In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois opined that one of the burdens of blackness was facing down an ever-present question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
More than a century later, the changes on our social and political landscape have led us to an equally challenging question: How do you solve a problem like white privilege in America?
It seems that the first step is admitting we have a problem.
The recent controversies surrounding Cliven Bundy—the Nevada rancher now infamous for wondering aloud if African Americans were better off as slaves—and Donald Sterling, the NBA owner with an unabashed plantation mentality, have reinvigorated debates about the true nature of racism, its origins and its outcomes.
The unseemly news that a police commissioner in New Hampshire boldly and unapologetically referred to President Barack Obama using the n-word was disturbing, of course, but after six years of increasingly commonplace, thinly veiled race-baiting attacks by Republicans in Washington, D.C., it was barely worth more than one news-cycle headline.
From the outside, the ages of these men—67, 80 and 82 respectively—might lead one to conclude that this kind of racism is generational, and that as time passes, outdated attitudes and the social constructs in which they thrive will eventually fade.
Sadly, that American dream is only a mirage.
As explicit expressions of racism have been curbed during the past 50 years, since the civil rights era brought sweeping social progress, structural and institutional racism has actually deepened. And this is where the problem of blackness has met a wall of white privilege.
One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are now more African-American males in prison than were enslaved in 1850. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 846,000 black males were incarcerated in 2008—making up 40.2 percent of the total prison population, though white males commit the vast majority of crime, and violent crime in particular. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Colorblindness in the Age of Mass Incarceration, points out that more African-American men were denied their right to vote in 2004 because of felony convictions than were disenfranchised in 1870.
Economic disparities are equally staggering—with the unemployment rate for blacks consistently more than double that of whites. According to the Census Bureau, whites have 22 times more wealth than blacks. The median household net worth for whites was $110,729 in 2010, versus $4,995 for blacks.
Darrick Hamilton, co-author of an Economic Policy Institute paper called “Whiter Jobs, Higher Wages,” suggests that “occupational segregation” (and white privilege) plays a large role in the wage gap. “Nearly 90 percent of U.S. occupations can be categorized as racially segregated,” he says. The study showed that in jobs in which black men were underrepresented, the average salary was $50,533 annually, but in occupations in which black males were overrepresented, the salary was $37,005. Even when controlling for education levels and skill sets, the racial gap persists, with whites benefiting from generational advantages, connections and opportunities that those outside their closed circles were not afforded.
And though government action created these systemic problems, there is hardly any political will to use government policy or resources to resolve them.
Why? Because the very men who have benefited from being on the other end of these disparities remain in the positions of power that could effect change.
In 2007 Chief Justice John Roberts became the poster boy for white men out of touch with reality when he wrote, in a Supreme Court ruling on the ability of a Seattle school district to integrate its resegregating schools, that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
In other words, and in his opinion, the attempt to integrate was discriminatory.
But he’s not alone. As Joan Walsh famously pointed out in her book What’s the Matter With White People? the white middle class benefited from government-sponsored affirmative action through the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, mortgage-lending guarantees and strong unions—but many continue to believe the myth that white Americans haven’t depended on government, but minorities are draining the government coffers.
This thinking, especially when manipulated by political elites to exploit racial anxieties in order to win elections, fosters a callous form of white privilege—one that ignores the worst elements in our nation’s tortured racial history, and thereby forces us all to repeat it.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently addressed the issue during a commencement address at the historically black Morgan State University, saying, “Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb. … In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.”
Herein lies the strange dichotomy of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls elegant racism in the so-called postracial, colorblind age: There is very little daylight between the vantage point of John Roberts and that of Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy.
Each of them abides on a wealthy plantation of white privilege and the ignorance that it affords.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.