In last week’s edition of the OGB, there was an opinion piece by Zachary Rhines which argued that ‘white privilege’ does not exist and that actions are the primary determinant of success in America.
In the article, he recites tired arguments about the value of hard work and individual success, and states that race is only a secondary factor, if it is even a factor at all. I thought it was necessary to pen a response to debunk the myth of individual success that is so often used to combat claims of racism discrimination in the United States.
Mr. Rhines begins his essay by asserting that economic, not racial, privilege is the real reason for inequality: “if you were born incredibly wealthy, you are more likely to become successful.” On the surface, this argument is certainly true but it papers over the way economic inequality is, and has always been, racialized in the United States. A 2013 study by the Institute on Assets and Social policy found that “the median wealth of white families was $113,149 compared with $6,325 for Latino families and $5,677 for black families.”
In addition, the problem is getting worse not better. The study concluded that “the total wealth gap between white and African-American families nearly triple[d], increasing from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009.” Perhaps most shockingly, after the 2008 recession the median wealth for black women age 36-49 was only $5. The idea that economics, “hard work,” or individual actions alone can account for the fact that white people, on average, hold almost 20 times more wealth than black people is not based in fact.
He argues next that if racial prejudice does exist, there are anti-discrimination laws which prevent those prejudices from manifesting themselves in the form of “white privilege.” This ignores the myriad ways in which black folks, and people of color writ large, experience discrimination in a real, material way despite supposed legal protections. For example, black people are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white people and 2.5 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police. White people are literally safer than black people when they walk down the street because they don’t have to worry about being targeted by police because of the color of their skin.
Despite anti-discrimination statutes around the nation, the killers of countless unarmed black people have been vindicated in courtrooms from New York City to the rural Midwest, some despite video evidence. Donald Trump’s travel ban affected countries which have produced exactly 0 attacks on U.S. soil, which proves the goal was to ban brown people from entering the country, not to protect from terrorist attacks. It is important to remember that white privilege is maintained at an institutional and individual level. Laws against discrimination are not effective unless they are diligently enforced and passed with the consent and input of the people they are designed to protect.
I feel that it is my duty, as a white person, to call out other white people for their actions that reinforce and justify discrimination, alienation, and oppression of our black and brown brothers and sisters. People of color in this country have always known that white privilege is real. The United States was built by the labor of enslaved African people on land taken, by force, from its original inhabitants. This violence – which occurred only 2-3 lifetimes ago – affects and informs the way white privilege manifests itself today. It is a privilege to not be scared for your life during interactions with law enforcement. It is a privilege to have a safety net of inherited wealth that is 20 times larger than that of people of color. And it is a privilege to assert that “your actions, not your race, determine your level of success.”