Racism and White Privilege

Bill Maher is a comedian and political commentator on HBO’s “Reel Time”. His comedy shreds hypocrisy in any form, so he can be just as devastating with both Republicans and Democrats. He tends to get everyone riled up at one time or another, no matter what part of the political spectrum they are on. He is thought provoking much of the time. I don’t always agree with him but I watch his show because I enjoy his satirical humor.

A few weeks ago, a senator who recently wrote a book was on the show promoting his book and Bill Maher was interviewing him. Somehow the conversation got around to the senator inviting Maher to come to his home state and work in the fields. I don’t remember why the invitation was extended. However, being a comedian Maher looked for an angle to make a humorous comment from the invitation.  What he came up with was something like, “Work in the field? I’m a house ‘n…..r’ (“n” word)”. At the time Maher thought nothing of it but the off-handed remark blew up in his face and caused a firestorm of criticism. The following week about a quarter of the show was dedicated to him apologizing for the comment and carrying on conversations with guests who attempted to educate him and the audience on why the comment was so offensive.

The “n” word literally means “thief” and has been used as an insult and put down by slave masters and bigots to assert a position of power over people of color in the United States. Over the past forty years or so some people within the African-American community have made use of the word, turning it upside down and making it a symbol of solidarity.  It is a word that someone from the African-American community can get away with using, when it clearly implies solidarity, as both the user and the listener are from the same ill-treated community. However, if the person using the word is not from that community, then it comes across in its raw and bigoted meaning.

A point that Bill Maher tried to make was that he certainly didn’t intend to insult or put anyone down and didn’t mean his comment in a malicious way. As a comedian, he was simply looking for laughs. Several of his guests explained that the word has such a vile history that it is simply not his word to use because he is not part of the African-American community. They noted that the comment reflects a deeper problem in society, even if there was no malicious intent behind the comment.

Every society has its divisions and strata. Usually the divisions are based on relative access to power within the society. In traditional island society, this was often related to family, skill and virtue. Island leaders came from families with the right connections. They were skilled in getting things done, whether it was a policy approved or a boat built. They built up a reputation as a good person; giving part of their catch to the elderly when they went out fishing, caring for the widowed or orphaned. In 21st century United States the divisions appear to be related to wealth and education. Ultimately it boils down to wealth but education is one of the pathways to a decent income in the United States. If you want access to power, you need access to wealth.

There is a myth that in the States one can get ahead by hard work, persistence, luck and good ideas. This is true in some cases but just as often you get ahead by going to the right schools, knowing the right people, coming from the right family and having other ties to those who already have wealth and power. The statistics show that in most cases it also helps to be white.

Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as “white privilege”. Usually, it is not overt; even when the system tries to be fair, the statistics show that everything being equal people of color get longer and harsher sentences in the justice system, are less likely to make it through the educational system or reach the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. Much of it relates to social networks to which people of colors simply do not have common access, as suggested earlier. Part of it relates to social structures and laws that favor the wealthy and powerful over the poor and vulnerable, as we see with jerrymandering congressional districts to favor one political party or another or tax bills like those being suggested in Washington.

Probably the greatest part of the phenomenon relies on the assumptions that people make about one another and about what is important in society. These assumptions are based on historical and cultural narratives that are shaped by those in power or those who benefit from a particular view of history.

An example I’ve mentioned many times is the Westward expansion of European society to the Americas, across the continent and on into the Pacific. This is usually presented as a positive movement of civilization and a noble expression of the pioneer spirit. This version ignores the side of the story where ancient civilizations and cultures are destroyed by disease and genocide, the wealth of nations is stolen and millions are enslaved for the benefit of European powerbrokers, their associates and descendants. This myth supports the nobility of the Westward Expansion and strengthens the position of those who have benefited by the underlying moral depravity of that movement. People simply assume the entire process to be noble or at least an inevitable part of a process of social and cultural interaction. That there are serious moral questions at play both in initially undertaking the Westward Expansion, as well as implications for today aren’t even considered.

Among theologians there is the beginning of an awareness that the theological community has accepted a degree of white “European” privilege in the assumption that it makes.  All you need to do is pick up any theology journal and look at the table of contents.  What you will find are some ten to twenty articles written by white theologians about issues that debate issues more consistent with European theological controversies than the lived reality of North American experience. What you won’t find normally are articles dealing with slavery or its impact on the lives of US Catholics, even though the experience of slavery and its aftermath are the most important and morally demanding experiences of US history. Neither will you find many articles reflecting the Black experience or theological reflection on current events, unless you pursue niche journals. The point is that even among those who should be especially sensitive to issues of racism and white privilege there is a profound blindness.

Affirmative action programs are an attempt to balance the scales by making it easier for People of Color to have access to institutions (schools and jobs) to which their social networks would normally not grant them easy access. Some people complain that affirmative action programs are a form of reverse discrimination. This may be true but the ultimate goal is to create a level playing field in which racism and white privilege do not operate.

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