Tuesday, July 27, 2010

White privilege is about more than money

I think my biggest problem with this op-ed written by Virginia Senator James "Jim" Webb (D) for the Wall Street Journal is in the title. "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege".

In this op-ed, Webb tells how he believes that affirmative action for "people of color" as opposed to just African Americans, needs to end. He believes this because such policies go beyond the original intention of affirmative action - helping African Americans who suffered from the effects of slavery. More importantly, it leaves certain groups of whites at a disadvantage.

I will leave you all to discuss Webb's opinions about affirmative action if you please. What I want to discuss here is his use of the term "white privilege" in the title of his op-ed. Calling white privilege a myth is a rather controversial statement coming from a white writer, and more importantly to me, in his piece Webbs seems to misunderstand the idea of white privilege. White privilege is not a myth, but Webb's apparent misunderstanding of the concept had me distracted every time I read his piece.

Webb seems to believe that only those who are best off financially and educationally possess any form of privilege. Yes, wealthy people and those with higher education are privileged, but to argue that because whites no longer have almost exclusive access to wealth and education that there is no such thing as white privilege demonstrated a narrow and unproductive understanding of privilege.

The whole problem lies here: even in this world where, according to Webb, whites are being set back by policies meant to benefit people of color, if a person of color has a particular job, they may be questioned about their qualifications (did they get it only to meet some diversity quota?). This is evidence of white privilege. A white person would not have the same assumption made about them. It would be assumed that they hold their job on their own merits. I bet Webb would assume things like this. And Webb is white.

Go figure.

[Thanks to Tyler for the link.]

6 comments:

Tyler said...

So I think what Webb might be trying to get at is the idea that "Whites" are not a homogeneous group. Many caucasian people who are economically disadvantaged could benefit from the same scholarships, employment rules, and government benefits which people who currently may be better off financially than the aforementioned disadvantaged whites still benefit from, no matter what harm they and their ancestors may or may not have suffered from any institution.

Ironically, part of what you identify as "white privilege" would be ended if affirmative action rules were ended-- that is the idea that a person of a nonwhite ethnicity may have gotten their position not on the basis of qualifications, but rather due to affirmative action. If there were no affirmative action rules, there would be no way for someone to be in a position he/she would not have achieved on qualifications only. Just a thought.

That isn't to say that affirmative action was not a necessary and expedient means of accomplishing a relatively painful (to some) goal at one point in time, but merely that it may have outlived its necessity.

One factor often left out by social researchers is the idea that many times people who are not white males choose jobs which tend to be lower paying due to societal pressures, which simple quotas do not address. Putting a quota on jobs which are not attractive to these candidates will help to cover the symptoms, however it does very little to address the root of the issue-- Why are there so many more white male doctors, lawyers (ironically I know many more women heading for law school than men,) and architects, and so many more female schoolteachers and nurses? yes, it could be because of discrimination in the fields, but more likely it is simply that these are traditional fields for women to work in, and more women feel, for one reason or another (we can leave biological differences versus societal differences for another time) drawn to work in some areas, while men are drawn to others.

Amelia said...

As Webb argued in his op-ed, he is for allowing "every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future," which I took as his support for affirmative action for particular groups, an idea further supported by his idea that affirmative action might be kept in place for African Americans, but not for just any people of color or immigrants (just because they are people of color or immgrants).

The problem/consequence, perhaps, with completely ending some form of affirmative action would likely be going back to a hiring/educational system that greatly favors whites because of ingrained stereotypes that whites are inherently better than non-whites at many things. Again, whites have the privilege of not having to deal with racist stereotypes when competing for jobs, etc.

I think you miss a point when you talk about men and women/white people and people of color being "drawn" into different job types: The reasons that people of color, for example, may be drawn into lower paying fields may very well be linked to the history of racism in this country, a legacy that still contributes to high rates of poverty, etc. among these groups. Also, biological v. societal differences are indeed important to address if you're going to bring up the differences between men and women in the kinds of jobs they most frequently do.

Melissa said...

I might be misunderstanding, but I think the fact that whites (WASPS particularly) act like they're losing something every time a minority group gains something an example of a long standing "white privilege"? And affirmative action, as far as I understand it, wasn't meant to have a greater number of minorities in higher level positions who may or may not be as qualified as their white competitors. They are as qualified. Affirmative action isn't a "quota" per se. It's just intended to prevent the automatic preference to a white applicant over a minority applicant with the same qualifications. And isn't it be a little counter-intuitive for Webb to say he wants equal opportunity for everyone, but that affirmative action should not be taken towards anyone but African Americans? This alone I would think proves that affirmative action has not "outlived its necessity".

Michael said...

@Melissa: "I might be misunderstanding, but I think the fact that whites (WASPS particularly) act like they're losing something every time a minority group gains something an example of a long standing "white privilege"?"

You're on the right track. This isn't exactly an example of white privilege, but rather, an example of white people refusing to acknowledge their privilege. In a way, though, the ability to ignore racial inequality is a sort of privilege in itself, though, so it's sort of white privilege almost? Whatever.

"And affirmative action, as far as I understand it, wasn't meant to have a greater number of minorities in higher level positions who may or may not be as qualified as their white competitors. They are as qualified. Affirmative action isn't a "quota" per se. It's just intended to prevent the automatic preference to a white applicant over a minority applicant with the same qualifications."

This is essentially a correct description of Affirmative Action. The important bit to get across to people who oppose it or don't understand it is that no unqualified person should ever get a job because of affirmative action. The person hired will meet all the necessary qualifications for the job. If a non-white/male individual applies for a job for which they are qualified, and a white/male applies for the same job and are qualified, or even overqualified, the non-white/male should get hired. If he's not qualified, he won't get the job. It just prevents overqualified whites from getting jobs over qualified nonwhites.

Tiberius said...

I seem to remember hearing that, at least as it applies to admission to higher learning institutions, affirmative action is essentially a quota. Some schools have minimum numbers to meet when deciding who makes it in. Granted, this was a few years ago when I heard this, so it might not be true anymore. If anyone works/has worked in admissions departments, I'd be interested to know if that's true.

The way I see it, affirmative action is problematic but necessary. When it comes to hiring, I think a job should just go to the person who is most qualified for it. If it could be conclusively proven that racism no longer exists, then it would seem silly to hire someone who is less qualified (but still meeting the minimum requirements) because they are a minority. But that's just the thing. Racism and stereotypes are still prevalent even if they're not as mainstream or obvious as it was 40 years ago. Until someone thinks of something better, affirmative action is needed as a precautionary measure.

Anonymous said...

Wait, isn't assuming that someone doesn't understand the concept of 'white privilege' because he is white just the same as assuming a person of color has a particular job because of a diversity quota ?