A Ku Indeed!

White Rights, White Privileges

Posted in Life, Politics by Chris on September 21, 2008

I was reading a column in the Atlantic (no, not Sullivan) a bit ago and a question arose in it that made me think about something I’d never considered regarding racism. Specifically, whereas I had always associated racism (roughly) as having the kinds of attitude that seeks to block upward advancement for minorities (or explain away apparent counterexamples by upwardly mobile individuals as instances of affirmative action or something similar), another way to see racism would be to see it as the refusal to allow minority individuals to be completely mediocre, or to be screw-ups. Much as I’ve seen a lot of racism in my life, this wasn’t something I’d considered explicitly.

Just to give these things tags, I’ll call the first phenomenon “white rights” and the second “white privilege”. Under the theory of white rights, it’s really only whites that deserve to succeed. In the context of politics, all of those ignorant people out there who refuse to vote for Obama because he’s black are operating under the theory of white rights (I’m not trying to make a political point here, just a racial one — polls show there are still too many people out there in this camp). This is the way of understanding racism I’ve always been most familiar with. Civil rights battles basically fight for each individual’s right to succeed, not just individuals of certain races.

It is also, I think, the definition of racism that most people use. When we listen to King or Malcolm X, or the justified complaints of minorities, this is the subject matter. They too wish to have a path to success that is open to them. In fact, when you have conversations with people about racism who think it doesn’t exist, they are most certainly using this definition in their thinking. They point to the fact that it is illegal to engage in such discriminatory practices now, and they will as evidence of the collapse of “white rights” point to Colin Powell, or Tiger Woods, or whatever, as evidence that racism is either gone in America or that it is seriously on the decline because anyone, if they try hard enough, can clearly now succeed.

Arguments for or against those sentiments to the side (I’m sure white “rights” has declined as a force, but it surely has not disappeared, IMO), I’m more interested in another phenomenon — “white privilege” (I am unsure if my use of this maps onto what is used in race studies). This is a different form of racism. According to this, we ignore success and instead suggest that only whites have the privilege to be mediocre.

Think of the average everyday mediocre white person, or even the white person who is less than mediocre — actually a bit of a (or total) screw up. Most of the time, white people pay little attention to such things as instances of a generalized racial “phenomenon”. Sometimes I see people simply accepting that this is normal for some people — being (less than) mediocre is a personal choice by some individuals. Some think it is non-admirable, but they make sure that the casual explanation and judgment (if there is one) applies to an individual (or maybe a family), but not a race. Some, in fact, think being (less than) mediocre is a sign of authenticity. Sometimes it is just a sign of “boys being boys” (so to speak) — it’s just normal behavior and not surprising that lots of people exhibit it. It’s life.

Fair enough. But the descriptions radically alter, I think, when we are looking at blacks (specifically). Now, turning to blacks, (less than) mediocre behavior is seen as evidence of a racial essence. A thug is not “a thug” but a “black thug”. It is seen as an exemplification of black essence or nature. The (less than) mediocre black person is seen as “what happens when you leave black people to their own devices”. Think of welfare: whereas there are a lot of whites on welfare, it’s not a racial thing, it’s an individual thing. But when it’s blacks on welfare, it’s a direct result of their blackness. And it’s no longer “life” or even a sign of possible authenticity — it’s a moral issue. In other words, blacks do not have the privilege to be (less than) mediocre, whereas whites do.

It’s a strange version of racism that I have, of course, encountered, but never thought of as a separate way of exhibiting racist thinking. Essentially, what is being said is “being (less than) mediocre is a sign of your racial nature” when you are black. When you are white, it’s never a racial sign of anything, and might even be a good thing! Whites have the privilege to be screw ups, not blacks.

This realization, for me, serves as an opportunity for a “gut check”. It may well be the case that you are not bothered, say, by the advancement of blacks in society; you think it is fine that anyone “can succeed” in America, follow the American dream, or whatever. But when you see a white person who is (less than) mediocre, do you feel differently about it, or do you categorize it differently, than when you see a (less than) mediocre black person?

By guess is that while there are a lot of people who are very against white “rights”, some persons — perhaps even unintentionally — are still under the sway of the theory of “white privilege”. My guess is that “white privilege” as a way of thinking runs more deeply in the American collective conscience than does white rights (though I could be wrong).

Of course, there are also those for whom both theories have a sick kind of appeal.

Where are you?

6 Responses

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  1. pashley1916 said, on September 21, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Just out of curiosity, since you think whites are all racists, what do you make of the fact that 90% of blacks are voting for Obama? Is that racist? Or, that about 40% of whites are voting for Obama? How does that play into your world? Or, are just white people all racist – and that’s the end of it?

  2. Chris said, on September 21, 2008 at 6:43 am

    Where did I say that all whites are racists? I must have missed that.

    Also, that 40% of whites plan to vote for Obama misses the point of the post, which focuses on white privilege, not white rights. I suggested that some may not hold to the latter, but still the former. Such a person might vote for Obama, so such data misses the point.

  3. Million said, on September 22, 2008 at 1:26 am

    The thing – I think – to consider is this: the group of white Americans who you bring up (those under the sway of “white privilege”) argue that a key racial difference exists. They argue that statistically blacks are more violent, more likely to seal, etc… In this regard the argument seems to reflect racial profiling. I know my conservative family members think this way. They note that skin color is irrelevant but statistically (and possibly also as a consequence of personal experience) a very real reality.

    The problem is, and I’m willing to draw as much flack as deserved here, that most whites don’t or aren’t very aware of the complexities of issues of race in America. And why would they? They’re WHITE! Necessity is a very effective teacher and to many the only one. They see a trend and forget that it looks like another one; what you call the insistence on “white rights.”

    The reality is that the African American community has had about 40 years of *real* time to transcend it’s past. Unless people are willing to recognize the full complexity of what is going on they are likely to forget that all sorts of behavior can be tied to racism. Whether they are fully “racist” or not.

    The term “cultural sensitivity” comes to mind. The trick is how do you do that while recognizing that victimization is just as unacceptable as being a bigot?

  4. Chris said, on September 22, 2008 at 5:09 am


    I agree with some of your later points about cultural sensitivity and the need for complexity in understand racial contexts. Many people don’t like complexity, though; black and white is simpler, and for such persons the nuance of certain notions or explanations will be lost.

    On your family: I’m not sure I’d call this white privilege. It seems a bit different. I can easily envision a person who believes in all the statistical regularities, profiles in various ways, but still doesn’t think that blacks “are” X, Y and Z. As a result, I can see such a person seeing a less than mediocre black person and thinking that this was an individual who made such choices, not a black person succumbing to the inevitability of their racial/genetic essence.

    Still, it is likely that the profiling/privilege crowds are, even if not identical, overlapping in a large way I’m sure.

  5. Beau said, on November 5, 2008 at 4:01 am

    Interesting. I think you make a fair point. I tend to look at it in a different light. I grew up in a family of twelve (8 boys, 4 girls) and have a brother that is less than mediocre. We were given every chance in life to succeed. I get very angry when I think of all that my parents had to give up in their lives for us and what he has accomplished with his. I think this same way with anyone in general. I am gererally more impressed with a black man that has gone and achieved success than I would be with a white man that has done the same. Not because he is black, but because in general, black people are not always afforded the same opportunities. I think I have less tolerance for mediocrity in whites. Now as far as other predjudices are concerned I am not sure what is the right answer. I was raised in a small town with about a 1/1 black to white ratio, yet over 85% of the welfare recipients are black. That is fairly unimpressive for the general black population. Alot of people would say that their lack of success is due to racism and a lack of opportunity. Maybe. But most of the families, reguarless of thier race, were very poor. Also, based on the population of blacks, there was a higher percentage attending universities in the late 70’s than there are today, despite increased support and opportunity. I believe that the welfare system is as much to blame as the lack of opportunity given to blacks. It has created an atmosphere where there is little incintive to succeed. You will just have to forgive me for my predjudices. Would the human race have even evolved without them? I know that not all wasps sting, not all snakes are poisonous, and not all mushrooms will kill me if I eat them. So should I go around eating and picking at them? I am sure that not all black men drinking beer at the corner store at seven in the morning are unemployed. I am sure that not all black men walking the streets at midnight are brandashing a weapon or are looking for dope. However our past experiences and common sense would tell us that the majority is in fact doing so. Does thinking this way make me a bad person? No. I will in fact do more to help a black person trying to help him or herself than I would a white person. What do you call that?

  6. Chris said, on November 6, 2008 at 8:41 am


    Thanks for your reply. There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to get out on this:

    1. Poor whites do not, in my opinion and speaking on the whole, compare to poor blacks. It’s not just poverty that makes the difference here. An analogy: say I have two dogs, and I spend a lot of my time kicking and abusing one and not the other. Then, one day, I stop kicking the one dog. It would be odd if, at that point, I said “you know, I don’t kick that dog anymore, but it still doesn’t seem to go out and hunt like the other one does. Instead, it just lays in the garage all day. I guess the other dog is just a better hunter.”

    Similarly, even if racism “ended” (which it has not), the effects of racism far outstrip the presence of racist behaviors. I think “getting past racism” requires that we be a bit more understanding of what race relations involve.

    2. I don’t entirely disagree that welfare systems can create disincentives and turn out, at some point, to be corrosive (this coming from a person who lived in a family who existed for many years on welfare). At the same time, I don’t think that removing them and just increasing opportunity — which is of course needed — means that minorities have “no more excuses” (see other post on my blog).

    3. On generalizations: I think the idea is this: although it may be expected and understandable that people generalize their experiences (thinking that all wasps sting), and this gets built into our general dispositions and emotions when we interact with things in the world — we also have the capacity to use our brains via reason to override it because we realize that experience generalizations don’t track individuals accurately. So for any particular person with these feelings, the question is the same — does the person use reason to override it in specific circumstances? Or does the person simply say “well, it’s understandable that I feel that way” and do nothing?

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