Wednesday, May 25, 2011

White Privilege

For quite a while there has been a large debate on the issue of affirmative action being given to minorities (though the debate usually focuses on African Americans). Many argue against affirmative action, saying that minorities bear personal responsibility for where they currently find themselves in life and that no one should be given any type of special treatment whatsoever. However, not only does this argument ignore history and its negative social and economic effects on minorities, it also ignores the fact of white privilege.

White privilege is something that most people would rather not discuss. It seems that from politicians to school teachers, most white Americans would not like to discuss the years of white privilege that has been ingrained in American society. To begin this discussion, we must first start off with the beginnings of America and the origins of race in America.

When the British first arrived on the shores of America, "they brought with them both cultural views of race and the expectation of their own position of dominance as a structural feature of any society they might establish." [1] However, this dominance would not come easy, as to be dominant, one must first find someone to make inferior. White servants wouldn't do as they would easily become free within a few years and Native Americans knew the land to such a degree that they could not be enslaved, thus black Africans would be the victim, the people that allowed for race to be created in America.

Their helplessness made enslavement easier. The Indians were on their own land. The whites were in their own European culture. The blacks had been torn from their land and culture, forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family relations, was bit by bit obliterated except for remnants that blacks could hold on to by sheer, extraordinary persistence. [2]

When blacks first arrived to America, they had much in common with white indentured servants and often fraternized with them, many times to the point of marriage. There is much evidence that "where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals." [3] That "common enemy" was not only their master, but also, in a more general sense, the economic elite that exploited their labor. Seeing this, there were laws passed that attempted to end this. "In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that 'in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes' he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro." [4] However, there was a massive shift in the case of John Punch. To quote Howard Zinn's  A People's History of the United States:

When in 1640 three servants tried to run away, the two whites were punished with a lengthening of their service. But, as the court put it, "the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his master or his assigns for the time of his natural life." [5]

By having John Punch be enslaved for the rest of his life, a precedent had been created. It fully showed that (in addition to other laws that had been passed) there was a major difference between whites and blacks in America. It showed that race, rather than class, was now important in the society.

The economic elite had to find a way to make sure that they kept their power. When slavery was fully implemented on a large scale basis, replacing white indentured servants, poor whites would get rewards for aiding in keeping the status quo. "In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from the planter elite." [6] By doing this, the economic elite placated the lower class and made sure that they would not rebel against the status quo, thus allowing them to focus on creating more wealth for themselves as well as not having to worry about any slave revolts.

In the late 1700s white privilege grew even more with the 1790 Naturalization Act.

[It] permitted only "free white persons" to become naturalized citizens, thus opening the doors to European immigrants but not others. Only citizens could vote, serve on juries, hold office, and in some cases, even hold property. In this century, Alien Land Laws passed in California and other states, reserved farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups. [7]

The 1790 Naturalization Act allowed for America to become even whiter and thus make sure that the status quo of white dominance was assured. Overall, what white privilege did was aid in distracting "white workers from the realities of capitalism by encouraging them to focus on race instead of social class." [8]

This idea of focusing on race rather than class persisted in the 20th century during the labor movement. Unions would discriminate against minorities and when they did protest, "employers often brought in people of color as strikebreakers, hoping white workers would channel their energy and anger into issues of race and away from the reasons that caused them to go on strike in the first place." [9] By constantly turning class issues into race issues, the economic elite were able to keep a status quo that had them as the main beneficiaries as well as weakened the overall labor movement because if workers had focused solely on class instead of race, not only would tactics like the one mentioned above have failed, workers may have very well been able to get better benefits.

During the Great Depression and WW2, white privilege once again came back in the form of legislation. "During Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others." [10] In between the years of 1945 and 1955, the federal government gave more than $100 billion in support of retirement programs and fashion opportunities for job skills, education, homeownership and small-business formation. This money helped to "dramatically [reshape] the country's social structure by creating a modern, well-schooled, homeowning middle class." [11] Yet none of this aid went to minorities, as "Southern members of Congress used occupational exclusions and took advantage of American federalism to ensure that national policies would not disturb their region's racial order." [12] By excluding minorities, the US government ensured that minorities would consistently be economically behind whites for decades.

The GI Bill that was passed after WW2 also adversely affected African Americans. Columbian political science professor Ira Katznelson states in his book When Affirmative Action Was White of the GI Bill's effect on African Americans:

Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past practices. As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South -- and the North as well -- were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities. They were also excluded from job-training programs for careers in promising new fields like radio and electrical work, commercial photography and mechanics. Instead, most African-Americans were channeled toward traditional, low-paying ''black jobs'' and small black colleges, which were pitifully underfinanced and ill equipped to meet the needs of a surging enrollment of returning soldiers. [13]

Due to being excluded from the benefits of the GI Bill, a situation was created where the African-American community would have to play even more economic catch-up to get to the same position as whites. This, in addition with the massive negative economic effects that slavery had on the black community, almost ensured that blacks would almost never be on the same socio-economic ladder as their white counterparts.

White privilege still exists today as it "is a process that passes acquired goods and benefits over generations." [14] These "goods and benefits" are socio-economic in nature, such as having more access to money, living in a better neighborhood, and being more likely to attain a higher level of education. The final example can be shown by the fact that "According to 2006 Census Bureau figures, whites of Scots-Irish descent over the age of 25 are more than twice as likely as comparable blacks to have at least a Bachelor's Degree, and nearly five times as likely as comparable Mexican-Americans to have finished college." [15] Whites who insist that white privilege does not exist "are unaware of it because of the way in which whiteness operates. Whites find themselves reaping the fruit of trees that they never planted, but that were there as long as they can recall -- always just there and to which they have always been entitled." [16]

Making a more equitable and just society for all, as well as ending the economic elite's manipulation of race and class, will take a lot of time and effort, but a first step we can take is acknowledging that white privilege does in fact exist.

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3: Ibid

4: Ibid

5: Ibid

7:  Ibid

9: Ibid

11: Ibid

12: Ibid

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