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Against the Phrase, “White Privilege”

Bennett Muraskin
July 23, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

THE TERM “white privilege” should be discarded.

floyd-trailer-parkThis is not to say that African-Americans are not subject to many forms of racial discrimination -- including in the realm of policing and the criminal justice system. Blacks are disadvantaged, historically and still today, in housing, education, employment, healthcare, and more. The "Do Black Lives Matter?" editorial in the Spring edition of Jewish Currents detailed that very effectively. Still, most white people in America are not and do not feel “privileged.” They have been buffeted by stagnating wages, the degradation of work and stable employment, the mortgage crisis, student debt, environmental hazards, etc. African Americans have certainly suffered more — but common ground between black and white working people around a progressive agenda will never be achieved if the latter are deemed “privileged.” The term should be reserved for the power elite.

Black people are entitled to the same rights that white people enjoy as citizens and residents of the U.S. The struggle for racial equality should not be framed in terms of eliminating a privilege that whites possess over blacks, but as a matter of equal treatment.

"White privilege" is too broad a term. It lumps a white Walmart employee with a white Walmart executive. What kind of “privilege” does a struggling white working-class single mom with children possess vis-à-vis the economic and political elites? What "privilege" is she supposed to surrender? Is her status closer to that of her white boss or her black co-workers? The answer is obvious.

The term also limits debate. Telling someone to “check their privilege” can be a means to discredit different opinions merely because people who express them belong to a certain racial category. Ideas should be examined on their own merits.

Furthermore, although racism is a cornerstone of America's history and its violence, America's problems go beyond "white privilege." Eliminate racial bias in the criminal justice system and it will still be gravely flawed. (Some of the worst maximum security prisons in the U.S. have relatively few black inmates.) Eliminating racial bias in hiring will not mitigate the devastating corporate assault on the labor movement. Placing more African-Americans in positions of authority has not changed the authoritarian nature of the workplace. Electing black mayors has not improved the governance of Detroit and other cities. If we want to build a just society, it will be necessary to go beyond formal equality.

Except for the 1 percent, we are all underprivileged and disadvantaged in our capitalist society, to one degree or another. The term "white privilege" may help well-meaning liberals become more conscious of the workings of racism — but it stokes racial resentment when what we need is solidarity in the struggle for racial and social equality.

Bennett Muraskin, our contributing writer, is author of Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, among other books.