Archive for July 23rd, 2013

Racism and White Male Privilege


One of my favorite websites now is “Upworthy,” a progressive website that focuses on pointing out hypocrisy and passing along inspirational stories and snippets.  It’s not the usual stuff – it’s usually snippets that inspire or surprise.   In this case a young woman shows her particular take on the George Zimmerman case:

Some people disagreed with my refusal to condemn the jury verdict in the Zimmerman case.   Yet I agree in the reaction of anger at how a case like this symbolizes the ongoing persistent racism in our society.

The verdict of this particular trial is irrelevant.  In fact, if Zimmerman had been found guilty it would be easy for people to praise the justice system and believe that punishing this “bad guy” shows that we’re past racism and those who are not are penalized if they act on their biases.  That is not the case.

We live in a society based on white privilege.   It’s not always through conscious acts of racism; often it’s an embedded structural aspect of the economy.   That feeds bigotry.  Rather than looking at how opportunities and constraints are structured into the fabric of society people say “if they made different choices they’d be successful, they must be lazy/dumb/inferior.”  The winners of the game always take credit for winning, even if the game was stacked in their favor.

Just as a black man has a very different reality than a white man, even if all other things are equal, the same is true for men and women.   That hit me years ago when I was working on my dissertation and would walk home from the University of Minnesota Poli-Sci computer lab at 10:00 at night.  It wasn’t the safest walk for me either – once crossing a bridge near the Metrodome a guy I was jogging up to spun around and pulled a switch blade on me.  Turns out he was scared – he thought the footsteps coming fast were a threat.   We both laughed.

But for women the idea of such a walk after dark would be a much different risk, as would going into the parking ramp late at night alone.   Whether it is blatant bigotry (“Women can’t do thinking work like men can,”), overt sexism (“I won’t hire a woman for this job because she’ll just get pregnant and quit or want leave”), or actual danger from rape (with the women often being blamed for the violent acts of men), women continually experience a different reality than men.   White men like me often don’t perceive it because we are myopic – we know the world as we experience it, we assume others experience it the same way.

That often leads to a weird form of privileged victim mentality.   I remember once when a colleague found out that a woman got a job he had made the short list for, he said “she got it because she was a woman.”   I interjected that every man who was in the running for that job might make that same claim but can’t all be right, and he just grunted.  Easier to feel slighted.

Yet at top levels of business, government and most of society it’s still a white male dominated world.   White men like myself don’t notice the privilege because we think it natural.   We think everyone gets treated like us, or if they don’t, they must be getting special advantages.  We ignore the fact that inequality between black and white has been growing dramatically since the 1980s.  Or worse we may feel its deserved.

It also comes through in obnoxious behavior.   When President Obama points out the reality of racism in modern America in a speech praised for its timeliness and vision, spoiled white privileged rich folk like James Wood lets forth a twitter diatribe, comparing the fact he has to pay more taxes (poor James!) to the plight of black folk like Trayvon Martin.   Others accuse Obama of “playing the race card” just by pointing out that race matters.   No says the privileged elite, don’t mention that, we prefer our privilege to remain unmentioned and hopefully unnoticed!

Probably not so much a racist as someone who doesn't want to be reminded of his privileged position in society as a white male

Probably not so much a racist as someone who doesn’t want to be reminded of his privileged position in society as a white male

I doubt he’s an overt racist.   Like so many of us white males, we’re so used to privilege that we don’t like being reminded that we benefit from it.   But the truth is that reality is different for women than men, and for whites than blacks.  That difference is rooted in real social conditions, not just psychological predispositions.

I have no doubt things are better in 2013 than they were in 1963, and that things will continue to improve.   The same is true for many groups marginalized or suffering bigotry.   After all, is there much difference between Nazi anti-Semites who attacked Jews and supposed Christian Conservatives who attack gay rights?   Consider the rants by some baseball fans about Marc Anthony – a New York born American citizen – singing the national anthem at the all star game.   Sounds like what some Germans might have said if a Jew had sung at the 1936 Berlin Olympics!

Cases like the Zimmerman case shouldn’t have us fixating on one person, nor is it really primarily a sign of a broken justice system.  It’s a sign of a culture that is still profoundly racist in its social structures, even if people consciously deny that racial component.  We’ve come a long way towards equality on so many dimensions in the last fifty years.  Americans can be proud of what we’ve accomplished, with the advance of gay rights being the latest victory for freedom.


The Zimmerman case and the reality of embedded white male privilege simply reminds us that we still have a long way to go – and the hardest part is to change how we think, not just the laws.