White Privilege

Our Unique Racial History


A highly-placed White official I know from a distance is married to a Black woman.  They’re both from the U.K.  From what I can tell over the 15 years I’ve known  about them, they have a successful marriage.  Both my personal experience and my conversations with others who’ve worked with him also tell me—and the others—that he really doesn’t “get” U.S. Black/White racial relations.  When I first noticed this, I wondered, “How can this be?  He’s married to a Black woman!”

U.S. citizens who travel abroad often learn that our country’s racial relations, especially between Whites and Blacks, are very different from what is found in England, Europe, and much of the rest of the world.  Part of the reason for this is that the U.S. has a unique racial history that leaves us with a legacy we see in violent news reports almost every day.  Furgeson, Miami, Milwaukee, Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, and even Dubuque, Iowa are sites of ongoing Black/White racial conflict.

The distinctive way we understand race in the U.S. is rooted in our birth as a nation.  For one thing, the first colonists who asserted property rights here—almost exclusively white males—were displacing native people who had no concept of  “owning” land.  So the fundamental event enacted by these first persons in power was rapacious, and they justified their actions by labeling themselves as “Christians” and the darker-skinned natives “savages,” members of “another race” whose manifest destiny was to be subservient.

  A second important feature of our history is that the earliest U.S. settlers were largely made up of two classes, proprietors and indentured servants.  The latter group consisted of diverse individuals who had agreed to, or more often been forced to accept, a defined number of years of servitude for the promise of eventual freedom.  Indentured servants were the main people who created value in the New World—clearing and cultivating land, building structures and infrastructures, husbanding livestock, and serving families and businesses.

Some indentured servants were Black, and in 1640, a court document recorded an event that was dramatically important in what we now know as the social construction of race in the U.S.

Three indentured servants in the Virginia colony, one Dutch, one Scottish, and one African, were tried and found guilty of the crime of running away from their owner.  All three were sentenced to being whipped, and the two servants of European descent were sentenced to four extra years of servitude.  The African was made a servant for life, and the ruling said, “The third, being a negro [italics added] named John Punch shall serve his said master of his assigns for the time of his natural life.”  Jennifer Harvey notes, “There exist no historical records of a European servant ever receiving such a sentence.

This was the first time, on this landmass, that, as Harvey puts it, “physical difference was invoked specifically and clearly as a means to assign a radically different servitude status to an African person vis-à-vis his European counterparts.” It was also the beginning of what Harvey calls. . .the horrifying and relentless march toward the institutionalization of slavery in what would become the United States—a history too few of us here know well.  It is the history of one of the most comprehensive brutal, inescapable system[s] of enslavement the world has known.  It is the history of one of the most massive and intergenerational transfers of wealth from one group of people—secured through physical dislocation, bodily brutalization, and labor exploitation. . .

This 1640 Virginia court record, along with tens of thousands of pages of local, state, and national laws, court decisions, newspaper stories and editorials, textbooks, novels, plays, poetry, song lyrics, speeches, pseudo-science, film scripts, magazine articles, pamphlets, posters, internet postings, and other artifacts published between 1640 and today have constructed and continue in many venues to define what “White” and “Black” mean in the U.S

Science vs. Social Construction

For more than a decade, there has existed a counter-narrative, a different meaning, anchored in the successful effort to map the entire human genome.  This project demonstrates that, as the National Institutes of Health puts it, “There is only one race—the human race.”

DNA mapping shows that there are more biological differences within groups of people we call “Whites,” “Blacks,” or “Asians” than there are between members of these same groups.  The 3-part PBS documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion” shows that people you’d expect to be genetically the most similar to you—because of their skin color, eye shape, hair texture, etc.—often have DNA that is much more different from yours than people who appear to be members of another race, whose DNA may resemble yours closely. 

So at this point in human evolutionary history, there is no scientific evidence to support dividing people into races.  The differences we use to categorize people into races are both undeniable and scientifically superficial.  There is no biological or genetic evidence that Blacks are more athletic than Whites, Whites are more industrious, or Asians are smarter.  Racial divisions are scientifically invalid.  This is reality, more certain than even the scientific evidence supporting the reality of climate change. 

But the social construction of “race” is more powerful than scientific understanding.  And unfortunately, because of the events that got racial beliefs and racial relationships constructed as they are now constructed in the U.S., we White people have a special, profound moral challenge that we must face.

“Heirs of Oppression”

In the U.S., we Whites have been racialized as White through violence and oppression.  White racial identity itself has been constituted (socially constructed) in ways designed to keep Whites in power and systematically disadvantage Blacks and others. We are what one author calls “heirs of oppression. This is our moral history and it generates our moral challenge.

Every person inhabits and performs a multi-faceted identity made up of at least race, age, class, ability, sexuality, and religion.  Every person’s age, ability, and to a considerable degree our sexuality are anchored in scientifically-objective realities.  Our race, however, is socially constructed.  We clearly differ in skin color, eye shape, and hair texture, but these superficial differences cannot be added up to identify distinctive races.  Obviously, this doesn’t make race any less real.  People are killed, allowed to live, rewarded, forgiven, rejected, accepted, feared, and hated because of their “race.” But since our racial identity is socially constructed, it can be socially analyzed and critiqued.

And the most prominent, most damaging, and most compelling fact about the racial identity of White persons in the U.S. is that this identity is profoundly morally problematic.

So if your grandfather steals a car and then gives it to you, do you own it?  Obviously not.  Are you guilty of theft?  Also obviously not. 

To repeat, none of us is guilty of constructing Whiteness as profoundly immoral. Some Whites living today perpetuate this White identity in their daily informal and formal interactions with Blacks and others.  But the racial identity that marks us was generated over 400 years of U.S. history.

Given these historical realities, we Whites need to strengthen our cultural humility.  I believe this means holding each of your own cultural commitments lightly, rather than with white knuckles. We do not need to give up our cultural commitment to punctuality, for example, or even to heterosexuality if we hold this value.  We just need to understand and live in the realization that our commitments create one possible perspective, one identifiable culture, and there are many coherent alternatives.

Professor and racial equity activist Vivian Chavez explains that cultural humility involves three elements:  (a) Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, (b) Recognizing and mitigating power imbalances, and (c) helping create institutional accountability.  Her 30-minute film provides an excellent overview of this quality.

Does it make sense to you, as it does to me, that Whites should respond appropriately to our morally problematic racial identity? To me, response-ability means the willingness and ability to respond.  Although we did not create the racial situation in which we find ourselves, it is our moral obligation to try to do something about it.  I believe that two responses are necessary for most of us:  The first is to become aware of Whiteness and its effects, and the second is to make significant, material choices based on our learning.

Response #1:  Understand Whiteness

So many of us Whites believe that “We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” and “We are colorblind,” that it’s difficult to see White privilege as it actually exists.   People of all racial identities live with prejudices; they’re part of the psychological makeup of every cultural group.  For example, diversity expert Verna Myers, who is female, feminist, and Black, tells the story of hearing a woman’s voice make the standard announcement from the cockpit at the beginning of a cross-country flight and then, when the plane was lurching through scary turbulence, wishing to God that the pilot was a man. This is prejudice, and we all rely on it to evaluate short people and tall ones; a woman in a miniskirt or a hijab; the skin color and facial features of Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Whites; and, according to a Chevy ad, a guy standing next to a car vs. a truck. 

There’s an important distinction, though, between prejudice and systemic racism.   Black feminist author bell hooks clarifies why systemic racism can only be enforced by those who belong to the group in power.  She asks,

Why is it so difficult for many white folks to understand that racism is oppressive not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks (they could have such feelings and leave us alone) but because it is a system that promotes domination and subjugation?  The prejudicial feelings some blacks may express about whites are in no way linked to a system of domination that affords us any power to coercively control the lives and well-being of white folks.  That needs to be understood

This reality about the power of Whiteness was obviously apparent in 1640 when the entity with the legal power was the one that subjugated Blacks.  And yet this misuse of power has escaped many of us who believe that we “don’t have culture,” and that ”the problem” belongs to those who do—Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Caribbean Americans, etc.  It’s crucial to acknowledge that White is also a cultural color and that in the 21st century U. S., Whiteness is an issue that needs to be treated with cultural humility, which means that it should be problematized, assessed, and put in its place by everyone. 

We need to do this because, currently, the playing fields are anything but level.  The legacy of those original, morally reprehensible actions defining Whiteness is a status quo sharply skewed in the direction of Whites. 

What evidence supports this claim?  Well, we might start with the 2015 “Lynching in America” report from the Equal Justice Initiative that details a version of terrorism in the United States that historically reinforced racial inequality. EJI researchers “documented 3959 lynchings of black people in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. . . .” (p. 5).  “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. . . not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime” (p. 5).  Often, lynchings were treated as community education events, and parents were encouraged to bring their children.  EJI concludes, “Lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes.  Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order” (p. 23). Unfortunately, the report shows, “The narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us” (p. 3). 

I’ve already mentioned federal and state laws and policies that have reinforced this kind of discrimination for centuries.  They’ve had a huge impact on general economic indicators.  U.S. census data report that between 10% and 14% of Whites live in poverty, and the same figures for Blacks are 37% to 55% and 26% to 40% for Latinos.  Five to 6% of Whites are unemployed, about 17% of African Americans, and over 40% of Pacific Islanders.  The median household income of Whites is close to $85,000 a year; Latino families earn about $32,000 a year; and Blacks are the lowest racial group at just over $20,000. Can Whites seriously claim that these differences are due mainly to the fact that most people with skin tone different from ours are lazy, uneducated, or incompetent?

Government policies contributed a great deal more to the unequal distribution of wealth than character flaws.  Some of what today’s Black families are up against began when their grandfathers returned from helping win World War II and tried to take advantage of the G.I. Bill.  While there is nothing discriminatory in the language of the Bill itself, it was applied in racist ways across the country.   For example, by October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86% of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92% of the unskilled ones by blacks.  And this didn’t just happen in the South.  In New York and northern New Jersey, ”fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.”  Parallel problems plagued applications of the educational support provisions of the Bill.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, “the G.I. Bill exacerbated rather than narrowed the economic and educational differences between blacks and whites among men from the South

The racist application of home financing policies continues today.  In 2011, Countrywide Finance was fined $335 million by the Department of Justice for forcing subprime loans on Hispanics and African Americans.  One year later, Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to pay $175 million to resolve allegations it charged African-Americans and Hispanics higher rates and fees on mortgages even when they qualified for better deals. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2014 alone, they filed complaints or entered consent orders with half a dozen banks for charging Black and Hispanic customers higher rates than they charged Whites.

Tim Wise explains that these data are especially significant, because they reveal important reasons for racial disparities not just in income but in wealth.  The most significant part of most U.S. families’ net worth is their home.  It represents the largest investment and, except in deteriorating neighborhoods or recession periods, a well-maintained home’s value increases at least as much as inflation.  Home equity is used to finance college educations and other wealth-building investments.  What happens to a group that is systematically denied the opportunity to invest in prime real estate by redlining and other discriminatory practices and that is offered only subprime loan packages by discriminatory lenders?  These families can’t build the wealth that white folks accumulate by investing in starter-homes in desirable communities and growing their equity gradually.  This is one significant reason why poverty statistics are so racially skewed.

And consider how discrimination in hiring still helps tilt that part of the playing field.  You would think that, if a resume accurately records impressive experiences and qualifications that fit a job description, it ought to be put in the “interview” pile.  But not, apparently, if the name on the resume appears to be Black.  In 2003, a National Bureau of Economic Research team

respond[ed] with fictitious resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. To manipulate perception of race, each resume [was] assigned either a very African American sounding name or a very White sounding name. The results show significant discrimination against African-American names:  White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. We also find that race affects the benefits of a better resume. For White names, a higher quality resume elicits 30 percent more callbacks whereas for African Americans, it elicits a far smaller increase.

Data coming from another direction demonstrate that, “When it comes to illegal drug use,” as The Huffington Post reports, “White America does the crime, Black Americans get the time.”  Nearly 20% of whites have tried cocaine, as compared with 10% of Blacks and Latinos, and higher percentages of Whites have also tried hallucinogens, marijuana, OxyContin, and meth.  But Blacks are arrested for drug possession nearly three times more than Whites. The Department of Justice report on Ferguson is just one recent example of the decades-old trend of local, state, and national law enforcement’s treatment of persons of color. When New York City’s mayor discussed “the talk” that parents of color know is a necessary part of the parenting of every Black, Brown, or mixed-race child (“Whenever you’re confronted by an officer or other white authority, here’s the way you should behave:”), he was castigated by law enforcement officers for simply telling the truth.

More proof exists in the demographics of people in power.  Despite the fact that voters elected an African American President twice, and Oprah is indeed a billionaire, the overwhelming majority of persons in power in the U.S. in 2015 are still white.  Local, state, and national lawmakers; judges; teachers; principals; superintendents; CEOs and CFOs; firefighters; law-enforcement officers; NBA, NFL, and MLB coaches; symphony conductors and most other leaders are not persons of color.

  In short, gay-bashing is still a problem, women still earn less than men in the same job, and people with disabilities still suffer discrimination.  But all the demographic data and the thousands of stories about microaggressions make it clear that, in the U. S., at this time of our history, the biggest reason that the playing field is steeply tilted is White privilege.

Response #2:  Support Repair Efforts

The second way we Whites need to respond to the moral challenge we face is to consider seriously two fundamentally different ways to approach actually doing something about this challenge:  reconciliation and reparation.

In this context, reconciliation basically means working to build collaborative relationships between Blacks and Whites.  Reparation means focusing first on fully understanding and owning our history, apologizing, and working to repair damages Whites have inflicted on Blacks. 

Most 20th and 21st-century diversity and inclusion efforts have focused on reconciliation.  These include programs to promote intercultural competence and intercultural dialogue, for example, by several Civil Rights groups in the 1960s and 1970s, and currently by UNESCO, the Intercultural Development Research Institute, the Courageous Conversations project, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and other Christian groups.

So far, reconciliation-based efforts have done almost nothing to reduce systemic racism.  Sunday at 11 AM is still the most segregated hour in U.S. culture.  Primarily White law enforcement organizations and primarily Black urban neighborhoods in Furgeson, Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, and scores of other U.S. cities are deeply divided and clash violently.  Schools serving mainly Black students are still grievously under-funded; mortgage lending practices are still broadly discriminatory; arrest and incarceration rates are dramatically skewed; racist employment practices persist, and millions of primarily White voters support politicians focused on protecting “us” from “them.”

Reconciliation is still an important ultimate goal, and empowering people to develop genuine relationships with those who are culturally different from them can be fruitful. Local NAACP chapters, for example, have been strengthened by contributions from White allies.  Individual White teachers have helped boost successes in some primarily Black schools, and Black teachers have helped strengthen White schools.  A few intentionally multicultural congregations, service clubs, and equity initiatives have helped members develop strong cross-cultural relationships.  But I have not seen many regional, state, or national diversity or inclusion needles that have been moved much by reconciliation efforts.

AND reparations-based efforts need to be much better understood and more effectively implemented.  First, it’s crucial to understand that reparations do not mean just writing a check.  A widely-quoted definition from Bernice Powell Jackson explains that

Reparations are the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is “ a historical reckoning involving acknowledgment that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice.”

In 2014, The Atlantic published a well-documented essay by Pulitzer prize-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Case for Reparations” in which Coates clarifies that, for him, reparations means “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences. . . .  A national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Yet, at this point in U.S. history, reparation is widely unpopular with Whites.  Harvey notes,

A variety of polling indicates that only 30 percent of whites believe the government should even apologize for slavery, in contrast to 79 percent of Blacks.  Support for reparations among whites is even lower—hovering at around 4 percent, contrasting mightily to the 67 percent of Blacks who say reparations are due. A major reason for this disparity is that both racist and well-meaning Whites wonder why they should apologize and make amends for something they didn’t personally do.  This sounds reasonable, and it doesn’t recognize the moral challenge of just being White.  Although most Whites are obviously not guilty of creating systemic racism, we still need to be response-able.  For example, Georgetown University’s 2016 effort to make amends for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 included a formal apology from its President, who wasn’t even born until 1957.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to support at least talking about reparations?  When well-meaning Whites learn about the immoral ways our racial identity has been socially constructed, don’t human decency and common sense dictate that we at least consider the question, “What can be done to help repair this?”  How can we continue, in such large numbers, to insist that the topic not even be taken seriously?

Coates’ essay demonstrates that reparations have been successful in recent history when it looks closely at one historical example of productive reparations from Germany to Israel and mentions the 1988 U.S. government’s apology and compensation paid to over 100,000 Japanese who had been forced into internment camps during World War II.  So the practice is clearly not unprecedented.

Coates and Harvey both also point out that those who want to do something about the moral failures and injustices of slavery can start by supporting Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr.’s HR40, “The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.”  Conyers first proposed this piece of legislation in 1989 and has resubmitted each of the 27 years since.  It’s not yet been voted out of committee.  The Act does not even propose actual reparations; all it does is establish a way to talk about the topic.  Strong public response could at least begin this conversation.

Georgetown University’s actions and efforts in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches offer more examples of practical ways to approach repair efforts.  

In the conclusion of her 2014 book, Jennifer Harvey writes,

Those of us whose identities have been forged and continue to be shaped by white supremacy in this nation, and who have inherited the heavyweight of ancestral complicity in its legacies, need to repent.  We need to apologize and take responsibility.  And repentance and apology. . . need to be made meaningful with concrete actions and programs for repair.


I’m sorry to be the bearer of uncomfortable news, but for those of us who are White Americans with families who have been in this country more than a few generations, our great-great-great-great. . . grandparents almost certainly did actually “steal the car” of one or more Black families, and, while the car is not in one of our garages, we profit from our White ancestors’ exercises of power every day.

What are we willing to do about this?  As I ‘ve said, you and I are not “guilty” of what our ancestors did.  AND, because of the defining features of the White race that we have been born into, we are automatically in a power relationship to Blacks and others that is often unfair and oppressive. We don’t get stopped for “driving while Black.”  We are eight times less likely to get arrested for marijuana possession (where it is illegal), and, if we’re arrested for a drug violation, we are more likely to get a deferred sentence.  It is easier for us to search for a job.  We are more likely to get the lowest-interest loans.  Our parents are more likely to have an estate to pass along to us when they die.

Are we willing to acknowledge that we are “heirs of oppression?” Are we willing to respond to these material realities by learning more about Whiteness and white privilege and to apply what we learn to our own lives?  Are we willing to study and think about the case for reparations and to support HR40?   Are we willing to grasp opportunities in our own spheres of influence—our family, workplace, friendship and professional networks, church—to discuss, acknowledge, apologize for, and repair the racial climate our ancestors left us?  Are we willing to work toward “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences. . .” and to participate in “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal?”

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