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United States of privilege

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This column was originally published July 6, 2014.

If we operated a society where privileges were granted to one group of people based on race, what would it look like?

Individuals from a nonprivileged group would have more difficulty accessing vital resources. Be they public or private services, these items would remain just out of reach for many in the less-desirable racial faction.Take, for example, the GI Bill of Rights. While it was intended to assist all veterans returning from World War II, it didn’t do much for black people when they came back to civilian life.

“[The GI Bill] was indeed, and still is in more recent incarnations, a powerful example of what the state can do to provide opportunity when it chooses,” according to Tim Wise’s book “Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male,” published in 2008. “Yet the GI Bill was hardly a universal triumph, and the same can be said of the [Veterans Administration] and [Federal Housing Administration] loan programs implemented around the same time to expand opportunity for members of the working class. For the working class that was able to take full advantage of these programs was hardly representative: Indeed, the benefits of these otherwise laudable efforts were received nearly exclusively by white folks, and white men in particular. Universal programs in name and theory were, in practice, affirmative action and preferential treatment for members of the dominant society.

“For blacks returning from military service, discrimination in employment was still allowed to trump their ‘right’ to utilize GI Bill benefits,” Wise writes. “An upsurge of racist violence against black workers after the war, when labor markets began to tighten again, prevented African American soldiers from taking advantage of this supposedly universal program for readjustment to civilian life.”

In the June edition of The Atlantic magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates examines discriminatory practices that have robbed black people of their ability to build the kind of wealth that whites have been accumulating for decades. Titled “The Case for Reparations,” Coates’s article reveals how whites have used the law to swindle black people out of their land and stick them with mortgages that have kept them in perpetual debt.

“The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated ‘A,’ indicated ‘in demand’ neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro.’ These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance,” Coates writes. “Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and a civil rights advocate. She has documented how our war on drugs has created a new group of second-class citizens by branding them as felons and then restricting their access to federally funded welfare programs, jobs and voting.

In her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander details how the war on drugs has been fought largely against people of color. In the last three decades, our nation’s prison population went from about 300,000 to more than 2 million - mostly based on drug convictions.

“No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities,” she writes in her book. “The stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies have shown that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. That is now what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.”

Driving this focus on drug crime among racial minorities are, in part, the falsehoods that whites believe. According to Wise’s book, whites surveyed consistently show they harbor at least one negative and racist stereotype against black people.

And these stereotypes justify how whites discriminate against people of color. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT, job applicants with black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to be called by employers for interviews than people with white-sounding names even though credentials were at least the same.

The study was titled “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” and was conducted in 2001 and 2002. The results help explain why unemployment rates are so much higher for black people than they are for whites.

These falsehoods also shed light on why whites adopted a more skeptical attitude toward government assistance programs. Martin Gilens looks at this in his 1999 book “Why Whites Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.”

“In large measure, Americans hate welfare because they view it as a program that rewards the undeserving poor,” Gilens writes. “To understand public opposition to welfare, then, we need to understand the public’s perceptions of welfare recipients, and here two important and related factors stand out. First, the American public thinks that most people who receive welfare are black, and second, the public thinks that blacks are less committed to the work ethic than are other Americans.”

The sense of privilege also infects religious faith. In their 2012 book “The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America,” Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey document how Christians came to project Jesus as white. Then many of them used this premise to condone some of the worst horrors against those who didn’t share the savior’s perceived skin color.

“By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face. But he was a shape-shifting totem of white supremacy,” they write. “The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures not only bore witness to the flexibility of racial constructions but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.”

The racism that underlies white privilege is not necessarily overt animosity. In a 2012 article for The Atlantic titled “Fear of a Black President,” Coates provides perhaps the best description: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.”

All of us, including me, are susceptible to racism. So it’s no wonder that a society based on white privilege would look exactly like the one we have.

As we conclude this Fourth of July weekend, our annual holiday to remind ourselves what an awesome country this is, let’s consider the ongoing work needed to live up to all the hype. Electing a black president shows definite racial progress. But even that can’t be of much comfort to the nonprivileged who have been left behind.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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