relationship between white Americans and privilege is to consider the notion of privilege (i.e. advantages over others due to position) from a purely social perspective. I had the wonderful opportunity to teach English in China a few years ago, truly one of the great experiences of my life. One early evening after classes I decided to head down to the basketball courts to try and get a little exercise and maybe take in some of the atmosphere of a Chinese University. There were probably 300 to 400 students spread out across a vast collection of basketball courts and the entire atmosphere was much busier than I expected it to be. Through my teaching assistant/interpreter I quickly realized that many of the Chinese students were becoming excited because they somehow expected I was going to do fantastic things with a basketball. Anyone that’s ever played with me knows I’m fast, play great defense, and probably couldn’t shoot the ball into the ocean if I was standing on the beach. The only reason they had any expectations otherwise was because I was black, and yes, they were quite honest in saying so to me directly. Personally, this has always been the best example I could come up with to illustrate what I would call purely social privilege: assumptions of skill or ability based solely on the fact you look like other people identified with success. Racial privilege as the manifestation of social privilege makes sense and I believe it exists to some degree for white Americans. But it is a mistake to assume that it is the same thing as the broader symbols of privilege in America that come from wealth.

My understanding of white privilege in the social context crystallized during the first election of Barack Obama. I remember watching a reporter interview a very old black woman wanting to know what her feelings and opinions were regarding America’s election of its first African-American president. While she was polite, she was clear in her inference that American presidents had always been white, and she wasn’t sure if a black man could do the job. This echoed a much more prevalent belief amongst African-Americans, especially prior to the Civil Rights movement, that there were certain positions in society that whites were just better suited for. The belief amongst many African-Americans that white doctors, lawyers, or teachers were better was (and still is) a reflection of the racial dominance of white Americans throughout most of the country’s history. But that form of privilege in America is as limited as the specialized roles those individuals play in the daily lives of most Americans. For the vast majority of white Americans there is no advantage to being white that has helped them overcome poverty, upbringing, or sheer circumstance as the cause of inequalities holding them back personally. Whatever minimal or fleeting advantage they might get in their own office or community because they are white, it does not translate to true privilege in America. Just like me on the basketball court, everyone quickly realizes that just because your skin is the same color as Lebron James doesn’t mean you can dunk a basketball.

We really don’t want to change the privilege part of white privilege

Much of this article was driven by an epiphany I had a few months ago during a conversation with a coworker. I was working in a restaurant as a prep cook in order to earn a little money towards making ends meet. My coworker, a young white student at the local university, was on break and we were talking about what she’d done over her extended holiday. She explained how her vacation started with her family’s annual 10-day trip to Vale, Colorado for skiing. As always, her father rented a large chateau inviting friends and family to come and stay at their convenience After the New Year school started again so she didn’t work for the first half of the semester to assure good grades; the job was just for spending money anyway. Before she finally came back to work after a 2+ month hiatus she finished up with a week-long spring break trip to Hawaii with her friends. And the entire time she talked I slowly realized that she was forcing me to confront my own understandings of white privilege.

I knew her well enough to say with confidence that she was not racist in the least. From what she’s told me her father started a business and then invested in real estate ultimately making the family rich. But when she was young, they were simply middle-class, completing college degrees and buying a home while they leaned into their own American dream. While she talked, I considered just how much of the advantages and enjoyment of life she described was due solely to her being white? I thought about how far back in her family I would have to go to find someone I would be justified in being angry at? Later I thought about how much of my internal reactions were driven by a combination of that anger and a baser jealousy over not being able to enjoy the life she was living. Even if I could find Clue-style ‘the racist, with the hood, in the family closet,’ how much could I expect her to feel guilty? It’s at that point that I realized as much as I understand that white privilege exists, I’m more concerned with the privilege part.

I keep trying to conceptualize the white privilege debate in a nonthreatening way that engages white Americans. But whenever I try it comes out in essentially material terms, which as described above all but forces the white person in front of me to become defensive. It’s hard to explain during dessert that you don’t feel you’re getting your fair share of the pie without automatically implying that everyone else eating is getting more than they deserve. But regardless of the ongoing argument over who divided up the pie and why some people keep getting smaller pieces, no one ever hates the pie. Privilege as the ultimate reward for success is the most important component of American culture. It is true that in America being privileged and being white have historically been so intertwined that they were essentially the same thing, especially for minorities. But as the legacy of racism in America begins to fade so too will the false narratives that have perpetuated the debate over white privilege. Eventually seeing racial and economic privilege as separate problems will become the norm and not a skill that “woke” Americans need to perfect. And then we’ll have to deal with the reality that ending racism in America will not end our pursuit of privilege as the essential component of the American Dream, or our creation of inequality as the necessary byproduct.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.