White problems: Privilege theory supplants human rights

White problems: Privilege theory supplants human rights

“White privilege” refers to a whole constellation of extralegal, unearned, at times invisible benefits conferred to people by virtue of their whiteness. Philosophy Professor Shannon Sullivan and others made the attempt to move the discussion to “white priority,” as “privilege” seemed to rankle too many  poor people and is so easily sneered at. The concept of “white priority” has yet to catch on.

A few months ago, I saw a group of white youths blithely disobeying the “don’t walk” light and entering a crosswalk. The car closest to them abruptly screeched to a halt and the black woman they’d inconvenienced yelled at them from the passenger-seat, “There it is! That white entitlement! I can’t believe this!”

White people tend to avoid discussing race in public at all costs, unless under a pseudonym or else in the most scripted, predictable, cringe-inducing and ultimately unhelpful manner possible. Only self-abasement (in search of  a sort of “repentance”) or call-out (the dopamine-flood in white allies as they pile onto someone for a perceived transgression) — call it catholic guilt vs. evangelical smugness. I have seen this terror at frankness in racial topics referred to as “white fragility.” Opting to cleanse oneself by means of call-out is sometimes termed “allyship.”

A prime example of allyship in journalism can be found in a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “White Women, Come Get Your People,” wherein the author, self-described “thoughtmonger” and gender-writer Alexis Grenell, herself apparently white, responds to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation by venting her spleen at “white women” in general:

“The gender gap in politics is really a color line […] because white women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain. In return they’re placed on a pedestal to be ‘cherished and revered,’ as Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said about women, but all the while denied basic rights.”

Grenell’s palpable bitterness at the 53% of white female voters who “put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status” by voting for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the latest presidential election serves no constructive political purpose and makes her seem hysterical. We can be sure that it garnered more than a few clicks, however.

Not long after her article’s publication and seeming almost a deliberate illustration of her thesis, an embarrassing encounter at a bodega in New York City went viral: cell-phone video and later CCTV footage featuring Theresa Klein, a white woman whom the internet has dubbed “Cornerstore Caroline.” The former consists of Klein shouting at the mother of a black 9-year-old boy. The boy is crying pitifully. Klein, on the phone with 911, is seen demanding emergency services because “the son grabbed my ass!” But the CCTV footage later proved that it was the boy’s backpack merely brushing against her that set things off in the first place.

“Cornerstore Caroline” has since then apologized to the child and his family, admitting that she overreacted. She nevertheless remains in the pantheon of “white racists caught on video,” a genre with seemingly endless material. Any list of even recent additions would be impossible to complete, as by the time you’d named and shamed them all, a new humiliating spectacle of racist harassment or overreaction, or as Jonathan Capehart recently put it, “absurd situations in which living while black [is] questioned by whites,” would have begun rocketing around the internet. That famous “white entitlement.”

I wasn’t surprised when one commentator opined that Cornerstore Caroline was probably “on edge” over Kavanaugh’s nomination and the #Resistance antics surrounding it; that she saw in the little boy whom she accused as a “Kavanaugh in the making.” If so, we might presume that the child’s color had nothing to do with her reaction. But by calling 911, the situation was immediately and extremely racialized — it is common knowledge that black Americans’ encounters with police are much more likely to end in violence or death than when white Americans encounter police.

It was some time ago that I read (and it’s only become worse since then) a serious op-ed somewhere proposing that when white people call the police on black people over things later discovered to be trivial, they ought to be charged with reckless endangerment (or was it ‘attempted murder?’). The stupidity of this proposal is made a little less appalling when we remember that black Americans are far, far less inclined to call the police than their white compatriots, so while we’re with weaker law enforcement all around, the policy at least aims at a sort of fairness.

American Studies Professor David Roediger said in a March 2018 interview: “It shouldn’t be that not getting murdered by a cop is a ‘privilege’ in this society, when it’s not.” Rather, it has ever been – along with the all the rest of what agents and enemies of whiteness ascribe it – a matter of human rights.

I admit that the language of human rights can be a hypocritical tool with which the West and the US in particular can criticize or even invade other countries. Human rights are nevertheless a useful heuristic for organizing societies (our own at least!)  in a way that benefits people.

Sane people know (in a way transcending the need for logical argument) that slavery, rape, and torture – these are some extreme particulars – are evil and it’s better when people aren’t made to endure these things. “Human rights” are in turn our received vocabulary for putting into practice the good sense that people don’t deserve ill treatment.

Roediger’s point suggests the contrast between the obsession with “privilege” or “entitlement,” fountain of the embittered social justice politics of our day, with an earlier understanding of progress and of justice, which is about sympathy and inclusion and not about arson. It’s a contrast as ominous as it is central to the destiny of the United States (and all liberal societies of the current year).

Last year I rented a room in the home of a black man in his late 40s. He was unabashed and supremely political in his sense of his blackness. We’d discuss Donald Trump‘s young presidency — I will always remember his conviction that Trump is in fact “no big deal;” that it’s ridiculous and even contemptible that white leftists (baizuo) catastrophize Trump’s presidency: “For us” (as he put it, meaning black Americans) “every white president has been just as horrible!”

Some time later, I discovered a speech made by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black nationalist religious group “Nation of Islam” (NOI) not long ago. Farrakhan maintains that “Trump is peeling back the skin of the onion of white civility.”

It is not in the racial dimension alone, but gender and sexuality too, that privilege theory encourages childish and destructive impulses in all parties involved. Republics cannot subsist on slogans and thoughtless mobs. Identity politics threatens to shatter the frame of the American republic, not merely “as we know it,” but as it could and should become, the ideal envisioned by America’s prophets, the whole time, from Thomas Paine to Abraham Lincoln to FDR to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The sooner we return to a vocabulary of “rights,” something meant to uplift and include, instead of the bitter and sterile vocabulary of “privilege” — the sooner we dare hope to reverse the cultural decline and rising tide of “intersectional” alienation  and acrimony and national fragmentation; the sooner will black and white Americans clasp hands in comradeship and true fraternal affection.

Paul Adams Shepard
Writer, political analyst and cultural critic (USA)

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