We Can No Longer “Agree to Disagree” About White Privilege in America

As the hand-me-down celebration known as Black History Month settles, I’m reminded of the legacy of my ancestors and the inheritance that has historically been denied to me. Culturally, racism is still viewed as a social issue, a realm in which “allies” (those well-meaning white people) can absolve themselves of their white guilt by verbalizing how supportive they are of diversity efforts and interracial harmony. But often missing from our collective narratives of black history and what it means to have such skin color in America during a Trump era is the role that race plays in financial equity and access.

Racism is more than just an individual character flaw and act of social misconduct — it’s the expression of a pernicious system that can’t be defeated with promises of moral sobriety and personal concern. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding race, in fact, is the illusion that class position can somehow negate white privilege.

Growing up in Texas, I rode the bus to school with a handful of poor white kids. They went to the same grocery stores I did, attended the same public schools, and listened to the same music. They would sometimes joke that they were “just as black” as I am, but I was reminded by my elders that this was not true — that every day I walked out of my house my skin color automatically made me a target regardless of my class status. Later, attending college on the East Coast would completely demolish the companion myth — that class mobility through education might allow me to rise above the effects of racial disparity.

The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap, a newly released report from Demos and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University, confirmed my longtime suspicions about America’s racial wealth gap. In the research, it is shown that college attendance doesn’t close the wealth gap — the median white adult college attendee has “7.2 times more wealth than the median black adult college attendee.”

The notion that a two-parent household would improve matters also falls away: a “median white single parent has 2.2. times more wealth than the median black two-parent household.” Working full-time doesn’t move the needle either: “the median white household that includes a full-time worker has 7.6 times more wealth than the median black household with a full-time worker.” And just when you thought spending less could help reduce the problem: “the average white household spends 1.3 times more than the average black household of the same income group.”

Long story short: No matter how well educated, socially respectable, or fiscally responsible I am, white people in this country will always be better off. Clearly, the system isn’t as colorblind or equal opportunity as conservatives and liberals both want us to believe. If contemplating what such a discouraging reality means for the future of our nation doesn’t anger you, then you’re too busy benefiting from the setup to even care.

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23 Feb 2017

By Ernest Owens