Tag Archives: privilege

But One of My Best Friends is Black!

The online version of the New York Times has a series called “The Stone.” It’s part of their general “Opinionator” category. A recent post to that series caught my eye, although I hadn’t originally planned to post about it.

Then I participated in a recent discussion hosted by GIPC’S Race Relations Network.

The discussion was titled “The Social Construction of Race,” and focused upon the discomfort so many white people feel during discussions of race and racism. At a couple of points, there was real tension in the room, despite the fact that everyone in that room was demonstrably a person of good will where race relations are concerned (and the white participants probably had close black friends).

I’ve been in several similar situations, and I’ve noticed that where discussions about race tend to break down is in the definition of racism. The post from the Times is instructive:

To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.

Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.

This last sentence seems inarguable to me. It is what is meant by “white privilege,” and all of us white folks–inescapably–benefit from it. The underlying point is that systems matter more than individual bias, and that even the least prejudiced, most pro-equality, non-racist white person is treated differently in numerous contexts because of the way those systems have been constructed over time.

White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is not an accusation of complicity. It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.

Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.

If you don’t believe me, ask a black friend.


Tradition! Tradition!

No, I’m not about to break into a musical rendition from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Instead, I’m commenting on a recent post from Juanita Jean at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. where the topic was a recent rant by Bill O’Reilly, accusing the White House of “spitting on traditional Americans” by bathing the facade in rainbow lights after the Court ruled in Obergefell.

As Juanita Jean reminds us

Traditional Americans? As opposed to Untraditional Americans? Well, I’ll be damned, against all odds O’Reilly did in fact find another way to divide this country.

Just think, if this country had traditional people running it we would still have child labor,women without the vote, slavery, poll tax, and a helluva lot of muskets.


In that “traditional” America, women couldn’t enter into contracts or get credit without the consent of their fathers or husbands. Birth control was outlawed under “obscenity” statutes. Abortion for any reason was illegal. Women had no protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, and were routinely paid less than men. Gays were in firmly closed closets. Blacks “knew their place.”

It’s the passing of that “traditional” world, and the loss of those “traditional” family values that (old, white, heterosexual) men are bemoaning when they proclaim that they “want their country back.”

The next time Justice Scalia (“Get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!) goes into a tirade about the need to protect even those “traditions” that most of us now consider fundamentally unfair–“traditions” that violate important Constitutional principles of equality and autonomy–let’s think about the many ways those sacred traditions operated to cement the privileges enjoyed by un-self-aware, self-important (white, male) curmudgeons like Bill Riley and Antonin Scalia.

It’s Who You Know

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. There’s a lot of truth to that, and it’s why cities are so important.

The other day, I read one of those pious rants from a privileged old white guy–it may have been Charles Koch–about how the minimum wage is bad for poor people because it makes them dependent. It’s easy enough to mock people who see no connection between the government goodies they enjoy–the business subsidies and tax breaks and the like–and government rules that benefit poorer folks–but these lectures betray another aspect of their cluelessness. I’d be willing to bet that Charles Koch and his ilk don’t really know any poor people.

They may have servants who are poor, of course. But that’s a lot different than living in a economically diverse neighborhood, or riding public transportation with an assortment of city dwellers, or having your kids go to school with children from varied backgrounds.

Even in cities, of course, we see increasing economic segregation. But there was a lot of truth to that wonderful old rant The Urban Archipelago —

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity.

The real virtue of urban diversity is that it bestows a larger framework for understanding the world and the variety of people who populate it. If your only contact with “poor people” is on television or through the writing of ideologically compatible pundits–if you view “them”only from the comfort and distance of your gated community,or through the window of your air-conditioned Mercedes– it’s easy to make assumptions about their lives and habits.

Many years ago, when my sons were in high school (Tech, in downtown Indianapolis), a girl began calling my middle son every night at dinner time. After the fifth or sixth time, annoyed, I indulged a sexist stereotype and snapped “Tell her to stop calling you, that boys call girls; girls don’t call boys!” To which he replied, “But mom, I can’t call her. Her family doesn’t have a phone.”

I don’t think I’d ever known anyone who didn’t have a telephone. But my sons’ lives and moral imaginations have been immeasurably enlarged because they did.

Stereotyping of all kinds depends on ignorance. That’s true of racial and religious stereotyping, and it’s equally true of economic stereotyping. The virtue of cities is that “smashing together” of real human beings–a smashing that makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) to substitute assumptions about other people for actual knowledge of them.

The Legislative Process

Yesterday, the Indianapolis Star ran the second part of Matt Tully’s series on ethics at the Indiana General Assembly, or how a bill really becomes a law.

What struck me most was the irony–the amounts of money spent by vocal proponents of free enterprise and the market economy in pursuit of legislation privileging their positions in that market and/or protecting them against competition. Sunday liquor sales, gaming operations, banking rules, collective bargaining…for a state that  celebrates capitalism, our lawmakers spend an inordinate amount of time picking winners and losers.

Want an example?

Also appearing in yesterday’s paper was a report on a hearing held by the House Utility Committee on the boondoggle known as the Rockport Coal-Gasification plant.

As readers of this blog will recall from previous posts, then-Governor Mitch Daniels entered into a thirty-year deal with Leucadia National Corporation, represented in Indiana by long-time Republican operative and Daniels friend, Mark Lubbers. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Mark Lubbers’ wife Teresa was appointed by Daniels to head up the state’s Commission on Higher Education.) The terms of the deal obligated the state to buy the company’s synthetic gas and resell it on the open market. Indiana ratepayers would get discounts or increases on their bills, depending upon whether the synthetic gas was more or less expensive than gas available on the open market. Seventeen percent of ratepayers’ bills would be tied to the Rockport plant’s rate.

State Senator Doug Eckerty, who opposes the deal, has sponsored a bill that would send the agreement back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a full review.

In the committee hearing, Eckerty pointed out that gas prices have plummeted since the plant was first proposed, and that the manufacture of synthetic gas is no longer economically feasible. Coal gasification projects in other states have been abandoned. As he noted, if private sources will not finance these projects, why should taxpayers?

When natural gas prices were high, there was at least a thin justification for a deal that used Indiana ratepayers to guarantee the profits of a private company. Now even that pretense of a public purpose is gone. Mark Lubbers testified that gas prices are volatile, so the plant would protect ratepayers if and when the prices spiked again.

The problem is, whether gas prices rise again is irrelevant. The state should not be picking private-sector winners and losers. I hate to use a sports analogy, but government’s role in the economy is best compared to that of the umpire or referee in a game. When government abandons that role–when it suits up and plays with one of the teams–it is improper. It violates the rules, undermines the sport, and makes cynics of the onlookers.

It’s no different when the game is the free market.


Random Ruminations on Personal Responsibility

When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I began to really appreciate the impact of Calvinism on American culture. Calvin taught that people were either “saved” or not, and that personal success (wealth, acclaim) could be a sign that one was one of the elect. (Before religious historians post blistering responses, I know this is a very superficial description of the theology.) What intrigued me was the way in which this particular belief continues to influence our very American perspective on merit and personal responsibility.

I thought about that Calvinist influence when talking last week to a student who was disdainful of his classmates who had yet to find employment. “They should have done what I did,” he told me, explaining the extra efforts he had put into his own search. And those efforts were laudable, no question about it. But he is also blessed with a high intellect, lots of energy, the means to dress well for interviews and other advantages he takes for granted.

A contemporary of mine who runs a political think-tank is an exemplar of this attitude. He is a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, over six feet tall, and athletic. His parents both graduated from one of the nation’s best universities, and while they were not wealthy, he had a comfortable, intellectually enriched childhood and adolescence. He has enjoyed good health. He was born with a quick mind. And he has withering contempt for people who need public assistance of any kind. After all, he “stood on his own two feet.” Why can’t they?

I think this attitude is common among bright people who have worked and achieved. It takes some thought–not to mention humility and compassion–to recognize the role privilege plays in our lives.

My friend grew up white, straight and male in a society that privileged such things. He had good health, a good mind, and he didn’t encounter social or economic barriers to the tools he needed to succeed. I know that he–and my student, and others–also displayed admirable personal characteristics and diligence, but what they and so many others fail to appreciate is the extent to which privilege made it easier for them to “make it.”

The noted philosopher John Rawls asked an important question: What sort of system might we devise that would be fair to everyone if we operated behind “a veil of ignorance”–if we didn’t know beforehand what place we would have in that system? If we didn’t know whether we would be born rich or poor, black or brown or white, disabled or healthy, mentally impaired or brilliant…If we had no way of knowing whether we would be born to privilege or mass despair. What sort of system could we create that would reward effort and achievement while still recognizing and ameliorating “luck of the draw” disadvantages?

I don’t think a fair system would deny health-care to poor people or those with pre-existing conditions. I don’t think it would “save” money by cutting back preschool programs, or insisting that women bear children they are unprepared to raise. I don’t think it would deny laborers the opportunity to unite to bargain for safer workplaces.

I don’t think that insisting that people exercise personal responsibility requires us to ignore the role luck plays in our achievements.

We can insist on personal responsibility without being mean-spirited or willfully obtuse.