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Privilege and race

January 28, 2008

I’ve heard a couple of speakers recently who offered an unusual degree of honesty in addressing issues of race in our society.

The most recent was a talk by Tim Wise at my university on “white privilege.” Tim is the author of several books, including White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Tim lectures quite a bit on race in America, and he doesn’t hold back.

The talk was outstanding, and Tim did a great job of connecting with the audience of students and faculty — over a hundred students and a handful of faculty. Tim’s message is that we need to refocus the way that we talk about racism and racial inequality and we need to recognize racial inequality as the structural fact that it is in America. If a set of social institutions — education, banking, employment, healthcare — have the effect of conferring disadvantages on some groups of people, then it is unavoidable that these institutions are conferring advantages or privilege on other groups of people. If African-Americans have substantially lower levels of health, at every level of income, this seems to imply that white Americans are “privileged” with respect to access to health care. This is what he means by “white privilege.” And his basic point is that privilege is pervasive in our society — along with its opposite, cultural, economic, and social disadvantage.

Tim also makes the point that it is crucial that we listen, really listen, to the voices of people who are the recipients of these entrenched disadvantages. Their perspectives are fundamentally different from those of racially privileged, economically advantaged upper-middle class Americans.

I also heard a pair of talks in Detroit recently by Tom Sugrue, a historian from the University of Pennsylvania, and Kurt Metzger, director of research at the United Way of Southeast Michigan. The panel was on the causes and effects of racial segregation in metro Detroit.  Tom is the author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and is a leading expert on the history of race in America. Kurt is recognized throughout metro Detroit as the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to the demography of southeast Michigan. The two talks made a powerful case for demonstrating how crucial the social mechanisms of racial separation are in the history of Detroit and the suburbs. And the consequences for all of southeast Michigan are severe — especially for the population of young African-American men and women whose opportunities are so limited by the existing social institutions supporting employment, education, and health. (Tom addresses some of these issues in a conversation he and I had that is posted on YouTube.)

The third great talk that I have heard in the past six months was by Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Visit the LDF site for a bio.) Ted is absolutely eloquent and direct in talking about racial inequalities in our country. He is an unapologetic defender of affirmative action, on the ground that it is an entirely appropriate social mechanism for addressing the structural inequalities that the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination have created in our country. (There is a good piece of video on YouTube featuring some of Ted’s ideas and views — Ted’s speech begins at 3:40 in the video.) Ted is an inspiring visionary and our country needs to hear his voice.

All three of these thinkers make the point that we need to find more space for honest, direct talk about the legacy of racism in our country. And that is certainly true.

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