The End of White Privilege

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia) has called for an end to end to affirmative action programs because, he contends, white privilege is a “myth.”

Here’s what Sen. Webb said in a recent (7/22/10) Wall Street Journal piece:

In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white.

Webb is right to note that white Americans are not a monolith and that there are poor whites among the racial category “white.”   However, just because Webb has discovered poor white ethnics does not mean that white privilege is a myth.    There are so many examples of white privilege that it barely merits listing them all again, but just in case you’ve never read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” review it now.
One of the key points that Webb misses (and there are many) is that even in a system in which all poor people are oppressed, some poor people who happen to have black or brown skin are even more oppressed.   As Matt Yglesias points out:

Someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina is nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty than someone accused of killing a black person, according to a study released Thursday by two researchers who looked at death sentences over a 28-year period.

People are generally aware of the fact that the criminal justice system sanctions African-American suspects and perpetrators disproportionately harshly. Less noted, but in some ways even more pernicious, is the way it affords lesser protection to African-American victims and potential victims. Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime, and the Law explicates this neglected issue in an excellent way.

So, while I will be the first to applaud the end of white privilege, we’re not there yet, Sen. Webb – not by a long shot.