CRSP lecture: WHITE PRIVILEGE
When it comes to discussing race relations, and particularly the reality of white privilege, “a lot of what we do seems to be a shouting match,” a sociology professor told those at the Feb. 1 Center for Race and Social Problems lecture.
Titled “White Privilege in America: Not So Invisible Anymore,” the talk by Paul R. Croll of Augustana College aimed to bring recent data and a social scientific perspective to several central questions: What do Americans think about white privilege, why does it matter and where do we go from here?
White privilege, Croll said, is “a term that we use to talk about the way whites have advantages in our society.” Those privileges come without individual whites making any deliberate, conscious effort to acquire them, he said. While the origin of white privilege is a lengthy U.S. history of segregating and suppressing people of color, it unconsciously stems today from America’s majority-white population being viewed by whites as “normal” or “regular.” The experiences and attitudes of white people thus are assumed, by individuals and by our major institutions, to be the experiences and attitudes of all people — even though different races tend to have different experiences in daily life, in everything from classrooms to encounters with law enforcement.
Thus, Croll noted, “being white is being in a place of relative advantage.”
The notion that white privilege exists reverses decades of thinking. Previously, U.S. society termed anyone who did not experience the “norm” of white experience as “disadvantaged.”
Instead, the term “white privilege” acknowledges, Croll said, that the advantages enjoyed by whites are not normal, that it is a true case of unfair advantage.
Scholars in previous decades had concluded that white privilege was unnoticed by whites, Croll pointed out. Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 research, for example, found that “white privilege is an invisible package of unearned assets” that white people do not even realize, and concluded “if we would just make people aware of it and see it, we could make progress on it,” Croll said.
Similarly, Ruth Frankenberg’s influential 1993 study of white women found they “didn’t even have the language to talk about whiteness … showing white women at the time viewed themselves as race-less.”
Such attitudes do not hold true today, Croll said: “The invisibility of white privilege is actually eroding away.”
Following well-publicized police shootings of black people over the past several years and the contentious 2016 presidential election, discussions of white privilege are cropping up more often in public forums, in the media and on social media, among a wider variety of people on the left and right, Croll added. Conservative Fox television host Bill O’Reilly even talked about it, denying it existed but, paradoxically, acknowledging that groups other than whites have tougher times succeeding in America.
“If Fox is using ‘white privilege,’ it’s certainly not invisible anymore,” Croll said — and the data now back him up.
Croll was one of the researchers leading the 2014 Boundaries in the American Mosaic project, a National Science Foundation-funded survey of more than 2,500 Americans designed to measure their awareness of white privilege.
Overall, 70 percent of respondents agreed that whites have advantages in American society today. “It really challenges this notion of invisibility” for white privilege, he said.
As the survey found, awareness of white privilege cuts across regions, races and political parties, and neither gender nor income level influenced people’s perceptions.
While a higher percentage of African Americans and Latinos agreed that white privilege exists, two-thirds of white Americans also acknowledged its reality. And while more Democrats than Republicans agree that there is white privilege in America, 59 percent of Republicans acknowledged white privilege as well.
“As your level of education increases, your level of agreement that whites have privilege in American society increases,” Croll said. Even among those adults who had not graduated from high school, two-thirds of survey respondents agreed: White privilege exists.
The survey also found that the racial composition of respondents’ home counties, and of their social networks, influenced their opinions: The more diverse their living environments, the more likely these respondents were to recognize white privilege.
Whites were certainly aware of white privilege, the Boundaries project showed, but not by an overwhelming majority. In fact, more than a third gave contradictory answers to whether whites had advantages in America and whether race still mattered in this country.
Just 51 percent professed the view that whites had advantages and race still mattered, while 11 percent took the opposite but still consistent view that whites had no advantages but race no longer mattered here.
The remaining 38 percent seemed to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously. A quarter of whites surveyed believed whites did not have advantages in America, but that race still mattered. Another 13 percent acknowledged white privilege but still said that race no longer mattered for the nation.
Still, factors that influenced an awareness of white privilege for all people, such as more education, worked to move whites toward greater understanding as well. Even a majority of more conservative whites — Republicans included in the Boundaries project — acknowledged white privilege in the survey. In fact, a majority of white Republicans agreed that white privilege was at play in American society.
Does an increase in awareness of white privilege translate to support for programs to counter white privilege, such as affirmative action for colleges and universities in the U.S.?
The Boundaries survey also asked whether Americans supported affirmative action, and if they did so to maximize society’s diversity or to ensure everyone equal access to education.
In total, 40 percent of people supported affirmative action, including a third of whites. But only 4 percent of those whites said they hoped to increase diversity; instead, most said their affirmative action support was based on a desire for equal access to higher education — even though the majority of white affirmative action supporters also saw white privilege as a reality.
Similarly, only 13 percent of whites said African Americans should receive special consideration in job hiring and school admissions. Those who believed in white privilege were more than twice as likely to believe in affirmative action.
“Obviously that’s a hot-button issue,” Croll acknowledged. But, he added, it would be unfair to give blacks advantages in hiring and admissions “only if we already have a level playing field” — only if white privilege did not actually exist.
“We focus, I would even say obsess, on what divides us,” Croll said. “One of the things we could do alternatively is find common ground.
“Awareness of white privilege actually cuts across social divisions,” he noted. “That means we have a space where we can talk about [white privilege]. Instead of just debating ’round and ’round, what if we first talk about: Do we have a system where everyone is treated fairly, or do we have a system where whites have an advantage?” Following such honest conversations, he said, perhaps “we can actually move the needle on some of these policies.”
When white privilege was thought to be invisible, “it didn’t make white folks accountable,” he added. “How can we have a situation where Americans, including white Americans, are aware” of white privilege and the problems it causes? Conversations among people who have different attitudes toward, and awareness of, white privilege will do more to move the country forward than trading Facebook posts and Twitter tweets among people we already know, and whose atti
tude we already share.
White privilege takes many forms today, Croll said. He cited a 2009 study showing a severe gap between the total family wealth that blacks and whites may depend on in times of emergencies as a legacy of decades of redlining blacks into segregated neighborhoods: Homeownership today is 70 percent among whites and 40 percent among blacks.
“If you are white, on average, you tend to live in a space where you have wealth, where you have better schools,” Croll noted.
He also cited studies that demonstrated that “black-sounding names” on resumes got people hired less often, and the fact that 10 percent of black men in their 30s are in jail in America on any given day.
To his white students who believe that they do not benefit from white privilege — who say, “‘I’m not a racist, I’m not a bigot, it’s not on me’” — Croll responds: “Have you grown up in a space where you had privilege?” He labeled “naïve” the idea that racism is encouraged by all the current talk of race.
One African-American grandmother in the audience stood to say she worried for the well-being of her teenaged grandchildren, particularly the boys, as well as her son-in-law, because fear of non-white, non-American groups was used to help get President Donald Trump elected. “Can you give me an answer how I can save my grandson and son-in-law from something crazy happening?” she asked. “Because that door is now open, people.”
“I think you’re right — I hate to say it,” Croll answered. “I think there is a heightened risk. White people and those who have been passive and less involved need to be more active. More action needs to be taken to fight these things. We need to show your grandkids that the majority of people are on their side.”
Still, he acknowledged, even among those who today understand white privilege, that their unconscious thoughts must also be: “Who wants to give it up, and how would you?
“It’s just going to take time,” he concluded. “I think it’s going to be years ahead, and I think the youngest generation is going to have to figure that out.
“We need to start having more honest conversations about white privilege. We need to not be afraid of it.”