WASHINGTON, July 24, 2015 – “White privilege” is a term that has emerged as an energized and very youthful, civil rights movement has sought to focus attention upon what it perceives as widespread racism in American society.
There is a very aggressive policing of language now under way. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was interrupted by protestors when the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate said “all lives matter” at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in mid-July. Several dozen demonstrators interrupted O’Malley’s talk big shouting “Black Lives Matter,” which has become a rallying cry in the wake of recent shootings of black men by police officers. He later apologized. “That was a mistake on my part, and I meant no disrespect,” he said on “This Week In Blackness,” a digital show.
At the Phoenix meeting, O’Malley responded, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” This was unacceptable to the protesters, who also shouted down Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of O’Malley’s Democratic rivals. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” Sanders declared. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
A great deal of attention is being paid to the new book, “Between The World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic. The 176-page book is addressed to his 14-year-old son, and the subject is what it is like to be black in America today. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.”
Costes said that if he were king, he would let criminals out of prison. “And, by the way, I include violent criminals in that.” He writes in his book that he watched the smoldering towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 with a cold heart. He felt that the police and firefighters who died “were menaces of nature, they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification —shatter my body.”
Racism is a blemish on our society. Older black observers, who lived through the years of segregation, recognize how far we have come.
Ellis Close wrote a book, “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” in 1993, in which he argued that many successful black Americans “were seething about what they saw as the nation’s broken promise of equal opportunity.” More recently, Close wrote in Newsweek: “Now, Barack Obama sits in the highest office in the land and a series of high-powered African-Americans have soared to the uppermost realms of their professions. The idea of a glass ceiling is almost laughable. Serious thinkers are searching for a new vocabulary to explain an America where skin color is an unreliable marker of status…”
The history of the world, sadly, shows us people at war with one another over questions of race, religion and ethnicity. Today, radical Islamists are killing people because they are of another religion, or another sect of the same religion. In Israel there are efforts to define the state as legally “Jewish,” thereby making its 20 per cent non-Jewish population less than full citizens. Russia has invaded and absorbed Ukraine to absorb its ethnic Russian population. When Britain left India, millions of Muslims were forced to leave Hindu-majority India to form Pakistan, at the cost of an untold number of lives. We have seen Armenians slaughtered by Turks and have witnessed genocide in Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Burundi.
Those who glibly call America a “racist” society are not comparing it to any place in the real world, either historically or at the present time. They are comparing it to perfection and here, of course, we fail, as would any collection of human beings. But our collection of human beings includes men and women of every race and nation. And the notion of “white privilege” seems not to understand the reality of the immigrant experience.
Most of today’s “white” Americans are descendants of those immigrants, who often suffered great prejudice and many indignities which they overcame through perseverance and hard work. They hardly considered themselves beneficiaries of “white privilege.”
Consider the experience of Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Between 1840 and 1924, 35 million immigrants arrived, many of them illiterate and most unable to speak English. People who are now described as “white Europeans” were viewed quite differently in the past. A century ago, the Irish were considered by many to be a separate and inferior race. As Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows write, “Just as the English had long characterized their neighboring islanders more harshly than they had Africans, plenty of Anglo New Yorkers routinely used adjectives like ‘low-browed,’ ‘savage,’ ‘bestial,’ ‘wild’ and ‘simian’ to describe the Irish Catholic ‘race.'”
Thomas Nast, the leading political cartoonist from the 1870s to the 1890s portrayed Irishmen almost as monkeys and drew Catholic bishops’ hats as sharks’ jaws. Andrew Greeley described the Irishman in American cartoons: “By the mid-19th century, he was a gorilla, stovepipe hat on his head, a shamrock in his lapel, a vast jug of liquor in one hand and a large club in the other. His face was a mask of simian brutality and stupidity.”
Italian immigrants, largely illiterate peasants from southern Italy and Sicily who had no experience of urban life, were a visually distinctive group, viewed by many as belonging to another race. “Swarthy” was a term often used to describe them and, as Richard Alba notes, “To the eyes of Americans they bore other physical signs of degradation such as low foreheads.” Dinnerstein and Reimers write that in addition to using epithets such as “wop,” “dago,” and “guinea,” Americans referred to Italians as “the Chinese of Europe.” Many Americans doubted that Italians were “white.” In the American South, Italians were often segregated like blacks and were classified as yet another race—“between.” Eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans in 1891 and five Italians were lynched in Tallulah, La., in 1899.
The notion that all immigrants from Europe were regarded as “white Europeans” and accepted without prejudice—upon which notions of “white privilege” are based—-is an artifact of 1990s “multiculturalism” with no historical basis. Life was difficult and challenging. By 1910, there were 540,000 Eastern European Jews living in 1.5 square miles on the lower East Side of Manhattan. There were 730 people per acre, possibly the highest density on earth. They lived in five- or six-story tenement houses, sleeping three or more to a room with most rooms opening only to narrow air shafts. These grim conditions were highlighted in Jacob Riis’s book, “How The Other Half Lives.”
Despite all of this, America was different and unique, a society in which, no matter your origin, you could go as far as your ability would take you. As a young man growing up in Manhattan, author Mario Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up.
When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, “For a thousand years in Italy, no one in our family was even able to read.” But in America, everything was possible—in a single generation.
Puzo writes, “It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her own dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself, and looking back she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her…What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries…whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.”
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany, Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. America has been beloved not only by native Americans but by men and women of every race and nation who have yearned for freedom. For all its failings, America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in history. Those who think “white privilege” explains reality know little of America and the world.
America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his “Letters From An American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
Looking at our complex history and recognizing only its shortcomings—and comparing America only to perfection, not to other real places in the world, may lead Ta-Nehisi Coates and other young people in the “Black Lives Matter” movement to believe that “white privilege” is, somehow, an explanation for a reality that is multi-faceted.
The millions of immigrants who suffered the travails of displacement and discrimination would not recognize the term as representing the experience they and their descendants have had. America is something new in the world and despite its failure to be perfect, it deserves a more serious and thoughtful assessment than its increasingly harsh and shrill critics now seem prepared to provide.