Living in a country as diverse as the United States, there is no doubt that all of us will at one point encounter another individual who holds views different from our own. In the past, mutual respect for another’s views was considered a fundamental pillar in our democracy; today, however, an increasingly polarized political landscape not only discourages us from respecting the views of others, but it actually encourages us to deride those who are different from us. This is true for progressive as it is for the conservatives, and one area where this dynamic is particularly acute is in race relations.
Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, there is a better chance than not that you’ve seen videos or other forms of content claiming to “disprove” that white privilege, the belief that Caucasians are given an implicit advantage over their colored counterparts, exists. However, most of the content purporting to “disprove” white privilege largely miss or distort what exactly white privilege is. So, in order to have this discussion, it will be important get a few things settled:
First off, it is important to know the difference between explicit and implicit racism.
When one thinks of what racism is, explicit racism is generally what comes to mind. Refusal of service due to one’s skin, name-calling, paying lower wages to somebody because of their race, and things of those nature are examples of explicit racism. The decline of explicit racism in society is often pointed to as proof that no such privilege exists, but this is simply untrue.
The reason this is untrue is because white privilege stems not from explicit racism, but from implicit racism, which can be thought of as the unspoken, and often time unnoticed biases of both institutions and individuals. For the purposes of this article, the biases of historic institutions, schools especially, are worth keeping in mind.
In order to illustrate this point, I will use my family’s white, Western European story and compare it to the average black experience during this time. In the end, you yourself will be the best judge as to whether or not white privilege exists. It is important to note that while I am using the plight of the black community to illustrate my point, many of the same difficulties have existed for various ethnic groups in the USA, especially those of Hispanic heritage.
I am not entirely sure when my ancestors moved here from Greece, but I do know that it was my grandfather’s grandfather who made the move, and he did so sometime around the beginning of the 20th century (1900). Coming from Greece, my great great grandfather had the opportunity to pick when, where, and how he moved to the United States. Upon settling in a large Greek community in South Florida, he was then free to pursue whichever career opportunity he so chose. Additionally, he was able to enroll his son, my great-grandfather, in any school of his choice, be it public or private, so long that he could afford it. As my great-grandfather came of age, he was able to leverage relationships and partnerships that my great great grandfather had already built during his time in South Florida. As such, he was able to achieve more financial success than his father had before the Great Depression swiped a great deal of it away.
As the nation recovered from the Great Depression this dynamic of a continually increasing quality of life remained for my grandfather, who became the first individual on my father’s side to graduate from college, doing so during a time when the University of Florida did not even accept black applicants. After a few years of military service, my grandfather began a long and fruitful architecture career in Miami, where he eventually created his own firm in the 1950s. Once again, my grandfather had benefitted from the longstanding family ties that were forged in generations prior. Eventually, my own father was able to land his first job working under my grandfather before taking that experience and parlaying it into his own development company.
Take a second and think about this: How many black men were running their own company in the 1950s? As it relates to my grandfather, it takes a college degree and numerous certifications to be an architect. Unfortunately for African Americans, they were not even allowed to gain access to colleges at this time. If that is not white privilege, then I do not know what is.
All these years later, I sit at my laptop, writing this article as White Privilege: Exhibit A. This does not mean my family didn’t struggle, and this does not mean my family didn’t have to work hard, but it does mean that my family’s like mine had significant advantages over a minority family. To see why, let’s compare.
Take any black man born in the USA in the year 1900; there is a 99.9% chance that he was the direct descendant of a freed slave. As such, his parents (if he were lucky enough to have both of them) were most likely illiterate and forbidden from competing in the labor market for anything more than the lowest paying of jobs, and this is assuming they could get hired at all. In fact, (50%) African Americans adults were relegated to sharecropping, which often times required them to keep their children from attending school because of the intense labor demands.
However, let’s assume that this particular black man was able to go to school once he came of age. Instead of being able to enroll in any school like my great-grandfather, he was restricted to getting an education at a school specifically designated for colored people. To this end, I don’t have to remind anybody reading this how grossly underfunded and overpopulated all of these schools were. If you were a black man or woman who still lived in the South, the issue was even worse. In fact, in many rural southern areas where there was not enough funding for two schools, only one school for white children was to be built, all but precluding black children from getting any sort of formal education.
School segregation had a significant impact on the black labor force. Even in 1950, 80% of black workers were still considered “low-skilled” because the only employment opportunity they were ever given was sharecropping on another man’s farm. 1950 wasn’t too long ago, was it? In fact, it was not until 1954 that schools were racially integrated, and it was not until 1965 that black men and women could vote!
Earlier in this article, when I briefly discussed my families journey, I noted how my not so distant ancestors (grandparents) were given special privileges simply for being white. Had my grandfather been black, he would not have become an architect, and there is a significantly higher chance that my own father would not have had the resources to start his own business with nothing more than a 2-year college degree. So think about it like this: Did a black man who wanted to be an architect in the 1950s have the same opportunities that my grandfather did?
Absolutely, categorically not.
This is not opinion, this is historical fact, one that nobody can dispute. To illustrate, let’s look at some important dates in black educational history:
1950: The Supreme Court rules in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that black students admitted to the previously all-white graduate institution must not be segregated within the institution and must receive equal treatment in all aspects of the education process.
1950: The U.S. Court of Appeals requires the University of Virginia School of Law to admit Gregory Swanson, a practicing lawyer. Swanson, the first black admitted to UVA, did not complete his studies due to the inhospitable treatment he received.
1954: The University of Florida is ordered to admit black students by the Supreme Court.
1960: Charles Edward Anderson becomes the first black to earn a doctorate in meteorology. He earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
These dates are significant because they show how short of a time African Americans have been afforded the same educational rights or civil rights in general, that whites have enjoyed for as long as their families have lived in the United States. So, while African Americans are now legally afforded the same rights as everybody else, that does not just erase the systematic oppression they endured until the 1960s and beyond, and I’m not even addressing the vestiges of implicit racism that endure in many people today.
In the end, the reason I chose to write this article is because I feel that it is important to first acknowledge the past before trying to right its wrongs. It is my opinion that the reason many deny the fact that white privilege exists is because they feel that it detracts from the accomplishments of themselves and their ancestors. While there may be some truth in this, it is important to remember that, in reality, none of us are at fault for our nation’s past. I must admit, that writing this article put me pretty far outside of my comfort zone. Who am I to write about the plight of minorities? However, as uncomfortable as I was writing this article, I realized that sometimes society’s past is in it of itself an uncomfortable thing to ponder. This article is not meant to shame people for their privilege, its only intention is to convince people that such privilege exists. Again, while society no longer grants Caucasians with explicit privilege due to skin color, the cumulative effect of such practices are impossible to ignore. How can we expect our nation’s black community to be as prosperous as our white community when they’ve only been legally equal for 50 years? If anything, the immense amount of progress they, and all other minorities, have made in such a short period of time should be something we are proud of as a nation.
What do you think?