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?
Jim Webb may be right about diversity programs, but his arguments are politically nuanced and historically layered, and as a result will not matter. The discussion of race is America has a long history of impermeability to nuance and subtlety: The history is long and painful, and the arguments on each side are too sharply honed and too well-refined to admit any common ground with the opposition. There remains a huge empathy gap about what is important to the other side.
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.