Thursday, April 7, 2011

Whiteness and the White Privilege Paradigm

Barry Deutsch / CC BY 3.0

In the previous post I offered some critical reflections on colorblindness, the paradigm that dominates the mainstream conversation on race in the United States. In this post I will discuss the white privilege paradigm. The white privilege paradigm represents a formidable challenge to the paradigm of colorblindness, and it constitutes a vital dimension of the stand I take throughout this blog. White privilege helps account for the durability of institutional and structural racism by reminding us that systemic oppression continues to have real beneficiaries in post Civil Rights America. In addition, the white privilege paradigm reframes the question of racial progress. Whereas the colorblind paradigm portrays a post-racial America, where racism has been all but eliminated, the white privilege paradigm enables us to see the ways in which the advancement of formal human rights for people of color has coincided with the consolidation of informal structural and institutional advantages for those able to identify as white Americans.

As I discussed in the previous post, those who believe in the narrative of racial progress point to the removal of formal barriers, legal and otherwise, which excluded black Americans from certain schools and neighborhoods, from access to public accommodations, and from voting. They also cite surveys that reveal a steady decline in explicitly prejudiced attitudes among white Americans. The reason that these particular types of evidence are considered convincing is that the colorblind paradigm relies on a mechanistic conception of society, in general, and racism, in particular. The methodology appropriate to understanding a machine is to analyze it into its component parts and evaluate its parts in isolation. With respect to racism, the parts appear to be OK. As I said, the laws are no longer explicitly racist and most individual white people at least know how to avoid sounding prejudiced in a phone survey.[i] For those with a strictly mechanistic understanding of society, therefore, the conclusion that racism is largely behind us makes sense.

The white privilege paradigm, on the other hand, derives from a view of society based on systems thinking.[ii] Systems thinking entails a methodology quite different from mechanistic thinking. The methodology associated with the study of systems, especially biological and social systems is twofold. First, because such systems are complex and non-linear, their behavior cannot be evaluated based on isolated observations. Only statistical methods can reveal if there are meaningful patterns in the behavior of such systems over time. I referred in the previous post to the crucial difference between performing a statistical analysis of racial equity in the U.S. and citing individual anecdotes, such as Obama’s election. Interpretations may vary, but no one can deny the persistence of major patterns of racial disparity in virtually every measurable domain. The data leaves little doubt that the ability to claim a white identity in the U.S. corresponds to significantly greater material wellbeing and social mobility.

In addition, in order to understand how the patterns revealed by statistical analysis came to characterize a particular system, one must study that system’s history. If we examine the history of racism in the U.S., and avoid trying to fit it into the preexisting narrative of advancing freedom, we may notice a consistent pattern. Despite significant racial progress in certain areas, the advancement of people of color, as a whole, has been limited, at every juncture,  by the unwillingness of white people, as a whole, to relinquish the unearned benefits we derive from our white identity. I’m not saying that individual white people are necessarily acting deliberately to perpetuate large scale systemic injustices. We are usually just acting individually to preserve social benefits that we have been trained to regard as entitlements. We are like bees, who’ve been blindly following simple local rules, while building and maintaining an elaborate hive of white supremacy. The white privilege paradigm provides a framework for conceptualizing the history of racism in the U.S. in a way that reframes the question of racial progress and exposes its built-in limitations.

The privileges of whiteness include concrete material advantages such as access to “safe” neighborhoods, well-resourced schools, and favorable or fair treatment by most private and public institutions. They also include less tangible advantages such as a confidence (not always warranted) that the system will be forgiving of your and your children’s  “mistakes,” that your bad habits won’t be seen as racial flaws, that portrayals of your race in the media and in history books will be mostly positive, and that your race will remain a norm against which racial and cultural difference is measured and judged. It should come as no surprise that white people act collectively, if not always consciously, to preserve these benefits.

Cheryl Harris and George Lipsitz have each argued that whiteness in the U.S. is treated as a type of property. This means that the system regards the privileges of whiteness as rights, which naturally take precedence over demands for social justice. Harris, for example, shows how whiteness has been treated as property by the legal system. In her landmark paper Whiteness as Property, she notes that, at the very moment when the land ownership requirement for voting was being eliminated, the right to vote was being actively denied to free Blacks, through legal and extra-legal means. The property requirement for voting was thus effectively replaced with a race requirement, explicitly turning whiteness into a form of legal property. Government policies have subsequently protected and enhanced the property value of whiteness, often through laws that make no direct mention of race. The New Deal offers a prime example of this phenomenon. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, farm labor and domestic service, the main job categories occupied by people of color at that time, were excluded from benefits. So Social Security, as originally enacted, was meant for white people. In addition, the New Deal housing programs, such as the FHA and the HOLC relied on explicitly discriminatory underwriting policies. As a result, practically all available federal home loan assistance went to fund white migration to the suburbs, while people of color remained trapped in substandard inner city housing. 

In his book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, Lipsitz reveals a continuity between erstwhile strategies for preserving white power and new, less overt practices that have emerged during the post Civil Rights era. Sticking with the real estate example, although fair housing laws eliminated race-based FHA underwriting guidelines and outlawed restrictive covenants, informal practices of racial steering and mortgage discrimination have continued up to the present. Moreover, according to Lipsitz, private lenders, developers, and speculators exploited the provisions of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act in ways that actually exacerbated segregation, promoting white flight, creating price volatility, and of course producing large profits for themselves. Besides having measurable negative impacts in terms of education, crime, health and employment, residential segregation is also self-perpetuating for the obvious reason that suburban real estate has tended to appreciate over time. This has produced greater intergenerational wealth for suburban home owners, and widened the racial wealth gap over time.

Another way in which whiteness has functioned to maintain its privilege and power in the U.S. is through an ideological backlash against race-conscious public policies. As Lipsitz points out, policies designed to advance opportunities for people of color tend to be accepted precisely up the point at which they are perceived to impinge on privileges that white people regard as entitlements. The most obvious example of this is affirmative action. For centuries, people of color were actively excluded from educational and employment opportunities, and many continue to face formidable challenges due to structural disadvantages such as residential segregation, as well as old-fashion discrimination. Yet, the modest efforts undertaken to correct for these very real disadvantages, such as a little extra consideration in hiring and college admissions, have been met with a sustained and largely successful campaign to reframe affirmative action as unfair discrimination against white people. Meanwhile, the fact that most of its beneficiaries are white women typically gets lost in the rush to cast the affirmative action in racial terms.

Finally, white privilege persists because white people are motivated to preserve the status quo and at the same time are shielded from responsibility by the singular privilege of obliviousness. Indeed, this covenant of ignorance/innocence is perhaps the primary way that whiteness protects its privileged position.[iii] Our cultivated inability (sometimes refusal) to see how the institutions and social structures of U.S. society favor white people allows us not only to enjoy our racial advantages but to defend them tenaciously. It is ironic that, in a society where so many of us are so poorly versed in science and history, the average white person, when challenged, turns out to be capable of expounding eloquently on abstract liberal principles, such as free market competition, individual choice, and the merits of meritocracy.[iv] Indeed, a statement such as “the best person should always get the job” probably sounds like common sense to most people. However, for this to be realized requires not only that every potentially qualified person has an equal chance of being considered, but also that there exists an unproblematically universal standard for making these decisions. In addition, the abstract terms of this discussion presuppose that the race of the people empowered to do the deciding can safely be ignored.

The notion that racism is sustained through our “innocent,” race-neutral actions probably constitutes a pretty radical paradigm shift for most of us. I know it did for me. The shift is made even more difficult by the fact that accepting this analysis of our society entails a responsibility to change it. You are welcome of course to reject this whole argument; that after all is the essence of white privilege. I only ask that you consider: what if this analysis is right? What if, when we fail to question the status quo because it’s hard and because we don’t have to, we are engaged in a collective enterprise to preserve unearned privileges that flow to us at the expense of people of color? Just think about it.

For the white privilege paradigm, racism is not a mechanical process that can be disabled simply by removing race from the law and race prejudice from individuals’ minds. Though originally created by design, racism persists as an emergent property, which perpetuates itself through institutional momentum, social and residential segregation, and countless seemingly race-neutral acts of rational self-interest. While the colorblind paradigm obscures the true nature of this system, the white privilege paradigm lays bare its inner logic, dramatically remapping the moral landscape and brazenly transgressing the cosmology of whiteness.  

[i] The claim that race prejudice has dramatically lessened among individual white people does not hold up so well in detailed studies.
[ii] Systems thinking has by now influenced every scientific discipline, but it should be noted that the it actually has roots in sociology.
[iii] In his book The Racial Contract, Mills calls this covenant an “epistemological contract.” It functions through the ideology of individualism, the discounting & distortion of history, the mechanistic conception of society and of course the colorblind paradigm. 
[iv] See Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla Silva. 


  1. Excellent blog as usual.

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  2. Thanks Brotha Wolf! New blog site duly noted.