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Is White Privilege a Myth?

Virginia Senator Jim Webb urges an end to government diversity programs, saying that they hurt deserving whites and benefit people not entitled to them. This is a debate we should have, but can we?


Here is what I anticipate: Jim Webb, the senior senator from Virginia, will soon be both vilified and lionized in the ''media'' for attacking affirmative action as wrong-headed and divisive. And one result is that the intense conversation we've endured in recent days about race in the wake of the sacking of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod is now headed for overtime.

In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Webb asserted that affirmative action programs, which he and most everyone else now refer to as ''diversity'' programs, have strayed from their original intent and today do more to hurt white Americans and harm the country than they do to redress past racial injustice.

''I have dedicated my political career to bringing fairness to America's economic system and to our work force, regardless of what people look like or where they may worship,'' Webb writes. ''Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against that notion, having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.''

The piece is headlined, ''Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.'' The notion that white privilege is a myth will surely ignite a backlash among many black Americans, who will say that there is nothing mythical about the advantages that being white bestows in America. Alternately, Webb will be hailed as a hero and a truth-teller among those who see the racial landscape in America so vastly altered in the last 50 years that the idea that whites continue to have any inherent advantage based on race is at least outdated and, more likely, a perverse, intentional corruption of the truth. People will argue that white privilege is a social conceit intended to gain political and economic advantage -- the race card, in common parlance.

One hundred fifty summers ago, in July 1860, in one of his last speeches as president and one that helped create the climate for war, James Buchanan told a group of anxious Democrats at the White House that the only way to save the Union was to let Southern slave owners take their "property" into the new territories of the West. Northern abolitionist agitators had no right to dictate otherwise, he said.

"The sovereign states of this Union are one vast partnership. The territories were acquired by the common blood and common treasure of them all," Buchanan said. "Each state, and each citizen of each state, has the same right in the territories as any other state and the citizens of any other state possess. Now what is sought for at present is that a portion of these states should turn around to their sister states and say, 'We are holier than you are, and while we will take our property to the territories and have it protected there, you shall not place your property in the same position.' "

The argument today seems so ridiculous and so wrong that it seems unimaginable that it could have been made by a president of the United States. But it is one more historical example of how the long-running debate about race has been one of monumental misunderstanding about what is important to the other side. Blind to the injustice of slavery, Buchanan was passionate about preserving the rights of Southern planters. Five months after that speech, Lincoln won the White House, and four months later, the Civil War began.

He acknowledges all the important points his opponents will make: The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But Webb's brief will sound like a counter-narrative, in large part because it dismisses the idea of white privilege. For many black Americans that will end the conversation, but his argument is not with black Americans. "Where should we go from here?" Webb asks. "Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end."

I read the piece with interest because Webb came to mind earlier this week as we bumbled through the Shirley Sherrod USDA firing debacle. Advised to look at the whole speech, I listened to Sherrod talk about a historical partnership between poor blacks and whites in the South and thought of Jim Webb.

"You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century, black -- there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for the seven years and -- and get their freedom," Sherrod said. "And they didn't see any difference in each other -- nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor blacks in the same boat … '' The historical time line may be imprecise, but her point stands.