Over the last few days, I’ve had a heated discussion with a pastor friend of mine about ‘white privilege,’ which, if you don’t know, can be defined something like this:
A term for societal privileges that benefit white people in western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.
I personally am very resistant to those pushing this idea (mostly progressives), but not because I don’t think such a thing exists to some extent – rather, I resist it because of the way it is used to accuse modern whites of wrongdoing, and of participating in slavery via this modern advantage, as well as the slavery their ancestors participated in.
Three Levels of Participation in White Privilege (WP)
So here’s the rub. I am fully willing to admit that an unfair social advantage may exist for some minorities, especially blacks. But I am unwilling to join the progressive anti-white crusade based on it. Let me outline what I see as the three main approaches to WP.
1. Whites have an unfair advantage in many social structures in the US
It seems indisputable that blacks, even though they commit more crimes per capita than whites, are also unfairly treated by law enforcement from the get go – they are more likely to be pulled over or searched for little reason, get sidelined into juvenile programs earlier than whites, and may even get harsher sentences for the same crimes.
Of course, the stats behind this are debated because statistics can be so easily manipulated – as Mark Twain wrote:
There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics.
For example, while some statistics seem to indicate that blacks are sentenced more severely for the same crimes, such claims may not take into account the history of the people being tried – if the black person is up for their third, rather than their first offense, it may make sense to give them a more serious penalty. And such deeper analyses are still being done. So don’t believe every stat you see.
At this level, I am willing to acknowledge such disparities exist, and won’t oppose people who think fixing this is a priority. That is, as long as they are content with making it their priority, and don’t try to make it MY top priority.
2. Whites who don’t attack this social injustice are racist
Here’s where the movement loses me. As a white male, if I don’t join the Ferguson protests, or make fixing these social ills my own priority, I am accused of unloving indifference at best, if not racism. Perhaps this is not what progressives intend to communicate, but they either insinuate it or say it outright, or at least their sloppy use of language makes this seem to be their point – and in this way, they lose their intended audience.
This approach is wrong on two counts. First, it’s presumptuous of you to think that your priorities should be mine – yes, I see the plight of many blacks, but I also see the plight of the unborn, the unevangelized, those caught in sex trafficking, as well as those under oppressive ideologies like Islam. I care about them. Don’t insinuate that I am a self-serving, uncaring white racist because I don’t support your cause. Guilt manipulation doesn’t work on me anymore because I grew up.
a. Progressive Christians and Big Government
Unfortunately, the main place I get this type of insinuation is from progressive Christians, who in general, emphasize more liberal social causes, sometimes to the fault of being big-government socialists.
Now, as an evangelical centrist, I agree that the church should support justice for the downtrodden and poor. In fact, I think every Christian ought to adopt the 7 priorities put forth by the National Association of Evangelicals in their statement at For the Health of the Nation, which includes priorities from both left and right of the evangelical spectrum, including (notice the arrangement from relatively conservative to liberal):
- Religious Freedom
- Children & Family
- Sanctity of Life
- Poor & Vulnerable
- Human Rights
- Creation Care
My main point, however, is that because those involved in social justice often push for economic justice via taxes and big government programs, they lose a lot of us centrist/conservatives because we disagree with their means to the ends. In fact, this heavy handed governmental approach to solving problems is why many conservatives have not historically participated in environmentalism – not because they don’t care about the environment, but because the leaders of these movement adopted what we consider to be illegitimate and unbalanced means to those ends.
b. Who really cares? Demonizing conservatism
This leads me to a related point – those of us who deny big government solutions are often accused of not caring, and of being racist and wanting to maintain the status quo when we don’t support government programs. Brook’s 2007 book Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why it Matters clearly documented how religious conservatives give more time and money to both religious and secular charities than other groups.
This is important because it shows that conservatives are not heartless when they reject big government solutions, or even when they put some of the onus on the black community itself to right its pathologies – in fact, conservatives give more because they care more – they just emphasize the superior means of individual generosity, not enforced generosity through taxes.
An recent interesting analysis from Jonathan Haidt, a New York University psychologist, discusses the five moral commitments that humans live under, and claims that typically, liberalism only emphasizes the first two (in public policy), while conservatism emphasizes all five, thus leading to different approaches to social issues.1 These include:
- avoidance of harm
This gives perhaps a deeper look into the reason that conservatives don’t agree with progressive approaches to solving social ills.
3. Contemporary whites benefit from, and therefore are participants in, the legacy of slavery.
Echoing the now infamous quote of President Obama, “you didn’t build that”, modern progressives chastise successful whites (but not necessarily successful people of other races, including blacks) of having gained their middle or upper class status on the backs of WP and the work of slaves who “built this nation.”
Never mind that your parents worked and saved to put you through college, or that you worked your way through college and did the work to pass, interviewed for a job, and went to work every day sober. You should give up some of your gains to pay back what you essentially did not earn.
This secondary guilt approach is wrongheaded for a few reasons. First, most of us who are gen-Xers or older, were born after the civil rights movement. We grew up with mixed race friendships, and looked at racism as something in the past. While WP may have given us some advantage, we still had to work against the fear of not having enough. Perhaps not the same as you, but we struggled all the same, and your comparative poo-pooing of our struggle is arrogant and ignorant.
Second, this approach is often heightened to the point where all whites are accused of having had ancestors who owned slaves. Glad to say, that’s not true for most whites, whose parents immigrated after the Civil War.
a. My Story as An Example
My European ancestors came to America around 1900, part of the flood of nearly 1M immigrants that came for the booming industrial job sector.2
However, my grandparents had to Americanize their names to get employment, learn English, lse their languages and cultures over successive generations, and work their way up out of poverty – my grandfather got his first pair of shoes around age 8. He worked two jobs for his entire life to send his kids AND his grand-kids to college (my dad went to prison and never came back, but my grandfather stood in the gap).
For those of us with this kind of ‘white’ history, accusations of tacit participation in slavery, benefiting from WP, and subsequent responsibility for the plight of black Americans can fall of somewhat deaf ears. Additionally, we don’t see blacks making the same level of effort with regard to parenting and hard work (and I am sure some are outside of our view), and the liberal mantra of victimization without any appeal to self-determination makes us turn up our noses at such excuses. We worked hard to overcome, and did not compare our lot to others better or worse off, except to motivate ourselves.
Progressives will never get the buy-in of compassionate conservatives, or anyone else who is thoughtful about this issue, if they continue to demonize those who don’t participate. And even if they don’t intend to demonize those outside of their circles, their uncareful and unclear language around the issues of white culpability are insulting and off-putting to those of us who do care, but may not share their conviction about the means to solving the problems.
As you can see from my story above, there is another component which we must understand and embrace if we want to solve the problem of the impacts of White Privilege – we can’t just talk about victimization of the black community, but responsibility and self-determination.