It is doubtful many could successfully argue that white privilege does not exist in the western world. Historically, at its most basic level, in the western world, the vast majority of those with economic power have been white. Certainly not limited to these, but the power could be demonstrated in various measures as in hiring, mortgage/rental or investment opportunities, government services, among other situations. For example, if the choice is between a white candidate and a black, brown, or Asian candidate, all other attributes being equal, the white person in the position of power, unless motivated to contribute to increased diversity, would likely select the white candidate.
The reasons for this would be many. From an objective point of view, education levels, prior work performance, personal achievements, credit rating and financial resources, among other hard measures, could collectively be stronger for a white candidate. From a subjective perspective, deep in our DNA-driven ethos, tribal instincts have been powerful drivers of behavior for millions of years6. Some may describe this aspect of decision-making by those with power as racial bias. Yet again, deep in the part of us formed during primitive periods in man’s history, that strongly influenced the shaping of early man’s instincts, difficult to achieve feelings of safety most often came while among one’s tribe. Even those of the same race yet different regional tribe would not provide the same sense of safety for early man. This, during a time when man basically lived among the elements with near constant exposure to predators, weather, competing tribes and other existential dangers. For those in a position of power, regardless of race, these deep-seated instincts must be dealt with minimally at a subconscious level.
In recent decades, strong forces in society and the marketplace have led to massive change. Since the 1960s and 70s everything from professional training to legislative action has mitigated a great deal of this instinctual decision making. This instinctual bias continues to exist but is largely suppressed by the many measures put in place. The most powerful force for bias suppression is evident in how the workplace has changed. The major source of change has been the globalization of the workforce. This has suppressed bias in large part because many of those with the power are no longer just white men.
Education globally has improved, and many have come to this country with skills and credentials that have been meet with a welcoming American economy hungry for more skilled professionals. American capitalism’s sustained and robust economic growth has driven an endless demand for a larger skilled workforce. This system has consistently rewarded innovation making the United States the perennial leader in technology. The massive growth in the use of technology has fueled a significant portion of this demand for highly educated and skilled foreign workers but these demands are present in many industries and service organizations like medical services, transportation, and energy production.
During this same period, women have shed the previous views of their primary usefulness, mainly through education and training, to become a remarkable force both as individual contributors and in leadership. Women have contributed with increasing might across a wide spectrum in the post war period to present day.
So, if you believe that white privilege remains a societal presence in the western world, how did it become this erroneously perceived omnipresent source of repression? Clearly some believe that family wealth is the primary source of this supposed unfair advantage. There is no doubt that family wealth is a source of this so-called privilege. Does anyone believe that hundreds of years ago these families were able to wrangle a leprechaun and be led to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Or that this accumulated wealth was some sort of divine gift? The truth, as usual, is complicated. To seek the truth, we must go back in history.
Still a significant factor in the modern world, land was the primary source of wealth for centuries. Those who were able to possess and retain large tracts of land, especially land that was suitable for agricultural purposes, were able to at first, through hard work and good fortune, provide for their families. As agricultural endeavors became efficient enough to produce bounties beyond the mere life sustaining levels, these surpluses became marketable commodities. Village then regional markets formed. Bartering eventually yielded to the flexibility of precious metals and currency. More hard work and intelligent use of resources led to the accumulation of wealth in various forms; land, a workforce, precious metals, currency and then leverage in the form of available collateralized credit. This wealth creation led to the emergence of markets and marketplaces to serve the demands of those with various needs and wants; including those markets designed to attract disposable wealth.
Villages, towns, and eventually cities, saw the development of many services such as banking, merchants, transportation, among others. All these ventures, in their own way, led to success and the accumulation of wealth for those who worked hard and acted intelligently. Later, as transportation systems improved, industries were created to mass produce products for an ever increasing first regional then global marketplace. None of this would have occurred if not for the available, investible wealth, created through hard work and intelligent risk taking, that financed all of these transformational forces.
Another important factor was the increasing population aided by improved health conditions, medical science, education, and a growing market for workers of all varieties. These available workers were a vital resource especially as the industrial revolution took hold. Many of these human resources who worked hard to support their families also wisely identified entrepreneurial opportunities to create new business ventures that led to additional capital formation and wealth creation.
This notion of privilege manifested in wealth was not some divine gift bestowed serendipitously upon white people, it is the result of centuries of hard work and intelligent use of resources. Could this have occurred first in Africa, Southern Asia, South America? It could have, but it did not. These advances in the human condition largely originated from Great Britain, western Europe and eventually America as Britons and Europeans migrated there. These largely private endeavors were eventually supported by governments who created a legal framework to encourage and regulate free enterprise. What eventually became the United States, with its vast resources, growing population and, most importantly, system supportive of capitalistic enterprise, would soon lead the world in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), education, military power and a truly free democratic republic.
From the beginning, America was about freedom and bravery. Discovered as a wilderness, turning America into a global powerhouse took brave, rugged individuals willing to risk everything, including their lives, to turn the wilderness into the greatest economy and system of government in history. This world-leading economic performance, combined with the individual freedoms promised by its constitution, created the greatest standard of living, for all Americans, the world has ever witnessed. Over its 246-year history, many millions from all over the world have immigrated to the United States to earn a chance at the “American Dream”. Millions from third world countries continue today to pore into the United States both legally and illegally seeking this dream.
Some would argue that the success of America was almost entirely dependent on the economic benefit of slavery. Clearly the early success of southern plantations was heavily dependent on the use of slave labor. Southern plantations were a significant portion of the economy in the early American south but in no way represented a dominant part of the American economy.
Of the 10.7 million black slaves who survived extraction and the journey from the African continent, records indicate only 388,000 came to North America1. Their population increased substantially as the slave population in America prodigiously produced children and large families of nine, ten plus offspring in many cases. In 1800 the American population was 5.3 million including 893,483 slaves or 16.8% of the population according to the 1800 U.S. census2.
Slavery in any form is an abomination. Plain and simple slavery was and is the worst kind of egregious human behavior. Slavery in the United states began many decades before the war for independence against Great Britain. In fact, many of the slavers, both slave merchants and purchasers, were British citizens who brought millions of slaves to its many colonies around the world as well as Britain itself. Many, many more than those who were brought to the U.S. against their will.
Slavery of different races and religious sects had occurred for thousands of years. Fortunately, slavery at any meaningful scale has been eradicated globally. This is largely due to the evolution of thought about the right of all of humanity to equal treatment before the law and the inability of slavers to hide this most egregious behavior.
Many of the descendants of African slaves in the United States, those that have not been able to lift themselves up through education and entrepreneurship, have been perennially living below the so-called “poverty line”. Many more have been able to lift themselves and their families out of poverty into the middle class and beyond.
In the past sixty years attempts have been made to lift-up those remaining in poverty. These attempts have totaled an estimated 20-25 trillion dollars5 in federal, state, and local government wealth transfer programs since the mid-1960s. These programs funded direct financial aid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Aid Program better known as food stamps), educational funding programs, housing programs, medical care (AKA Medicaid), among others. This does not include hundreds of billions in charitable contributions made to privately run anti-poverty assistance programs.
During this 2020 pandemic even just three trillion dollars of federal government aid managed to help lift a U.S economy in free fall. The entire GDP for the United States in its most recent measure is approximately 20 trillion. How is it that more than the entire GDP in wealth transfer program spending could not more permanently lift-up a significantly larger portion of those in poverty who in 2017, of all races, numbered 38 million3 or approximately 12% of the United States population? The estimated black population in the U.S. is 44 million5 or approximately 13% of the U.S. population. The number of blacks living in poverty in 2019 is 16.3%4 of all blacks in the United States. That rate is down from nearly 30% in 19904. The simple math yields that just over 7 million blacks in the U.S. live in poverty. Although the poverty rate has declined measurably over the past few years, why have all these wealth transfer and charity-based programs failed to make more measurable, sustainable progress for all Americans living in poverty? If 7 million blacks live in poverty, then where is the white privilege for the other 31 million non-blacks who live in poverty in this country?
So, should something be done about white privilege? This question supposes that there is a mandate for action. That white privilege is inherently unfair and unjust. It is not. Regardless of your position on this question, much has been done to address it, both fiscally and legislatively, over many decades with measurable success. With programmatic support and through personal will, acting on one’s own behalf, black families have been lifted up through hard work and education. Wealth transfer programs have reduced poverty. Some say not nearly enough has been done and slavery reparations must be provided. Others would argue that many trillions in wealth transfer programs have succeeded to a measurable degree and that these programs represent a monumental amount of reparation. Some, regardless of how much has been done, will argue for more.
There are new notions of how to address what is described as a “permanent underclass”. An example of what be done would be the government provision of a reasonable “living wage’. A “wage” implies that a work product of some sort of marketable value is being produced in exchange for the “wage”. In this case there may not be a work requirement to receive direct payments, or those in low paying jobs would have their compensation supplemented to reach the predetermined amount. A better description may be a living income for those essentially left behind by an economy reliant on technology that eliminates the demand, and therefore commercial value, of unskilled or low skilled labor. That commercial enterprises employing technology that eliminates the requirement for unskilled or low skilled labor should fund these “living incomes” in an attempt at fairness. Clearly more must be done to improve education in impoverished areas of this country. How can we expect those in poverty to lift themselves up if a quality education is not available to them? These massively important questions must be addressed in the near term.
Finally, more questions have been raised here than answers. To reiterate a point, the so-called “white privilege” freely bandied about today is not the result of some unearned right gifted to white Americans. Yes, some benefited from the transfer of family wealth. Yet all of that family wealth was at one point derived from hard work, risk taking, and blood freely given to earn these benefits passed on by ancestors who sacrificed a great deal to have the privilege of passing these benefits on to their descendants. They earned that right. Can anyone see blatant unfairness in this? Many in generations living today (Greatest, Boomer and Millennial) have also toiled mightily to have their children have a life better than theirs. They are also the ones whose blood was spilled and lives sacrificed in the millions to win wars against tyranny to preserve the American way of life so desired the world over. To view these sacrifices and the resultant rewards as unfair is equally unjust.