On The Misunderstanding of White Privilege

Every now and then I will see a fellow white friend on my Facebook feed rant that there is no such thing as "white privilege" because poor white people had to struggle to survive and get ahead in America.  They interpret the term as meaning that every white person in America has an easy life compared to every black person. 

Like myself, many of my white peers who hail from the same suburban Long Island town as me are descended from immigrants from Europe during the last century or so.  The prism through which they view America is that of plucky, determined immigrant ancestors from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Greece or any of a number of other European countries who arrived on these shores and through dint of hard work made better lives for themselves and their descendants.  As far as they are concerned, they had no part in the enslavement of African-Americans, segregation and legal discrimination.  From their point of view, African-Americans (or "blacks") are just another group in America and that today at least they should theoretically be equal to whites, and if they aren't, it's their fault because they don't try hard enough.

What they remain ignorant of, whether willful or not, is the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism that has corrupted American society and victimized blacks in a manner that European immigrants to this country and their descendants did not have to experience, no matter how poor or destitute.

Would an Irish or Polish working class family need something like The Green Book to know which hotels, bars and restaurants they would be welcome at when driving across the country on vacation?  Or how about something as basic and All-American as going swimming in the local pool or the beach?  Just yesterday I watched a documentary called White Wash about how surfing essentially became a predominantly white activity because of the obstacles that kept blacks from learning to swim and have access to beaches.  Consequently, there are many blacks in America today who do not know how to swim and are more likely to drown than whites.

Last year, I read a book called Black Tudors, wherein I learned that once upon a time, it was blacks who were more likely to swim than whites.  The following passage from the book is a useful summary:

"As most Renaissance Europeans were unable to swim, the free-diving skills of Africans such as Francis were admired and prized across Europe and the Atlantic world.  A 1500 painting by Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, shows an African about to jump into a Venetian canal.  In Genoa, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli employed an African as a swimming and diving instructor.  Ferdinando I de Medici was saved from drowning in the River Arno in 1588 by 'a negro of his, a very notable swimmer'.  When Richard Hawkins visited the Spanish pearl fishery at La Margarita, off the north-eastern coast of Venezuela, in 1593, he observed that the Africans deployed there were 'expert swimmers, and great divers' who over time and with 'continual practice' had 'learned to hold their breaths long underwater, for the better part of achieving their work.'  Pieter de Marees, a Dutchman who travelled to the Gold Coast in 1602, noted that Venezuelan slaveholders sought men from that specific area to employ as pearl divers as they were 'very fast swimmers and can keep themselves underwater for a long time.  They can dive amazingly far, no less deep, and can see underwater.'

In the post-World War Two migration to the newly created suburbs, if you were white you did not have to worry about racially restrictive covenants that forbade the sale of homes to blacks.  Home ownership helped build the white middle class by creating a source of equity and the accumulation of wealth with the rise of property values.  The lack of access to home ownership for blacks also denied them access to such means of wealth accumulation.  Even when blacks could buy homes, they were often steered towards predominantly black neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable and where property values were lower.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which blacks have been disadvantaged in comparison to whites, but rather a short summary and brief starting point to further explore the issue of white privilege and institutionalized racism.

On The Misunderstanding of White Privilege