Saturday, January 23, 2016

On the History of our Nation and White Privilege

So, I've been thinking a bit about white privilege recently. This has mainly stemmed from my conversations with white friends over the years, some of whom do not believe that white privilege exists, which I understand, but not really.

Others still seem confused as to why it would matter, or I would be bringing it up. I'd like to discuss both of those issues now, and would be happy for any thoughts or feedback.

In the US, I am often surprised by our inability as white people (I'm speaking of white people in general here, and from my experience) to understand the degree to which our country is built on the notion that whites are better and more deserving than blacks, and the extent to which that affects us today.

I don't understand why this is so hard to grasp. It's a huge component of our history.

"White privilege" is not a new term. It was discussed in the 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack," where it refers to "unearned skin privilege." In more recent years, the term has surfaced primarily with reference to how the police will respond to a white suspect versus a black one who has committed the same offense. In the news and social media, we have seen example after real-life example of how those responses will vary.

But white privilege doesn't just have to do with how the police treat us. It's about how everyone treats us, and how we treat it other. It's the basis on which our society was constructed. Our entire society is built upon black people having nothing and white people having everything; at least in the years that slavery was in effect, which was from 1619 - 1865, and for the years of segregation, from 1881 to 1964.

That's a span of 345 years. As stated on the PBS website Slavery and the Making of America,"America and slavery developed side by side."

And that time period ended just 52 years ago.

As a refresher, here are the dates.

Slavery was established in 1619, when 20 captive Africans were sold into slavery in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1641, Massachusetts becomes the first state to legalize slavery.

It was 1865 when the Civil war ended and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but many states and communities remained in upheaval. That same year, Mississippi and other states passed laws dramatically limiting the rights and liberties of blacks. In 1866, the Ku Klux Klan was founded.

In 1881 Tennessee became the first state to legalize segregation, and other states followed. Black men who had gained the right to vote during Reconstruction were now stripped of this right (for a better description of all these facts, see here).

By 1892, the lynching of blacks was a common practice as a tool to instill fear in black communities.

That was just 124 years ago.

In 1896, the Supreme Court passed "separate by equal" doctrine, allowing the spread of segregation in the North and across the country.

That was just 120 years ago.

In 1954, segregation in public schools was declared illegal.

That was just 62 years ago.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, making segregation illegal in all states. Blacks were given the right to vote.

That was just 52 years ago.

To re-iterate, segregation, which demanded that black people had to sit at the back of the bus, use different doors and water fountains, different bathrooms, different everything, because they were considered to be not as good as white people or somehow "dirty," ended just 52 years ago.

Yet we think that today, because segregation is over and we have a black president, that as white people we do not benefit from our whiteness? Do we not consider that from 350 years of racism and segregation, that our societies might still be set up to favor the white person? That our worth is not still socially and systemically attached to that time?

Consider that black people in America are disproportionally poorer. By 2013, 38% of black children were living in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. For white children, that number is 11%, and in fact, the number of black children in poverty in 2013 eclipsed the number of white children in poverty for the first time ever (4.2 million vs. 4.1), even though there are three times more white children than black in our country.

The distribution of land in America is also built on inequality. The ownership of land is critical to the establishment of wealth and stable families and communities, yet during slavery the vast majority of blacks were not permitted to own land or buy goods, and had little if anything to pass down to their ancestors. Whites, by comparison, were free to accumulate wealth and pass it to the next generation.

In the years following slavery, blacks still faced discrimination when it came to land ownership. In the 1900s, communities used discriminatory real estate practices and ordinances to excluded African-Americans, and financial institutions created rules that favored white neighborhoods. As recently as 1991, a US Government Survey found that African Americans were 60% more likely to be denied bank mortgages as compared to a white applicant with an application that was essentially the same.

The wealth of our communities today is directly tied to the unfair laws that were practiced for close to 350 years, yet we wonder if white privilege exists?

That's my case for the existence of white privilege. It blows my mind that I would even need to craft such an argument, but there it is. As for why it matters, it matters because it's unfair, blatantly unfair. It's unjust. We have minorities living in communities and conditions that they do not deserve due to our unequal society, and we need to make changes. And we need to start by recognizing that the system is unjust and always has been. That's why it matters.

Black lives matter in this country. They matter to me. Yes I care about other lives, but it's not the other lives I see getting the short end of the stick, not on a daily basis, not by all of us and by society in general. We need to stick up for each other and say something when we feel like society is unjust or unfair, and I see that with the members of our black community.

That's why it's important to talk about.


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  2. Tiffany, Very good article. I recently had the realization that 50 years ago, the children of those who were so entrenched in segregation, are now the people leading our country in business and politics. To think they were not deeply affected by that pervasive attitude is naive, at the least.

    1. Hi Jean, thanks for the comment! I honestly had not even considered it this way myself for a long time - I knew slavery existed, but hadn't considered the extent to which it shaped everything we are today. I'm glad we are talking about white privilege more in the news and media today, but it is definitely interesting to see how different people respond to and/or acknowledge it.