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.


  1. No1KState

    Tim Wise has written an essay about Webb”s misinformation as well. One point he makes is that whites have been beneficiaries of special government programs to the exclusion of people of color since the independence. He also points out the the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action programs are white women.

    As for me, I think it’s interesting that in arguing that whites aren’t a monolith, he treats different ethnic groups as a monolith, right? I haven’t read the article, but that’s the sense I get. Though, if he doesn’t, plenty of others do. To that, I think we should realize that if to argue against affirmative action, you have to compare all of blacks, for example, to poor and working class whites, there’s obviously a problem.

    Most troubling for me is that he seems to think affirmative action does more that grant opportunity. It seeems to me that white Americans either don’t get that or don’t care. All affirmative action does is make sure people of color get an equal shot. There haven’t been “quotas” in decades if ever.

    Plus, as a classmate once pointed out, even if affirmative action were to get us there, but it doesn’t keep us there.

    So I really do wish white people would quit whining about affirmative action and “reverse racism.” That’s like being. . .well here’s a political cartoon that makes the point perfectly:

  2. Hillbilly

    No1KSTATE, Wise’s piece is a good take on the op-ed Webb wrote, particularly when he writes about the historical and statistical amnesia and denial(readily available statistics, mind you) of white privilege and racial inequality in the US that Webb glosses over.

    A few things trouble me about this whole situation. Am I surprised that another politician said something along the lines of “WASPs are a dying breed in America’s high places”? No…but Webb’s comments are an example of how “liberal” politicians are pandering to white fears of a “hostile takeover” by nonwhites in society, just to get votes. Webb is in a state that is still highly fractured along race and class lines, and it seems to me that this is a definite ploy by him to get more poor whites in Virginia to jump ship from the Republicans and vote Democrat in this year’s elections.

    A second issue is the continuing occurrence of ELECTED politicians the last decade making such comments for the public to hear through a hungry media. We (the people) elected them to privileged positions to espouse their racial/ist beliefs. Moreover, it’s interesting how Virginia’s leaders seem to want to make themselves the poster-children of white racial resentment, privilege, and racism for others to see. When Webb’s comments came out, I was reading (at the suggestion of a post by Jessie) Jane Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism (two thumbs up!). In there, she mentions the comments by Virginia senator George Allen. Then I started to recall current governor Bob McDonnell’s “mistake” of not including slavery with his discussion of the civil war and the creation of Confederate Heritage Month. THEN, you start piling on all of the Tea Party stuff that the current attorney general is doing by spending money on going after Obama and health care reform, changing the state flag to a “less obscene” form, going after Michael Mann for Climategate, and so much more…they’re making the state the cream of the crop for others to follow (insert sarcasm here).

    A third issue is something that has been overlooked, but illustrates the power of Webb’s comments and the belief by whites in what he wrote. The Wall Street Journal piece he wrote was shortened and published in The Roanoke Times, which services a large area of the state. What this says to me is the editors of the RT know that many of the white voters that Webb most likely is talking to do not read the WSJ. So they shorten the piece and put it in a media outlet that services the state and continues to spread the belief in “reverse discrimination/racism” and continue the summer of media hype on race relations in the US.

  3. cordoba blue

    LOL! I just had to comment. I always suspected white Baptists were under-educated. Well, folks, looks like the jury’s in on this one. Nothing wrong with reading the Bible. I happen to like Jesus very much myself. But an American history textbook would be helpful also. Maybe a little political science just for kicks too. All this proves is that white southerners in general are more provincial. Tell me something I don’t know. A quotation from the movie Mississippi Burning,”You ain’t in America now. You in Mississippi.”

  4. No1KState

    Yeah, I have nothing against poor whites (except to point out that they still have it better than a lot of middle-class blacks) and no problem with the idea of some class-based affirmative action. Right? But if we do that, I do think poor blacks should get “double credit.”

    I think, though, that if we’re really going to address the obstacles facing poor white, we have to talk about racism. Much of the problems faced by poor and working class whites would be alleviated if poverty weren’t and labor unions in the South hadn’t been racialized.

    So while I have nothing against poor whites, I’m still uninterested in the(ir) whining about classism. We could do something to address economic inequality if their weren’t so dedicated to maintaining racial inequality.

  5. Will

    The end of White privilege huh?

    Good. Then that means that I can walk into a store without being followed for fear of shoplifting.

    I can walk down the street without striking fear into the hearts of White people also on the street.

    Yea, right.

    The thing most Whites seem to miss, without fail it seems, is that White privilege is not the same as Financial privilege. While there are poor Whites in this society, they STILL possess privileges simply because they are White. In the case of the scenarios I described they are most likely not looked upon with fear by ANYONE. There are many examples that demonstrate that one can be a poor White person and still have privileges other races don’t.

    • No1KState

      1 – You’d think it’d be obvious that white privilege is not the same as financial privilege, seeing as how everybody’s heard of the Clampits. I don’t know who actually thinks there’re no poor white people. The Beverly Hillbillies still comes on, and if you haven’t seen that, surely you’ve seen the show Roseanne. Sometimes, I wonder if the whole argument isn’t started just to obvuscate the real issue: race (and sometimes, class).

      2 – That said, though, due to all those other privileges, namely the ability to inherit and pass down some form of wealth, on average, poor whites due have some financial advantages that even middle class blacks don’t enjoy, like owning their home. In fact, I’m sure I read somewhere that in this whole subprime scandal, poor whites were getting better rates than middle class blacks.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I think there have always been poor whites in the U.S–I don’t know what percentage that would be across time. But there are some privileges even among poor whites and I think the death penalty may be one of the best ways to demonstrate the white privilege across time here in the U.S. Almost all people sentenced to death are first and foremost, poor. Next, most did not complete high school. While people from all different groups commit capital crimes, only less than 5% of all those who do are sentenced to death…then of that it is less than 1% who actually get executed…disproportionately African American males who were convicted during their early adulthood years and have less than a high school education….

    In Texas, I believe up to this very day there has never been a white person executed for killing a black person…I know this is definitely true when the electric chair was in place, though am not entirely sure with the over 455 people who have been killed by lethal injection since 1982…there may be one or two in there (?). But in Texas when they were killing by electrocution, rape constituted a capital crime. They killed over 360 people between the years of 1924-1965 and of those people executed almost 300 were Black. Of those 300, if my memory serves me correctly, approximately 50 of them were executed for both real and alleged rape of a white woman. I think one black man was executed for raping a black woman during that period of time. No white men were executed for raping women of any race. It wasn’t until 1977 with Coker v. Georgia that rape could no longer constitute a capital crime…. James Marquart has written on this–important work.

    So the privilege is there and always has been. My kick ass brother is a class guy so we are each others devil advocates when it comes to talking about various issues. I think we agree on most issues and can see the strengths and weaknesses of own areas. But I think where we both probably have the greatest agreement is when we are discussing social issues that lie below the working class–the lower class and the poor. I think we are both in agreement that capitalism is the culprit for all the isms…. Most generally, I have found outside of those actually living in the lower social classes and in poverty, he is the only educated person in academia that I can have a serious and critical conversation with. For me, the others would be professionals who are outside of academia and work directly with lower SES and the poor. I think the last scholar who hit both race and class at a superior level was W.E.B. DuBois.

    With that, I think where discussions on race and class shut down for me is when they shift from a basic human rights standpoint to a whose more oppressed argument. I think all human beings have the right to at least the very minimum necessities for a healthy and safe life (food, shelter, clothing, etc.)–but this includes the right not to be harassed by the government and being over policed, etc. When discussions on race and class are combined (with the poor and lower SES of focus), like those I’ve seen with gender and race, opposition and polarization is established rather than a common ground along with a qualitative understanding of the differences there may be related to the different groups living in the most oppressed sectors of society.

    And not to leave a long post, but something that I think is not discussed with relation race and class is issues of differential mobility. Just last week we were in an all black area that is over policed by white cops…well to our surprise there were now 2 new black cops hanging out…and one of the people I was with said, “Oh look 2 black cops. Affirmative Blaction at your service”. In a capitalist society, there will always be people oppressed with some rising. It’s a necessary component of this system. Just because a percentage may rise up, that doesn’t mean they are going to be accepted by those who have been trapped at the lowest ranks and have been since their ancestors have been in the U.S. There’s several issues, the black cop who goes into what is hopefully regarded as an honorable profession, etc. The profession itself is inherently racist by way of institutional and systemic racism–if he or she is going to succeed, they have to uphold those structures and assist in reproducing them, or leave–leaving that person a victim of racism either way. If they are not allowed to be officers, then they are also victims of racism. To make this short, upward mobility has its blessings and curses. But if we seriously cared about abolishing racism, we would abolish poverty. If we cared about abolishing poverty, we would abolish racism.

    Lastly, when it comes to people in need–I don’t reduce my thoughts on weighing things such as, oh, well, you’re white and a beneficiary of white privilege therefore you are not deserving of any help or caring or you are black and because you have inherited oppression, I will then help you, etc. Poverty is poverty and it hurts those who are victims of it. Without disclosing the race of these people, below are some examples where help is instinctual over pondering on whose more oppressed, etc.:

    A 12 year old child is playing. The other children are playing and have light clothing on, this child is over dressed and the only one so. He’s horsing around with the other kids and falls, one of the children see his bare feet showing through the bottom of the soles of his shoes.

    A doped out mother needs help with caring for her infant, whose bottle needs methadone for help the baby with withdrawal. She doesn’t leave enough formula or diapers to last a couple of days.

    An older woman has serious health issues that requires monthly medications to keep her alive where the costs surpass both medicaid and medicare coverage.

    A mother is having a birthday party for her child that is turning 1 years old and asks for diapers and baby wipes for birthday presents.

    A younger man develops a skin condition on his hands and feet that becomes so severe he cannot work at his minimum wage job that schedules everybody less than 30 hours per week. His meager earnings are not enough to sufficiently allow him to pay his bills, let alone pay for himself to go to a doctor and purchase the rather expensive medications required to get the condition fixed so he can work.

    Children are being raised by their grandmother to steal the cash money out of purses in the homes of which they go play. When they get caught, they are whipped with iron cords by the grandparent.

    The list could go on and with more extreme examples…but that’s sort of my own 2 cents on the main post and discussions on race and class…closing with if we are further serious, we would be paying out reparations to both Black and American Indian groups….

    • No1KState

      I almost feel like it would be possible to abolish racism and with capitalism still in place, have poverty.

      With that minor caveat, I agree with your post. We can’t choose pick and choose what part of the system to destroy; we have to up-end the entire thing. Sexism, classism, capitalism, racism, etc and so on.

      When it comes reparations – I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again because I like saying it: people die; money gains compound interest. Pay up.

      As for oppression olympics, the truth of the matter is that even poor whites still have financial advantages over middle class blacks due to the accumulation of wealth over time. And white women have it better than black men; they’re the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action. So, one reason the discussion breaks down for me because the numbers explain it all.

      To your point, the other reason it falls apart for me is . . . well. I usually deal with race. Not that other areas aren’t important. Like I said, the entire thing has to be destroyed. It’s just the area that holds the most interest to me. So usually, these comparisons are started by some white person or enabler-of-color who’s trying to downplay the impact of race and regain some moral high ground for whites. The more oppressed a people are, the more compensation (or, reparations) they’re due. So these comparisons have some practical implications. And the reason whites engage these comparisons is so they can regain their superior status and have some reason not to pay people of color what’s due. Enablers do so hoping to get into the club. It’s sad.

  7. ThirtyNine4Ever

    It looks like the Dixiecrats are back? Webb won by less than 10,000 votes in 06, he is trying to cling to his senate seat for 2012. I’m sure he is relived to be able to allow his true self to come out in this political climate.

    • No1KState

      I know, right? I’m glad, though, we get to see it. For a while there, I actually supported the idea of his becoming the vice president. But no more of that.


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