White Privilege is an issue; Poverty and Stratification is the Problem
Note: I address Blacks and Latinos because they are the largest minority groups in the United States and the preponderance of research in books and on the Internet involves Blacks, Latinos and Whites. We must also include our Native, Asian and other brothers and sisters in the struggle for economic equality. Moreover, I talk about the disadvantages of being poor or lower class in our society. This does not discount the everyday racism and mistreatment of minorities as a regular part of life in many communities.
Over the years, people from the environmental, free speech, the Occupy and other social movements have been accused of “White privilege.” Labeling someone “privileged” because they are White, and using the phrase “White privilege” to question someone’s motives solely based on their race, is just another stereotype. The label also assumes that White people within social movements are somehow ignorant of their place in society and infers that somehow being White makes you unable to care about people of all races. That is clearly false and divisive.
The concept of “White privilege” also ignores the millions of underprivileged poor Whites in our society. How privileged are people living below the poverty level? Certainly, there are racial and gender discrepancies in pay and job opportunities. Certainly, incarceration rates in our society are much higher for Blacks and Latinos than for Whites who commit similar crimes. And yes, there are other areas of institutionalized racism in the U.S.
If there wasn’t racial inequality in wealth, why is it that 22 percent of American children live in poverty, but 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty? This discrepancy in poverty rates is notable. Nevertheless, much of the inequality in our society is based on class.
A higher percentage of Blacks and Latinos live below the poverty rate than Whites, and that accounts for the difference in incarceration rates between these groups. Those that serve the most time in prison for crime committed are the poor. “White prisoners tend to share one thing with their black and Hispanic compatriots: poverty. Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest…” Unequal justice based on economics “…also explains the absence of rich people, of all races, behind bars.” Remember O.J. Simpson? “This explains why whites are in prisons and the relative absence of wealthy minorities from prisons and jails.”
Poor children go to the most ill-kept and worst supplied schools in America. The best public schools in America are in the wealthiest zip codes and the worst are in the poorest zip codes. One only need read the classic J. Kozol book, Savage Inequalities to learn this in depth. So while there is a racial discrepancy in Black, Latino and White graduation rates, much of this can be attributed to poverty rates. Children from wealthier families, White, Black or Latino, go to better schools and have better outcomes in those schools.
Additionally, poor Americans pay more for food, transportation, housing and health care than more well off Americans. And this is true whether you are poor Black, Latino or White. When you shop for food at the corner grocery store, the only color the clerk (with racist exceptions) cares about is green.
Children from poor families have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to be born underweight which leads to more heath issues. For example, asthma is 40 percent more common in poor children. Moreover, heart disease and diabetes is 50 to 100 percent more common for poor adults. The poor face these economic challenges regardless of race. So why don't people use the phrase, "Privileged rich."
While there are race and gender barriers to job applicants at some jobs and in some industries, despite the laws against this discrimination, many of the barriers to work are economic. Race, gender and class are intertwined. Moreover, minorities and women in the highest economic quintile don’t have the same economic problems as poor people of any race. The institutional race problems of finding work, getting a good education, getting better health outcomes and so forth, are problems faced by all lower class people in the U.S.
Given that society’s economic problems fall predominantly on the lower classes regardless of race, what good is accusing people who have good intentions, people of the same class, of being "privileged" because they are born White. The accusation assumes that all White folks are ignorant, unaware and don't understand the nature of their position in society.
We need to address the issue of increasing stratification in our society instead of projecting our economic problems on poor and middle class Whites or conversely blaming immigrants or minorities for our woes. Doing so only benefits the economic oligarchs that take an ever increasing share or our nation’s wealth.
E.O. Wilson explains the evolving dynamics of in-group bonding:
“All things being equal (fortunately things are seldom equal, not exactly), people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs. An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry.”
But society has evolved so many people can care about those that are outside their “in-group.” This may be due to competitive altruism, celebrities, the wealthy, or others competing over who is the most giving and caring. However, helping thy neighbor can be part of an evolving societal altruism, the knowledge that helping others regardless of gender, race or class helps everyone.
People of different racial groups interact, cooperate and help each other on a regular basis. This intergroup cooperation is part of our evolving social intelligence. Dr. Wilson continues, “…an advantage added by cooperative nest building and hunting, social intelligence grew, along with the centers of memory and reasoning in the prefrontal cortex.”
Moreover, “…The competitor between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.” So, we can continually question and suspect the intent of people from all races and backgrounds, or we can work to create intergroup cooperation to challenge the power of the oligarchs in this nation.
Certainly, the way people are treated, and treat each other, as minorities, women, homosexuals, or “the other” in our society forces people to see themselves predominantly as members of those groups. It is impossible not to identify oneself in terms of race and gender, and it can be empowering to do so.
However, we need to also identify and work together based on our common interests as a class, without denying our uniqueness in any way, in order to challenge the power of the economic oligarchs. Otherwise, we will fail to bring about the economic changes we need to survive as a species.