It's hard to notice your white privilege when you're buried in hereditary poverty, but are you really a racist for asking, "what about me?"
WASHINGTON, July 8, 2016 — Natchitoches, La., was ranked in May as the poorest town in Louisiana, itself one of the poorest states in the Union. According to 24/7 Wall St., the median household income in Natchitoches is $26,848; the poverty rate is 35.1 percent.
Poverty there is in Natchitoches, but the residents would probably be surprised to find that their town is the poorest in Louisiana. The numbers are skewed by the large student population and the above-median-income households just outside the city limits. Housing is relatively inexpensive—you can buy yourself a lovely old plantation home on 20 acres on a lake for less than a studio apartment in D.C.’s Georgetown—and the city feels considerably less poor than do many of the dreary towns scattered across the south and southwest.
But let us take the poverty as a given and consider the question of privilege.
“Privilege” is a term used to describe the unearned benefits that accrue to people by virtue of their race, gender and other accidents of birth. A white man is less likely to be stopped by the police for exceeding the speed limit and less likely to be shot if he has a gun in his car than a black man. A white person walks into a store without thinking about being closely monitored as a potential thief. A man can walk to his car in a shopping mall parking lot with never a thought of his personal security.
The list goes on and on. What I might take for granted—going to a bar, going for a walk, walking into a store with a gun at my hip—might for you be a matter of high anxiety. There will be no catcalls, no unwanted attention, no presumption of guilt for crimes I haven’t considered committing.
Privilege makes life easier and less stressful, and, all else equal, it means the cards are more likely to fall my way.
The concept is related to the anger behind BlackLivesMatter (BLM). The interactions of a white man and the police are presumably less fraught with anxiety shading to fear, less fraught with danger, less likely to end in trouble. White privilege is amplified in our dealings with the police.
Social media and relentless news coverage have exaggerated the actual dangers facing black men; only 40 out of 20 million were shot unarmed by the police last year. That’s 40 too many, though, and the perception of danger induces fear, even when the real threat is exaggerated.
It isn’t the place of a white man to tell a black man that there’s nothing to fear, or a man to tell a woman that she should just get on with her life and not worry about sexual assault (a very realistic fear). That’s especially true when the fear is rooted in reality.
With the shootings in Dallas, a common response is “all lives matter.” Indeed they do, but not all people are equally likely to be victims of violence, either from fellow civilians or from the police. If you’re a young black man in America, your odds of not being a victim of violence aren’t much better than they are in Somalia. You’re entirely justified in your belief that a society that is unconcerned with that doesn’t value your life.
One reason that white Americans ignore the threats to black lives is parochialism. We care more about our family than our neighbors, more about out tribe than the nation, more about us than about them. If they are having problems, then they should be more like us.
This parochialism cuts many ways, and while we recognize some cuts, we ignore others. Conservative whites view issues of law enforcement from the perspective of white privilege; they should just be more like us, obey the police (who we forget are much less high-handed in dealing with rich whites than with poor blacks), and avoid having anything to hide.
Liberals take an oddly privileged approach to economic issues. Raise the minimum wage, they say, and you’ll raise incomes, ignoring that unskilled black kids aren’t as connected, cosseted or well educated as their own. When the inevitable job losses hit, they hit hardest with young black men, whose joblessness is scarcely noticed in techie San Francisco and très progressive Seattle.
If we’re blinded by our privilege, we’re also blinded by our lack of it. The greatest privilege in our economy and political system comes not from race or gender, but from wealth and connections. When you tell many white Americans that “black lives matter” or natter on about “white privilege,” they might look around and ask, “what about me?”
What about them? Whether you’re white or black in Natchitoches, your poverty is likely to be hereditary. You are less likely to move up the socio-economic ladder than kids born in Seattle or Boston, less likely to travel, less likely to get a good education. When you hear that “black lives matter,” you’re likely to add the qualifier “more.” Black lives matter more than yours.
How do you know that? Because politicians pay attention to black lives these days. The press talks about them. University professors are obsessed with them. And when you point out that you aren’t getting much out of your privilege, they slap you down with contempt.
Huge swaths of America are occupied by poor whites, coal miners and blue-collar workers, residents of trailer parks written off as white trash. They are likely to be conservative and Christian, so Democrats don’t care about them, and Republicans have done no more for them than Democrats have done for urban blacks. But at least Democrats talk about their client groups.
It’s hard to see your privilege when you’re barely holding your life together. Your privilege is a mockery when you’re trapped in hereditary poverty. It’s supposed to be understood that “black lives matter, too,” but no one wants to say it. If you assert that your life matters, you’re patronizingly sent off to read an article about the implicit racism of that assertion.
Black lives matter—too. But so do poor people’s lives. So do the lives of people who have no voice in our system, whose voices are systematically ignored.
America has far to go to make good its promise of justice for all to the black community. It has far to go to make the American dream a reality to everyone. But perhaps we should stop dividing the country up by race and take a harder look at class. The problems facing blacks are very different from the problems facing whites, but the problems facing the poor make talk of privilege and lives that matter into a bad joke.
Donald Trump has tapped into the anger and resentment of people who feel left behind by our politics and our economy. Their anger is as reality-based as the fears blacks face when they deal with the police. Dismissing it as a product of demagoguery and social-network exaggeration is as counter-productive as dismissing black fears.
Most of America’s social problems don’t boil down to our “original sin” of slavery and race, as some argue, nor to our misogyny and our homophobia. They boil down to barriers that keep the poor poor, creating pressures that pit black against white rather than letting them focus their attention on Washington and its Wall Street money-men.
The enemy here isn’t white or black. It’s a political culture and system that depend on divisions along every irrelevant, artificial line you can imagine. Your life matters. Don’t be afraid to say so, and don’t be offended when people not like you insist that their lives matter, too, because they do. Once we recognize that, we can turn our attention to the real enemies of prosperity and justice for all.
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