The place of white privilege in America
Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor, cable TV’s No. 1 news broadcast, the face of Fox News for over a decade, and one of most influential people of the conservative movement, has conceded that white privilege exists, to a certain extent. O’Reilly, in a 2014 interview with famed rival Jon Stewart1, agreed with the idea that the residual effects of slavery and Jim Crow are still experienced today. O’Reilly went as far as to agree that there has been a systematic subjugation of the black community.
I’m sure many of you are surprised to hear this; my jaw nearly fell right off when the man who just this year tried to provide context to the slavery that built The White House, admitted that there is a systematic subjugation of the black community.
And to say more, he is absolutely right. Look at the racial discrepancies in education, in wealth, in the job market, and of course in policing.
O’Reilly, in that same interview, does make a good point though. We are not the same country anymore; we have progressed, as a nation, since the time of Jim Crow. There are, however, signs of regression. Consider the war on drugs, mass incarceration, the Department of Justice reports of the Ferguson and Baltimore police departments, and the recent 4th circuit court decision on North Carolina's voter ID laws, as examples. All of these are indicators of issues that need to be addressed.
What the Stewart and O'Reilly interview reveals, possibly above all else, is the complexity of the discussion on race in America. There are no easy answers to the issues of racial inequities prevalent in our country; the issue is riddled with nuance and far too often over simplifications are offered as answers from both sides.
One example that highlights this shortcoming is discussions on “white privilege” and its relation to the racial issues our country faces.
For one thing, “white privilege” is usually used in a pejorative context; used to dismiss someone’s idea and opinions without taking into account the merit of what they, the person being dismissed, are saying. This can be seen most commonly on social media: the sphere where our generation debates the issues of the day.
Whenever a white person offers their opinion on racial tensions, or racial inequality, no matter their actual view on the issue, they are written off. This is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, this mentality assumes that such a person is incapable of thinking critically, or experiencing sympathy and empathy, simply because they are white. Again, in many instances, it does not matter what the opinion is, the skin color of the proponent serves as a disqualifier.
Needless to say, it is wrong to dismiss someone’s ideas and opinions because of their skin color. But more than that, how does using “white privilege” as a pejorative serve to advance the discussion?
I think this is indicative of a bigger issue. Yes, the term – the idea – of white privilege, is subject to rampant misuse, but I do not believe this to be the most egregious shortcoming.
Looking at racial inequality from the lens of “white privilege” may confuse the issues. This is not to say that white privilege doesn't exist. According to even Bill O’Reilly, any fair thinking person would recognize that it exists. Without doubt, the lives of people of color are, in a very fundamental way, different.
As a Hispanic student I can testify to this idea. I have been asked if I believe that affirmative action was the reason for my acceptance at BU. People of color face indignities, ranging from the ridiculous to horrifying, that are not usually experienced by white people.
To give another example, James Blake, a biracial American professional tennis star, who once reached fourth in world international rankings, was tackled by an NYPD officer in September of 2015, because he fit the description of the suspect.
Yes, white privilege exists, but it is not productive in solving the issues of racial inequities to focus on it.
It fails to identify the real issue. Is the issue that white people do not face implicit bias? No. Is the issue that a majority of majority white schools are appropriately funded, that a majority of white students have access to a full range science and math courses? No.
The issue is that, for the most part, majority minority schools are underserved and underfunded. The issue is that people of color have to grapple with implicit bias from their peers, their colleagues, their employers, and even from law enforcement. So why not keep the focus here?
Beyond that, the question needs to be asked: is this the most effective strategy to combat institutional inequality? In the battle of words and ideas, in debate amongst you and your friends, or between legislators and voters, is talking about white privilege really the most effective means by which to address the issues at hand?
We know it has a tendency to be used as pejorative. It is inherently divisive, and it does not directly identify the problem. And yet, this strategy is supposed to dismantle institutions of inequality?
The phrase “white privilege” has been reduced to a virtue signal, an applause line. Saying “white privilege” during debate does not contain any argumentation, or substance, and even if it did, is that the substance we want to be communicating?
In order to solve what are very complicated issues, the focus needs to be on substance, and an environment where everyone can participate needs to be created. Only then will we achieve our ultimate goal, and solve the many racial issues which face our country.