It's time to talk about 'black privilege'

Race and reality in America
Race and reality in America

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Story highlights

  • Blacks are being catered to, and "you can't even talk about whiteness," those who believe in the concept say
  • But one activist calls the concept a "prolonged whine" from people who resent being challenged about their white privilege
  • Some call affirmative action a black privilege, but others say whites have been the biggest affirmative action beneficiaries

(CNN)Here's some good news for all you black folks complaining about racism in America.

You don't know how good you have it.
At least that's the message I heard during one of the strangest conversations I've ever had about race. I was talking about the concept of white privilege -- the belief that being white comes with unearned advantages and everyday perks that its recipients are often unaware of. I asked a white retiree if he believed in the existence of white privilege. He said no, but there was another type of privilege he wanted to talk about:
    "Black privilege."
    Confused by his answer, I asked him to give me an example of a perk that I enjoyed as a black man that he couldn't. His answer: "Black History Month."
    "In America you can't even talk about whiteness," said Drew Domalick, who lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin. "If you try to embrace being white, you are portrayed as being a racist. If we had a White History Month, that would be viewed as a racist holiday."
    Domalick isn't the only one who believes in black privilege. The term is being deployed in conservative circles as a rhetorical counterattack to the growing use of the term "white privilege." It's part of a larger transformation: White is becoming the new black.
    Google the phrase "black privilege," and one steps into a universe where whites struggle daily against the indignities heaped upon them because of their skin color. In books and articles such as "Black Skin Privilege and the American Dream," and "It's Past Time to Acknowledge Black Privilege," white commentators describe how blackness has become such a "tremendous asset" that some whites are now trying to "pass" as black.
    If you're a skeptic, there's even a "Black Privilege Checklist" listing some of the perks blacks enjoy that whites cannot.
    A sample:
    Blacks can belong to clubs and organizations that cater specifically to their race, but there's no National Association for the Advancement of White People because such a group would be deemed racist. Blacks can call white people "honky" and "cracker," but whites cannot use the N-word.
    The concept of black privilege is still so new, though, that some of the nation's most acclaimed scholars on race didn't even know it existed. One giggled when she heard the phrase because she thought it was a joke. Others were bewildered; some became angry.
    Count Peggy McIntosh as one of the angry. She is arguably more responsible for popularizing the concept of white privilege than anyone else. An activist and retired Wellesley College professor, her 1989 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" has been widely reprinted and is now taught in many colleges. Her essay gives examples of what McIntosh calls white privilege ("I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed; If a traffic cop pulls me over ... I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race").
    McIntosh scoffed at the idea of black privilege.
    "When you've had as much freedom to do what you want to do and think what you want and say what you want and act as you please, then you get irrationally rankled at having to curtail your life and your thought in any way," says McIntosh, who also founded the National SEED project, which helps teachers create courses that are more gender sensitive and multicultural.
    She said the black privilege checklist sounds like a "prolonged whine" from people who resent being challenged about their white privilege.

    Why it's good to be black

    Black privilege may be new, but some of the rhetoric defending it is at least two centuries old. As far back as the late 19th century, whites were saying that blacks weren't so much victims of racism as they were victims of special treatment.
    The 19th century U.S. Supreme Court echoed that thinking in one of its most infamous decisions. Congress had passed a sweeping Civil Rights Act in 1875 that banned discrimination against former slaves in public places. But the Supreme Court declared that act unconstitutional in 1883, a decision that sanctioned the rise of Jim Crow segregation and mob violence against blacks that would last a century.
    In the high court's 1883 decision, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in the majority opinion that there must come a time when blacks cease "to be the special favorite of the laws."
    Over the years, that sentiment bubbled to the surface at various times as debates over "reverse racism" and affirmative action erupted. Yet something new is now happening. More whites have begun talking about themselves as a racially oppressed majority. In a widely publicized 2011 survey, white Americans said they suffer from racial discrimination more than blacks.
    Peggy McIntosh, an activist who helped popularize the term "white privilege," says those who believe in black privilege are whiners.
    Where does this belief come from? The numbers don't appear to support it. Numerous studies and surveys show that blacks lag behind whites and other racial groups in many socioeconomic categories.
    The wealth of white households is 13 times the median wealth of black households. Black children represent 18% of the nation's preschool enrollment but make up nearly half of all children with multiple suspensions. Job applicants with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to get called back for an interview than similarly qualified applicants with black-sounding names. And prison sentences for black men are nearly 20% longer than those of white men convicted for similar crimes.
    Some say you don't even need numbers to dismiss black privilege. Use your eyes. If being black is such an asset, why do many whites consistently move out of communities -- neighborhoods, churches, schools -- when too many blacks move in? It's a phenomenon that sociologists have long documented and that some call "racial tipping."
    Those who argue for the existence of black privilege, however, don't deny these grim numbers. They just don't blame racism for those racial disparities.
    David Horowitz, author of the book, "Black Skin Privilege and the American Dream," says blacks are still more privileged, though they lag behind other racial groups in varying categories. It's not white privilege that's preventing them from doing better, he says; it's their behavior, such as their inability to build more intact families.
    "The fact that white people are better off is not a privilege; it's earned," says Horowitz, founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a think tank in Los Angeles created to combat "the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values."
    Not all racial disparities are inherently racist, he says.
    "If racial disparities prove discrimination, then the National Basketball Association is racist," Horowitz says. "Probably 90 percent of its players are black."
    Black privilege is so pervasive that it's hard to miss, he says. College professors practicing "affirmative grading" hold black students to lower standards than others. Corporations offer programs and internships to black workers but not to whites.
    Black privilege even extends to the White House, he says. Barack Obama was an inexperienced presidential candidate who was elected because Americans wanted to experience a post-racial sugar high, he says. "He wouldn't be elected dogcatcher if he wasn't black," Horowitz says of Obama.
    Some who invoke "black privilege" also make another argument: Who says all unearned advantages are wrong?
    In fact, some are unavoidable, says Benjamin Shapiro, a political commentator and author of an essay titled "Why White People Seek Black Privilege."
    "Birth to a two-parent family is an unearned advantage. Birth into wealth is an unearned advantage. Being born smart or tall or athletic is an unearned advantage," Shapiro says. "But being born white in a rural backwater in West Virginia is not an advantage over being born the son of Colin Powell."
    Blackness, though, has become a "tremendous asset" in contemporary America, he writes in his column. Despite the "horrific and evil history of racism against black people," being black today gives its recipients privileges ranging from landing coveted college scholarships to becoming activists who can build careers on racial grievances, he says.
    There are even whites now who try to pass themselves off as black activists because it's a career booster, Shapiro says. He cites Rachel Dolezal, the former head of an NAACP chapter, who said "I identify as black" but was called white by her family members.
    "Being black confers the advantage of rhetorical victimhood," says Shapiro, host of "The Morning Answer" radio show in Los Angeles. "Accusing others of racism is a convenient way of avoiding discussion on uncomfortable topics ranging from murder rates to poverty rates to single motherhood rates."

    'We swim in white supremacy'

    Arguments for black privilege may face a hostile audience as acceptance of the idea of white privilege grows.
    The white rapper Macklemore recently released a song titled "White Privilege." The term "check your privilege," a reference to white privilege, has gone mainstream.
    The comedian Louis C.K. even built one of his most popular routines around the concept of white privilege.
    "Here's how great it is to be white," he says. "I can get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be awesome when I get there. ... A black guy in a time machine is like, hey, any time before 1980, no thank you." No one appears to have asked C.K. about black privilege, but others who have explored white privilege in books and essays reject the existence of such a privilege.
    Some suggest that people who believe in black privilege still do not understand what white privilege is all about.
    Being black is such a  privilege that some white people, like Rachel Dolezal, a former  NAACP leader, have tried to pass as black, some say.
    Consider a popular argument against white privilege: I grew up poor, and nobody gave me anything. How can you say I'm privileged?
    That argument is why Deborah Foster wrote an essay titled "A Guide to White Privilege for White People Who Think They've Never Had Any."
    Foster says she grew up in an impoverished white family in Iowa where her parents were so poor, she was placed in foster care as a child because they couldn't afford to feed her.
    Still, Foster says she experienced white privilege. She says she only knew that because she happened to live around poor black people. She still had advantages that they did not, she says.
    Her black friends would get accused of stealing from stores; she wouldn't, even though she was with them. They would be suspended for missing too many classes or being late; she was placed in a gifted program, even though she also had attendance problems. They were called lazy blacks behind their backs if they missed work at a fast-food restaurant; her behavior was never seen as a reflection on her race.
    "We swim in white supremacy, which makes it harder to point out unless you start looking for it," she says.
    Then there is affirmative action. Don't blacks get plenty of perks from affirmative action programs? That's a privilege that whites don't enjoy.
    Only if you ignore much of U.S. history, some say. Whites have been the biggest affirmative action beneficiaries in U.S. history -- they've routinely been given advantages in jobs and other economic opportunities that were kept from blacks, says the Rev. Jim Wallis, one of the country's best-known commentators on race.
    Wallis, who grew up in a white working-class family in Detroit, says they received special help from a massive government program that was largely denied to black families. It was called the GI Bill, he writes in his new book, "America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America."
    The GI Bill was created for U.S. veterans returning from World War II. The government paid for the college education of white veterans and provided other types of financial aid to them, but black veterans were unable to reap many of the same rewards.
    The exclusionary racial nature of the GI Bill was repeated throughout U.S. history. The financial help and land grants that the U.S. government gave to 19th century homesteaders; the New Deal policies that lifted the nation out of the Great Depression but were kept from many blacks -- that has been the norm, according to historians and books such as "When Affirmative Action Was White," by Ira Katznelson.
    "I'm the beneficiary of the biggest affirmative action program in American history," Wallis says. "A free education, a loan for a house. But black veterans didn't get it. We got made middle-class by our government program. It was good. That's privilege."
    He says some whites resist the term "white privilege" because they think they're being blamed for something wrong.
    "Every white person isn't guilty for every bad thing that's been done to every black person," Wallis says. "But if we benefit from cooperating with white supremacy, then we are responsible for changing it. To tolerate racism in our social system is to be complicit."

    Stepping into another time machine

    Perhaps one reason some white people invoke black privilege is because they are tired of being on the defensive. That's the impression I got after talking to Domalick, the Wisconsin retiree.
    He is a soft-spoken man who says he doesn't judge people by their race. But he says others often don't return the favor when they see him. He longs for the day when Americans stop talking so much about race, which only increases division.
    "If you'd get away from this white-black struggle, people will start coming together," he says.
    Maybe. But extend the logic behind the belief in black privilege into other areas, and there could be more strange conversations over race. If someone stepped into the time machine that Louie C.K. imagines and dared to go forward instead of backward, what would they see and hear in the brown new world of a future America?
    Would they see a calendar marked by a White History Month? Would they click on the television and see a White Entertainment Network or legions of white citizens marching on Washington, singing "We Shall Overcome"?
    And would they hear a white leader step forward at a crowded news conference to announce: "It's time to talk about reparations"?