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When Exceptions Prove the Rule: Poverty, Whiteness and Privilege


As someone who writes regularly on the subject of white privilege, I am often electronically attacked by those who insist that the very notion of such a thing is a mere figment of my imagination: well, mine, and that of all the other "race hustlers" out there. "Don’t you know that millions of white people are poor?" they typically ask, suggesting by virtue of the question that if the answer is yes (and of course it is, as I am well aware), then white privilege is obviously a myth.

Recently, I was e-mailed links to a 20/20 special on poverty and hardship in Appalachia, by someone who felt I obviously needed to see it before I ever again uttered the words "white" and "privilege" in the same sentence.

"How in the hell can you say all white people have privilege? Look at these people. Look at how they’re living. Look at how miserable their lives are and how much they have to struggle just to keep from living on the streets," the message read.

Indeed, the special was heart-rending. And there is little doubt that the conditions of life for many whites–including but not limited to those living in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia–are deplorable and worthy of our immediate attention. Their pain is real, and their claims on our conscience valid. Yet none of that denies that white privilege is a real and persistent phenomenon, also worthy of being addressed.

First off, even were we to grant that the white poor of Appalachia enjoy no privilege on the basis of their race, this would hardly diminish the truth of the general claim for white America on the whole. Exceptions sometimes prove the rule, precisely because they are so exceptional. Just as the existence of a statistical handful of dizzyingly rich black entertainers and athletes doesn’t change the basic contours of the opportunity structure for 38 million other African Americans, nor does the existence of a half-million desperately poor white Appalachians (out of a white population of over 200 million) suggest that there are not still advantages that come from being a member of the dominant racial group.

Let’s consider an analogy to help demonstrate the point. Consider persons with disabilities. Some among these are obviously affluent, with the financial means to provide for their well-being and that of their families. Despite their infirmities, they have the resources to take nice vacations, live in large homes, and lead, despite their conditions, comfortable lives. Alternately, we can easily envision plenty of able-bodied folks who are poor, facing foreclosure, and who just lost their jobs. That said, would anyone point to these well-off disabled folks and their poor but able-bodied counterparts as proof that the able-bodied weren’t advantaged, privileged, as a general rule, vis-a-vis the disabled? Of course not. Able-bodied privilege is a social fact, which remains every bit as factual even in the face of individual able-bodied persons who experience barriers on the basis of class.

Likewise, there are many prominent gays and lesbians, in the entertainment industry for example, whose financial profiles far and away dwarf those of most straight folks reading this essay. And what of it? Despite their financial privilege and advantage, they still face overt hostility, even violence on the basis of their sexual orientation; they can’t, in most places, marry or adopt children with one another; and as with all LGBT folk, they can be fired or denied housing, for no reason other than the bigotries of an employer, landlord, real estate agent or banker; and all of this legally. Those of us who are straight have the privilege of being viewed as normal, of being able to hold our partner’s hand or kiss them in public without drawing the ire of onlookers; we can put up pictures of our partner in the workplace or dorm room, without wondering if doing so is going to result in some form of hostile retaliation. The peace of mind that such privilege purchases for us is worth more than money, and is not truncated by the fact that many heteros struggle economically.

Or, consider an even more obvious example: suppose I were to say, "smoking cigarettes causes cancer." Now, on the one hand, we know that for millions of people this is true: their intake of tar and nicotine over many years is indeed what causes them to develop cancer, especially of the lungs. And because it is true for so many, scientists can say with absolute certainty that there is a positive and significant correlation between smoking cigarettes and cancer. Causation on an individual level for many, and correlation overall for the society. But let’s say you have a great aunt, let’s call her Polly. And let’s say Polly has been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for fifty years, and hasn’t developed so much as a cough, let alone cancer. And let’s say there are literally tens of thousands of people like Polly out there, as there likely are. Would you then be able to claim, with any intellectual integrity, that your Aunt Polly’s experience (and the experiences of others like her) somehow disproved or debunked the larger truth of a link between smoking and cancer? Of course not, anymore so than the fact that some people get shot in the head and don’t die, doesn’t invalidate the fairly safe bet that if you get shot in the head, you will.

Individual anecdote and exception cannot, by definition, disprove observable, statistically significant and quantifiable evidence that points in an opposite direction. So the fact that some high school dropouts go on to be millionaires doesn’t disprove that people with college degrees generally do better in life; the fact that many people who grow up in desperate poverty never commit a crime doesn’t debunk the high correlation between extreme deprivation and lawbreaking; and the fact that some folks who eat greasy, fried foods still have low cholesterol doesn’t suggest that you needn’t worry about the kinds of things you put in your body.

As a second consideration, remember that the claim of white privilege as a social phenomenon is merely one that argues this: the lives white people lead are substantively enhanced, materially and psychologically, vis-a-vis people of color, due to whiteness. The key words here are the lives white people lead. In other words, the real, on-the-ground lives of real white people, not lives and people in the abstract. This is critical to understand, because the lives we lead are mediated by other social truths. So, in the U.S., for instance, we live lives that take place within a class system. Thus, in the real world competitions for "stuff," white poor folks are not up against rich black people. Mostly, they are competing for jobs, educations and housing against poor folks of color. Likewise, rich competes against rich, middle class against middle class and so-on. The claim of white privilege presupposes that that privilege plays out in an intra-class manner. And can anyone really deny that when poor whites and poor folks of color vie for opportunities, that it pays to be white? Or that when middle class whites compete against similarly situated blacks and Latinos, that whites have the edge? Bottom line: to test a social science hypothesis it goes without saying that you need to control for other factors that could influence outcomes, like, in this case, class.

So, in the case of Appalachians, the proper test of their racial privilege (or lack thereof) would be to compare whites in the region with blacks in the same region and to then ask, do whites have an advantage or privileges relative to their regional counterparts of color? That most people aren’t even aware of the existence of blacks in Appalachia (though they comprise about 6 percent of the region’s population, and are among some of the poorest) seems a pretty good answer to that question. That whites are the ones we instantly think of when we think of Appalachian poverty, and the ones for whom we typically then express such great sympathy, seems to indicate a very substantial kind of privileging; a kind that erases from our consciousness altogether, the problem of rural black poverty as though it were a non-factor.

And indeed there is far more sympathy expressed for the white poor, historically and today, than for the black and brown poor: another form of implicit preference for, and privileging of, whiteness. Now that the economy is imploding, one can hear concern expressed about the poor (especially the once middle-class poor, mostly constructed as white), and how terrible it is that they are now facing such hardships. Yet when those same hardships were being experienced by the urban black and brown (whose communities have been in a recession or even depression state for entire generations in some cases) little sympathy attached. Indeed, as Martin Gilens explained in his book Why Americans Hate Welfare, as the media imagery of the poor began to shift in the early 1970s, from mostly white and rural to mostly black and urban, public animosity towards the impoverished rose in lockstep. As contrasted with the mostly sympathy-filled portrayals of the Dust Bowl poor in the 30s, or the white families that were losing their farms in the 80s, black families suffering under the combined forces of the decline in city-based manufacturing employment, as well as racism, redlining by banks and neglect of urban school infrastructure, were viewed as responsible for their own plight.

The simple truth is, working people are not all in the same boat, and white working class folks have real advantages. Black and Latino workers are typically the first fired in an economic downturn, and remain twice as likely to be unemployed and 3-4 times as likely to be poor, in good times or bad; and white high school dropouts are twice as likely to find work as similarly uneducated African Americans.

Furthermore, according to Thomas Shapiro’s groundbreaking work on the racial wealth divide, whites in the bottom fifth of all white households (in terms of income) have, on average seven times the net worth of similar blacks. In large part this is due to a major advantage in home ownership and thus equity, due to passed down property from parents. Indeed, as Shapiro and his colleague Melvin Oliver have found (and chronicled in their book, Black Wealth/White Wealth), whites with incomes below $13,000 are more likely to own their own homes than blacks with incomes that are three times higher, largely due to these intergenerational transfers of wealth.

None of this takes away from the real economic struggles faced by millions of white families. But it does suggest that people of color face those struggles and then explicitly racial ones too. To acknowledge this truism does not mean that racism is more important than classism, or that issues of poverty should take a back seat. But to avoid the conversation about racism and white privilege is to evade a fundamental truth. What’s more, finessing the topic will likely make it hard for people of color to trust white liberals and leftists, the latter of whom seem to prefer a color-blind class unity, not realizing that the unity they claim to seek can never be built on a foundation of half-truths and convenient fictions.

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