Opinion
A response to “Your actions, not your race, determine your level of success”
Old Gold & Black
By
Guest Columnist
Saturday, April 22, 2017

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.”

  • tdaly29

    When students at Wake start looking for a job they can run a simple test. Send the same resume out with two different names attached – try James and Jamil. I bet you will get a better response with James than with Jamil. Or Robert and Roberto. Even James and Jane. This test has been done for jobs, real estate, or anything where a personal ID (or your voice and accent) are required. It happens all the time and is regularly tried and written up by new outlets, as well as sociologist and civil rights proponents. Give it a try some day.

  • Jackie R.

    This is great Nolan! I 100% agree that with our privilege as White people comes the responsibility to speak up and use our privilege. But I have definitely experienced in the last year that no other topic gets people as defensive as White privilege. It’s frustrating that people just refuse to take their egos out of it and consider that it may be reality. Keep fighting the good fight!

  • BW

    It’s not clear how the IAS study was made, but the median wealth is bound to be higher amongst whites simply because of long standing wealth which, though unfairly, will still be greater in number stemming from much harsher times. And though the arrest/harassment stats are deplorable, this doesn’t necessarily make an overwhelming argument when it comes to career success. In addition, though the travel ban is sadly misguided, it’s easy to see that the idea is to thwart possible future issues; the thinking being to stop an influx from troubled areas before they become a problem. Again, I don’t agree with this personally, but I don’t see it as a strong argument that it’s meant to discriminate against brown people. Lastly, the USA was built by people of all color, though sadly those who are black were abused the most. And sadly, there is not much square footage on this world that hadn’t at one point been taken. That’s not to say it’s right, but let’s not pretend that is unique to this country. I know successful black people, and I know unsuccessful white people. The difference is hard work. And though I agree that a successful black person has had more hurtles than a successful white person, it is still hard work for both individuals.

    • Nolan David Dahm

      Inherited wealth matters because white people are STILL benefiting from slavery. White people were literally paid money as compensation for their slaves that they lost after abolition. I never said the problem is unique to the United States.
      Also, you’re conveniently ignoring police brutality, mass incarceration, and white terrorism which have been affecting black communities since 1492

  • Gary Pavela

    There’s more discussion at a FB page devoted to serious dialogue (not rhetorical posturing) on this topic.

    See https://www.facebook.com/Dialogue-I-White-Privilege-243182979478345/