By: Joe Pettit
White privilege, the countless social advantages given to white people simply by virtue of their skin color, is the dominant conceptual theme used by many today to consider racial injustice. This is a mistake for at least three reasons, which I will consider below. However, although I criticize the idea of white privilege, I do not deny its reality. Those who focus on white privilege are motivated by the importance of enabling white people to understand that racial injustice is not simply about overtly racist thinking and action but also about perpetuating social structures and cultural understandings that benefit white people and directly or indirectly harm black and other non-white people. Yet, despite the reality of white privilege and the value of pointing it out, it should not be the primary lens through which we consider racial justice.
- White privilege is a consequence of racial injustice, not its cause
The foundational causes of racial injustice are racial oppression and racial inequality, not white privilege. White people enjoying special benefits simply because they are white is a consequence of a society that oppresses non-white people. Considerations of racial justice should focus on this history of oppression and on its present manifestations.
Entrenched racial inequality creates a vicious cycle of racial stigma – the spoiling of black identities by an assumption of black inferiority as the cause of some or most racial inequality – which in turn eliminates political and social motivation to eliminate racial inequality as well as to actions that increase racial inequality. As racial inequality then becomes further entrenched, the assumption of black inferiority as the ultimate cause of racial inequality gains even more credence, making the cycle ever more vicious (I first came across this notion of a vicious cycle created by racial inequality and racial stigma in the writings of Glenn Loury, especially his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality).
In other words, in the United States today, black people are assumed to be broken and guilty until proven otherwise, and white people are assumed to be unbroken and innocent until proven otherwise. To be sure, the latter is indeed an expression of white privilege, but we should be far more concerned with the creation of black stigma than with white privilege. This means that we should focus more on the elimination of racial inequality than on the identification of white privilege.
Racial inequality is both a manifestation and a cause of racial injustice. This suggests a simple formula: racial justice equals racial equality. While the details of this formula may or may not survive conceptual scrutiny, it does have the advantage of clarifying what racial justice would look like and what we should be doing to achieve it. If you want racial justice, work for racial equality. If you want racial equality, work to eliminate racial inequality.
- Identifying white privilege is more concerned with white minds than with black lives
White people regularly act as if racial justice is a state of mind rather than a state of society. While identifying white privilege has the advantage of encouraging white people to think differently about their lives and the world they live in, the imperative to eliminate racial inequality encourages efforts to change society for the improvement of black lives.
White people often act as if racial justice is a matter of white people thinking well of black people. In true white fashion, this implies that white people determine when racial justice has been achieved. It also suggests that racial justice is about changing white lives, not black lives. Often, white people absolve themselves of racist thinking when they have black friends or support black politicians, coworkers, athletes, and entertainers. In such contexts, they fail to understand that it is entirely possible to think well of individual black people and poorly of blacks as a group. Black people thought well of become the exceptions that prove the rule of black inferiority.
The fact that white people really do indeed continue to think poorly of blacks as a group is most obvious in the normalization of racial inequality. In astounding expressions of naivete, white people act as if a history of massive racial oppression is no longer relevant so long as racist thoughts have been banished from their minds. But precisely by failing to attend to this history of oppression, whites make clear just how clouded their minds still are by racist thinking. In their indifference to racial oppression, they suggest that black people themselves are the primary cause of racial inequality. Thus, in their silence, they perpetuate racial stigma.
If white people think that racial inequality is caused primarily by the actions of black people, and not exclusively by racial oppression, they will not even be able to see white privilege. Instead, they will see a natural state of affairs resulting from white people acting well and black people acting poorly. In short, so long as white people think that racial inequality is normal, they will never grant the reality of either white privilege or racial injustice.
- White privilege ignores white corruption
If there is an aspect of whiteness worth emphasizing, it is corruption, not privilege.
The very category of whiteness is corrupt. It exists as a rationale for the oppression of non-whites. Let’s be clear: there is a difference between being white and being light-skinned. Light skin is merely one bodily feature of human beings among many. One may be light-skinned without being white, but it is very difficult. The temptations of whiteness are hard to resist. Whiteness is an affirmation of a particular kind of human being. Only through a racial taxonomy can one assert the inferiority of some and superiority of others simply by virtue of skin color. Of course, the taxonomy itself is a fiction, but the willingness to believe in it suggests the presence of a corruption that is more than conceptual. Why are light-skinned people so susceptible to such corruption?
The practice of slavery indicated the presence of a deep corruption. Treating humans as property, separating husbands and wives, parents and children, beating, raping, and imprisoning human beings requires a corruption of the soul that is difficult for many today to imagine. Allowing lawlessness and terror to dominate white treatment of black people showed that the corruption continued after slavery. Legally segregating people by skin color and socially discriminating on the same grounds made the ongoing presence of corruption clear. Excluding people from housing, schools, and jobs simply because their skin color was different made clear that white people could not free themselves of this corruption.
White people continue to imply the inferiority of black people by accepting racial inequality as normal. White people continue to express indifference to black misery, whether in schools, health, wealth, or work. White people continue to pursue the containment of black people through segregation and mass incarceration. White corruption persists.
The history of racial oppression in the United States should be obvious to anyone, and the willingness to accept responsibility for correcting the consequences of this history should be equally clear. I am genuinely puzzled by how difficult it is to get white people to see this history and to accept this responsibility. I can only assume that white corruption is to blame.
White corruption is a poison that destroys lives, neighborhoods, and entire cultures. However, poisons often have antidotes. As a light-skinned person who tries very hard not to think of himself as white, I live by the hope that a commitment to working for racial equality can be an antidote to white corruption. Ultimately, the pursuit of racial equality and so of racial justice can become an antidote to whiteness itself.