When a young Jim Wallis was having dinner at the home of one of his few black friends, he was startled to learn that his white mother’s advice was the polar opposite of what the black mother told her son: If you needed help, you should hide, wait for police to pass, and look for someone else to assist you. In Jim’s home, the unquestioned assumption—undoubtedly repeated in white households across America—was that if he was ever in trouble and needed help, he should look for a police officer.
Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine and author of the new book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, recently recounted this awakening as a young man to the duality of the color divide with StoryCorps.
Individual moments of revelation such as these can be powerful conversation starters, particularly in the wake of highly visible killings of black Americans and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The nation is struggling to talk about the disconnect between white and black experiences in America, let alone identify policy changes that could alter law enforcement dynamics.
Defining and acknowledging white privilege
Conversations about race, poverty, and wealth in America often focus on individual agency and achievement, despite deep evidence that societal structures play a pivotal role. Acknowledging that white people get a leg up requires wrestling with another concept integral to the American psyche: notions of fairness.
Scholar Peggy McIntosh characterizes the unearned privilege of being white as an “invisible weightless knapsack” she has unwittingly carried through life, a kit “of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks” about which she was meant to remain oblivious. In Wallis’s story, he carries with him the special provision that the police officer will perceive him as a victim while his black friend carries the risk of being perceived as a perpetrator who may have brought any misfortune on himself.
Even those who are deeply concerned about race may resist the idea of privilege that comes with being white. In McIntosh’s own journey, she describes recognizing her white privilege through her study of male privilege.
“I saw parallels here with men's reluctance to acknowledge male privilege,” she wrote. “Only rarely will a man go beyond acknowledging that women are disadvantaged to acknowledging that men have unearned advantage, or that unearned privilege has not been good for men's development as human beings, or for society's development, or that privilege systems might ever be challenged and changed.”
Structural racism: the flip side of white privilege
In an era when many white Americans feel anxiety that they are not doing as well as their parents, or are losing out despite their own efforts, the idea that they already have a rich bag of resources does not square with their perceived reality. While white privilege is an alien concept for many white Americans, the idea of “structural racism” may be a somewhat more comfortable term. Many white Americans can acknowledge that nonwhites, particularly blacks, have their own knapsacks that contain race-related disadvantages and constitute additional baggage that one must carry while navigating through life. Hence there has been some traction for a public conversation built around structural racism. But there is an inherent tension in engaging with one idea in isolation from the other. White privilege and structural racism are interlocking concepts, as white privilege gives the included group access to benefits that the excluded groups don’t have. The definition developed by the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) provides a useful framework.
According to the roundtable, structural racism is "a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time."
The important thing to understand is that once these structures are in place, no one has to actively think about race, privilege, or discrimination for these privilege systems to disadvantage people of color. Historical discriminatory processes such as housing segregation relegate people of color, particularly African Americans, to communities with inferior or less desirable housing. Lower housing appreciation that results often means lower wealth accumulation. Low savings combined with poorly resourced schools limits access to higher education and postsecondary training, thus making a person of color “less qualified” for better job opportunities. These structural disadvantages can hamper future generations from moving up the economic ladder without any overt racial discrimination in hiring.
But not all structural barriers are the result of historical discrimination. Policies, practices, and norms put into place today can create new barriers. For example, raising the minimum age for receiving Social Security benefits might be perceived as a neutral policy change, but can have adverse effects on groups like African Americans that have shorter life spans or are more prone to debilitating chronic diseases that keep one from working into advanced years.
Avoiding these damaging potential consequences requires tools, vocabulary, and greater capacity among white Americans to perceive what it means to be a person of color in this country. It means intentionally and publicly unpacking the knapsacks and examining what it takes to distribute the tools more equally.
In the coming months, you’ll see more blogs here on Urban Wire that apply the perspectives of structural racism and white privilege to issues arising in the news and to evidence produced by our research.