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What does it mean to be post-racial? The very idea is at once radical and absurd: radical insofar as envisioning a world without race seems liberating; absurd insofar as envisioning a world without race seems impossible. A critical assessment of the proposition, however, is not a pointless exercise. It is a worthwhile idea to examine given that so many commentators, intellectuals and politicians seem more willing than ever to consider it — even believe it. Whether because of the two-time election of Barak Hussein Obama (who is a black man with a white mother, in U.S. race-talk) or because of the iconic status and economic success of figures such as Oprah Winfrey, there is sizable slice of the American public ready to entertain the possibility that their society is no longer racist or racial. For these Americans, the political and economic achievements of some black Americans proves that racism has been defeated and that a post-racial horizon is within sight.
Despite its contemporary currency, the idea of a post-racial USA is a deception. It is a claim that reflects a naïve and, in some cases, manipulative, community of believers who have yet to understand or appreciate the oppression of their society or their own role in maintaining it. Thus in this short essay, I want to offer my own critique of the post-racial deception. To do so, however, I want to break with the standard (albeit effective) criticisms that attempt to show how racial discrimination proves that the USA is anything but post-racial. These approaches, like that of Dr. Michelle Alexander, have done an excellent job of documenting the horrific disparities in the U.S. justice system, for example, that systematically violate the dignity and rights of an alarming number of black Americans. Their work shows, in painful detail, just how not post-racial our society really is. My approach is greatly indebted to these authors but will take a slightly different tack. For me, addressing the post-racial deception is not just a matter of showing the ongoing disadvantages of being black. Rather, it is about revealing the ongoing privileges of being white.
Privilege is, perhaps, the most difficult topic to address in any conversation of race. Don’t get me wrong, racial discrimination is no easy discussion. For example, many white Americans have stubbornly refused to acknowledge that inequities have anything to do with racism. They’ll accept that the occasional white celebrity’s use of the “n-word” is racist and that racism, in this form, does persist. But when the conversation moves to a more systemic level, one that includes wealth and health, for example, then racism gets a little too complicated. If someone suggests that blacks are poorer than whites because of racism, it’s simply too hard to handle. For these racism deniers, a “culture of poverty” seems a much more appropriate explanation for poverty among blacks. Besides, Oprah made it. Why can’t “the rest of them”?
But as challenging as it is to deal with the issue of discrimination, it’s a lot harder to discuss privilege. Try telling someone who identifies as white that their achievements are not exclusively the result of their individual merit. Or, more provocatively, suggest that the discrimination of blacks has a cumulative benefit for whites. In both cases, the mere implication that whites have an unearned advantage in society seems to strike at the core of something fundamental. Indeed, talking about privilege is so troubling because it contradicts the most basic ideology of American success. Yet that is exactly what a discussion of whiteness as privilege entails. To speak about privilege is to challenge the mistaken belief that racism is only a matter of discrimination. More specifically, it is to reveal two important features of our racist society: (1) how whiteness functions as a normative advantage, and (2) how whiteness is often inextricably linked with discrimination. Let’s start with the first claim.
Any discussion of racial privilege has to start with the basic fact that race matters. If someone can’t accept that race has any importance in our society, then the entire discussion of racism or privilege is simply done. Most Americans, however, will accept that race matters, even if only for the question of “identity.” The fact that Obama is the first American “black” president, for example, demonstrates that race does matter. It is an ideology with which we see people as “racial” beings. Without race, there simply is no black president. But if race matters, how does it matter for the question of privilege? After all, discrimination against a racial group is clear: Someone is deprived something they deserve because they are marked by a racial identity that is devalued in society. How then does racial privilege work?
The first way whiteness works is as a normative advantage. This means that being white is anything but a neutral identification. If you’re white, then you have an advantage in society that others don’t have because they aren’t white. More specifically, you have a normative advantage. This means that your beliefs and values — your norms — are almost perfectly reflected in societal beliefs and values. And because your norms line up with dominant social norms, your conduct in and experience of society is complimentary, suitable, less complicated. In other words, whiteness is your world.
As complicated as this sounds, it’s not all that difficult to see. Many authors have discussed the ways whiteness functions as a normative advantage and I want to offer just a few examples to illustrate my point. Writing about some of the normative advantages of whiteness, author Peggy McIntosh has offered a simple yet compelling way to think about white privilege — whiteness is a sort of invisible knapsack that affords its carrier many unmarked advantages that reveal the privilege of being white. Some of these advantages have to do with normative expectations while others have to do with normative authority. In either case, whites can expect that their lives won’t be burdened in the same ways as other racial groups. For example, whites can expect that they won’t be racially profiled. They can expect to be listened to as individuals and not as representatives of their race. Similarly, they can speak and/or dress however they want without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals of their race. Whites can turn on the television and expect to see their racial group and their norms and values widely represented. They can also send their children to school and expect that the achievements and values of their racial group will be widely represented in textbooks. Whites can expect to be taken seriously when they speak and have their ways of speaking widely reflected in the society: on television, on the radio, in films and in music. Whites can remain ignorant of other groups’ cultures without worrying that their experience in society will be compromised in any meaningful way as a result. Whites can also feel confident that, when they need a bandage, their “color” will match up with the products on sale.
All these advantages are forms of privilege. They are expectations grounded in a social experience untroubled by the burdens of racial marginalization and discrimination. Indeed, they constitute a social experience empowered by racist ideology — by being white. In this sense, racism provides those marked as white with an overarching privilege grounded in their recognition in society as white. Not fearing racial profiling thus isn’t simply the result of not being black; it’s the result of being white, which is to say, aligned with whiteness. This also means that whites don’t experience the social world in a neutral way. It is to say that whites experience the social world as a white social world — a world constructed from their experience and in their favor. And this brings us to the second aspect of white privilege: its connection to discrimination.
Understanding privilege necessitates seeing whiteness in relation to other racial designations. It’s not enough to say that some racial groups are discriminated against. To address privilege, we have to see that the discrimination of some racial groups is directly linked to the privileging of others. This is where the research of authors interested in demonstrating the workings of discrimination matters most. Through their careful analysis of discriminatory practices, we see not only how race works against some people but also how it works in others’ favor. Consider, for example, the issue of capital punishment. Research across the U.S. shows that the application of the death penalty is consistently skewed toward cases in which the victim is white. If the defendant is found guilty for a crime involving a white victim, she/he is more likely to receive the death penalty than if the crime involves a black victim. In a compelling illustration of this reality, the Equal Justice Initiative found that in Alabama, where 65% of all murders involve black victims, 80% of all individuals awaiting execution were convicted of crimes involving white victims.
What does this say about discrimination? One answer is certain: Black life is devalued in the justice system to the extent that killing blacks in the U.S. results in less severe punishments. And what does this say about privilege? Such findings suggest that whites can expect the maximum enforcement of the law when their lives are at stake. Simply put, whites can expect that whatever the law says about murder, it will have something more powerful to say when it involves members of their racial group. Of course, someone might say that the problem here is not privilege; it’s about discrimination. Remedying the situation would just require that the courts apply the death penalty more often in cases where the victims are black. However appealing this sounds, it’s not a real solution. This idea suggests that the application of the law, as it is used in cases involving white victims, should be the standard for applying the law. It assumes, in other words, that the standard for whites should be the standard for all. Yet this approach misses the way whiteness has been unfairly valued in our society. It obscures how whiteness has come to matter more than blackness (and other racial identifications) in the application of the law for the crime of murder. Undoing the disparity thus requires that we critically assess the ways that white life has been privileged above black life such that the death penalty might be applied less often in the case of white victims. Simply put, there’s no reason we should accept that the value placed on white life is an adequate standard for all life when that value is rooted in white supremacy. Applying the law thus must appeal to some other standard, one that doesn’t reflect the privilege of being identified with the racial status of whiteness.
This example is a powerful lesson in the discussion of white privilege and the post-racial deception. It shows that the problems of race are not simply problems of discrimination. Rather, they are problems of a racist ideology that structures the experiences and dis/advantages of both whiteness and blackness. In the case of the death penalty, placing a higher premium on white life is inseparable from the devaluation of black life. Addressing the disparity thus demands a much larger assessment of how race bears on the meaning of life and its implications for who lives and who dies. It also requires that we understand how the greater value placed on white life affords whites an unearned advantage in the judicial system. Just imagine the experience of a white victim’s family who can reasonably expect that, should they desire it, their loved one’s killer will also die. In the logic of white supremacy, the relatives of a black victim can expect no similar conclusion.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge that white privilege is not a simple issue. Not all whites, for example, benefit from the racist ideology of white supremacy. Within white communities, not all whites are equal. The intersecting issues of class and gender often create significant disparities between whites and complicate the notion of a monolithic white identity. These factors, however, are not enough to undermine the overarching system of white supremacy that, on the whole, situates blacks and other non-white racial minorities in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis white Americans. The reality of extreme white poverty, for example, offers no cumulative economic advantage to blacks. Or, while many Southern whites may suffer the harsh judgment of their Northern counterparts, such degradations seem to do little, if anything, for the perception of blacks. Thus, while racism in the U.S. is anything but simple, it has yet to achieve a complexity that defies its fundamental basis: the black/white dichotomy.
The challenge of race in the USA is not reducible to discrimination. This is the fundamental error and deception in the claims of the post-racial pundits. From their view, it is the absence or reduction of discrimination that makes a post-racial future possible if not given. Yet few, if any, of these naïve believers have reckoned with the reality of white privilege. From their perspective and experience, whites deserve everything they have. In this belief, they have failed to account for an important dimension of the racial America they believe we’ve left behind. More importantly, they’ve reduced the facts of racial discrimination to the experience of exclusion and, in the process, ignored its relationship to privilege. Can the U.S. ever be post-racial? I think it’s a question worth asking. But if and only if we’re ready to face the more important question of how to be post-privilege.