Defining Privilege

Let me begin this discussion by admitting that communication is hard. Words mean different things to different people in different contexts, which is why consultants like Frank Luntz have made lots of money teaching Republicans to use phrases like “Death tax” rather than the demonstrably more accurate “estate tax.” (What the government is taxing, after all, is the estate–the assets left by the decedent–not the death.)

Understanding the power of language both to illuminate and confuse helps us recognize the problem with clumsy and misleading slogans (i.e. “defund the police.”)  There are also terms, however, that are arguably appropriate and/or accurate, but that nevertheless raise the hackles of folks who  (intentionally or unintentionally) interpret them differently.

One of those is  “privilege.” White privilege. Male privilege.

Evidently, a lot of people hear the word “privilege” and assume it refers to luxury, or at least ease. What it actually is intended to convey is the absence of a barrier–White people don’t get followed around in shops by clerks convinced that Black people are likely to be shoplifters; men don’t face “casting couch” situations when they apply for jobs. They have the “privilege” of being judged on the basis of relevant credentials and behaviors.

I’m not sure what other word we might use to convey that absence of added burdens.

The Indianapolis Business Journal recently ran a column by Tom Gallagher that struck me as a perfect example of White privilege. It was about redlining.

Gallagher explained that, in the 1930s, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and its operational arm, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., were established to stabilize the real estate market as the Great Depression was ending.

They are also responsible for creating the maps that ultimately gave the discriminatory practice of redlining its name.

To encourage “responsible” lending practices, working with local real estate professionals, financiers and appraisers in communities across the nation of more than 40,000 people, Home Owners’ Loan Corp. created color-coded reference maps investors could use as a standard to determine the “security” of their investments. Based on their assessments, the “best” neighborhoods were graded “A” (in green). “B” (in blue) were “still desirable” and those given a “C” were considered “definitely declining” (in yellow). The neighborhoods given the lowest grade of “D” were regarded as “hazardous” and were, of course, colored in red.

The idea of a locally based, data-informed basis for decision-making was a good one. The problem arose in the values applied to the assessments. There was a clear bias toward newer and more spacious development, for example. Most shocking was that the residents were being graded, perhaps more than the real estate itself, not in terms of their credit value or economic viability but in terms of the “kind of people” they were. The Mapping Inequality project points out, “HOLC assumed and insisted that the residency of African Americans and immigrants, as well as working-class whites, compromised the values of homes and the security of mortgages.” To be sure, the maps didn’t create prejudice, but they did codify and normalize it.

As Gallagher and many others point out, the practice of redlining resulted in a “systematic and fundamental restructuring of our cities to favor the privileged and divert opportunities for wealth from those deemed unworthy.” It has had a lasting effect on the health and wealth of communities of color.

The Brookings Institution dubbed those effects the “destructive three “Ds.”

Black neighborhoods are denied the opportunity to build wealth through housing (which is the predominant mechanism through which White folks amass assets); they experience the systemic devaluation of their existing assets (both residential and business/commercial properties); and thanks to the results of redlining, banks frequently deny loans, which  leads to disinvestment that undermines efforts to arrest and reverse decline.

To those three “Ds,” Gallagher adds two others:  asset devaluation, which leads to a drop in prices and allows outside investors to step in, acquire property “on the cheap” and displace long-term residents and small businesses.

It seems accurate to describe those of us who don’t have to deal with the consequences of those racially discriminatory policies as privileged.

It also seems appropriate to note that redlining and its persistent after-effects are an excellent example of what we mean when we talk about structural/systemic racism–one of the “built into the law” systems that are the focus of  Critical Race Theory studied by law professors.

I don’t know whether Frank Luntz or one of his clones is responsible for turning that example of relatively arcane graduate-school study into a phrase meaning “hey, White people, ‘they’ are coming for you..,” but Republicans do have a genius for turning descriptive words into weapons.


  1. Anyone reading this article can identify what was called gentrification of urban areas in their area. The corporate and political greed that denies the creation of working-class neighborhoods, but more importantly the destruction of thriving communities in the name of progress. The systemic denial of basic human needs – shelter, safety, and security – have been so deeply woven into the fabric of American life that we no longer can see or identify how it filters out the poor and needy. I live in south Florida, so the process is both animated and rapid.

  2. This is a timely topic for what I am experiencing in my Middletown USA community. It’s amazing how planning and implementation occur, which perpetuates systemic racism. But, unfortunately, the decision-making back then and today is no different because it’s ingrained.

    Here is the reason why.

    The privileged few get to make all the decisions for the community at large. In our small community, the old white male oligarchs who ran the community did all the redlining after explicitly banning Negroes, Chinese, and Jews from living in specific neighborhoods. There is documentation showing this, but our history has been whitewashed by the same oligarchs.

    It’s like watching the KKK progress from sheets and masks to ties and suits. First, they burned crosses – now they fly flags or wear MAGA hats. Toss in letting the KKK write the history books and you begin to get the picture.

    Because the oligarchy has all the money and makes all the rules, their stamp of bigotry will be all over the place for infinity.

    Now we have a group of black Republicans who have been chosen by the oligarchs to serve in certain positions to show we have diversity. After the George Floyd incident, they promoted a black city councilperson to Deputy Mayor. They started a Black Chamber of Commerce instead of addressing the six police charged by the Justice Department for violating human rights. Suddenly, those “black leaders” think we’re a diverse community now. It’s incredible to watch. Now, the “black leaders” defend the oligarchs because they have a “position in the community.”

    It’s all superficial…we used to call it “putting lipstick on a pig.” LOL

  3. The current SCOTUS makeup of Republicans and Catholics are sitting on the “privilege” of control over all women being allowed to make their own health care decisions, primarily regarding birth control. We have a Catholic president who understands that his religion is HIS religion and not the choice of millions of Americans, men and women. He also understand that health care decisions are a personal matter and that abortion is only one of those health care decisions which should not be decided by politicians. SCOTUS has the current “privilege” of making those decisions for us based on their personal political and religious beliefs.

    One definition in the dictionary regarding privilege is; a special advantage, immunity, right or benefit granted to, or enjoyed by an individual, class or caste. It certainly is a special benefit enjoyed by and taking advantage of their caste status to abuse their powers in their appointed position to the highest judicial body in this nation.

  4. Privilege, otherwise known as an inalienable right to those who have it enabling them a position of power. For those who don’t enjoy having it, a life of being downtrodden is their fate.
    We are in a very sad state in this nation. If bible stories I learned as a kid are true, then we best realize the second coming is getter closer and closer, and very possibly the end of the world.

  5. In my downtown neighborhood, the house next-door to me recently sold for nearly a million dollars. It is a 4500sq ft Victorian. In 1972 my former next-door neighbor bought this same house for $4500. He had to use his credit card because a bank would not give him a mortgage. At the time he bought it, it had already been a rental for almost 50 years with three apartments, owned not by somebody living there, but somebody with capital. So by the 30’s the neighborhood was already home to many working class people, most likely many of them were immigrants or blacks because the neighborhood ended up redlined. Even though he was white and a surgeon, the 1968 fair housing act was still brand new and it only slowed down future situations and did not fix previous inequities.

    Redlined neighborhoods were often near factories or other nuisances, but more often than not they became attractive to nuisances, further devaluing the property. This house is now only blocks from an Interstate highway, made possible by bulldozing houses in previously red-lined areas of the city.

    The truth is red-lining nearly destroyed the core of the city, and only 50 years after the 1968 fair housing act, are some neighborhoods rebounding.

    Unfortunately the effects of red-lining linger on, in that the people that should benefit from rising home prices in the areas, the people living in up and coming areas, had already been forced out of the opportunities of home ownership and are now just renters. The name we give to this phenomenon is not structural racism, because many people don’t believe it exists, but we call it “gentrification” now days.

    Redlining, or structural racism, or the flip side, white privilege, is the gift that keeps giving.

  6. I want to, again, challenge the author for characterizing the slogan “defund the police” as clumsy and misleading. It is neither and, in fact, it could not be more clear. There is a segment, a fringe if you will, of social activists on the left who DO want to defund police departments. You, as I certainly do, may think this to be a poor policy position, or an even insane one, but it is not misleading to say DTP. They wish to defund police departments in urban areas with larger concentrations of people of color and they want to use that funding to dramatically expand social services.

    It is the oligarchs in the Democratic Party and MSM that Todd refers to who have convinced highly educated and well-read people that DTP does not literally mean what it says – that what it’s referring to is some sort of mushy alchemy that rinses police departments of racist violent behavior towards those they’re supposed to protect. Likely this would be done by making police officers sit through corporate-like seminars of diversity and sensitivity training. Once that box is checked (similar to the box checked in Middletown, USA described above) the oligarchs will declare the problem to have been solved and and police unions can get back to the business at hand, that of protecting officers who abuse the human and civil rights of others from any accountability.

    You’ve been duped. “Defund The Police” means defund the police.

  7. It’s all about marketing. And that thing they call “balance” just works to the detriment of the Dems. We are not evenly split in this country. Majorities want what the Dems are offering, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the news.

  8. May I (a White male) suggest we use ‘smooth’ instead of ‘privilege’ – since the actual effect of these practices is to make smooth the paths of Whites and males.

  9. In school, back in “the day”, we studied and pretty much defined the country of India as the caste system. I don’t remember much talk about why or how things got to be the way that they were (are?) but we did learn that the caste system was a prominent part of that country.

    Today, after an entire life devoted to satisfying curiosity about everything, I’ve learned that the system is merely a feature of culture, the passing down to new local generations of that’s who we are, and if you want to be one of us, that has to be who you are too.

    I suppose looking at things analytically, it can’t be about caste as that is not a real thing, not a feature of any newborn baby. The only thing real is that it’s a label attached like glue to the babies of every caste automatically at birth because everyone there believes that it defines themselves largely by how they have been treated all of their lives by other casts.

    I noticed the same when we lived in Mexico. The wealthy and the poor just accepted that that was a birthright, the poor were supposed to be and so were the wealthy. Why fight fate?

    Considering those experiences, what we have here is no different than the caste system that we were taught and I have experienced as have many of you. Newborns are identified by their parent’s labels as being the same, label them up and ship them out and, if they conform, they can be one of us.

    What’s not as obvious is that in order for that system to be as sticky as it is, we all have to play our assigned roles for good or bad. And, voila, we tend to, at least enough of us to define how things are done here.

    In the sixties, we thought that we could change culture through the tool of law. That may be slow but over many generations, it may slowly have its intended consequences. Or not.

    Now those made uncomfortable by the decline in our caste culture are starting to use the tool of law to keep things as they were.

  10. I lived in Haughville for 10 years. The landlord of the house across the street lived in Florida and did not maintain the house. He also did not care who lived there. When I left, I was certain drug dealers were living there. Red Lining also leads to opportunistic landlords who live far from the neighborhood.It’s a perfect example of how red lining has created pockets of poverty in cities. We don’t see them as we drive over them on the interstates.

    I believe that classicism affects the Afro-American community. I think some African-Americans who have assimilated into the white community and managed to escape poverty, believe that anyone can do this. They often fail to recognize that they were able to move out of poverty into the middle class or even affluence due to the help of others.

    I believe that the answers to neighborhoods facing high crime, food deserts, poor access to health care ,pollution lie within the residents of the community. They need to approach the issues facing them as a united front. My guess is(I am guessing since I don’t live in one of these neighborhoods) that the local residents will need to support local entrepeneurs. The answers will not come from well meaning “white” folk. But even if they present their issues as a united front to the city council and/or the state legislature, they will face GOP reps who don’t really understand nor care about these issues. And, of course, “gentrification” is not a solution. It simply dislocates people who can’t afford the increase in property taxes.

    And then, of course, there is the NIMBY attitude in which people refuse to allow nonprofits to build houses for the homeless or halfway houses for those trying to recover from addiction and/or long term imprisonment.

    If we are really going to “Build Back Better” then we will need to find ways to lift up people living in pockets of poverty along with the middle class. And maybe, we will have to make reparations to the people residing in red lined communities.

    And in the meantime, I am hoping that Stacey Abrams will actually become the governor of her state. Because if red lining is going to stop, we will need much more diversity in all levels of government.

  11. Yes, Bill, “Smooth,” or, perhaps “easy” would work as well.
    In “The Color of Law,” we see that in the ’30’s, FDR was involved in at least allowing the practice of breaking up mixed neighborhoods, and redlining.
    Privilege is so “normal” for white folk that it does not even register on their radar.
    Words can go straight to the emotional, amygdala run, core, that people do not realize that they are being manipulated. So, people like
    Frank Luntz can make a career out of teaching bastards how to be more effective bastards

  12. For me, Todd has hit the nail,squarely on its head!

    Poor practices seem to continue to circle around again and again. Rather than choosing a different path, a new way, which was perhaps previously untried, or tried in a different contextual world; society/community just moves forward, often instituting minor shifts, in the ways no longer working, and often just changing the cast and crew.

    Interesting how growing older seems to allows many of us to see the repetitive patterns of life and society with a “different set of eyes”. Most of this seems to help provide us with mirror images of how we have operated in the world of our own yesterdays. Introspective self awareness without judgment I have experienced to be a real teacher!

  13. And Bravo to Robin, and others who do such a great job of expressing themselves by use of understandable words, personal experience stories, and ideas for solving problems and addressing inequitable issues.

  14. Perhaps you all read in the recent news of a similar practice to red-lining called ‘white-washing’ wherein black families who live in good neighborhoods have their homes white-washed of all signs of owner identity, and ask a Caucasian friend to pose as the owner when appraisers arrive. The most recent example took place in Marin City — a section of Sausalito, California that is home to several families of color (that in itself is a story of racial housing discrimination).

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