White privilege

White privilege is a sociological concept that describes advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond that which is commonly experienced by non-white people in those same social, political, and economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice in that a person benefiting from white privilege may not necessarily hold racist beliefs or prejudices themselves. Often, the person benefiting is unaware of his or her supposed privilege.

Scholars associated with the legal studies field of critical race theory have argued that whiteness or white racial status can be thought of as property, something of value owned by certain members of society. This idea has been advanced in particular by Cheryl Harris[1] and George Lipsitz[2]. Betsy Lucal writes that current ideas about racism are limited because of their tendency to focus only on racial “minorities” and the oppressive aspects of race. This approach, she writes, overlooks how whites are affected by race and indeed receive privileges through race[3]. Dan J. Pence and J. Arthur Fields suggest that resistance to the idea of white privilege stems from a tendency of whites to see inequality as a black or Latino issue. White reactions can range from hostility to a “wall of silence.”[4].

A study published by Branscombe et al found that thinking about the benefits gained from a privileged group membership can threaten social identity and evoke justification of the existing status difference between the ingroup and a disadvantaged group. For white Americans, racial privilege may be justified by concurring with modern racist attitudes. The study found that increased racism in response to thoughts of white privilege was limited to those who highly identified with their racial category. In contrast, when white racial identification was sufficiently low, thoughts of white privilege reliably reduced modern racism[5]. Statements about racial inequality may be framed as either White privileges or Black disadvantages. When framed as White privileges, a 2005 study found that the statements resulted in greater collective guilt and lower racism compared to a Black disadvantage framing. The findings suggest that representing inequality in terms of outgroup disadvantage allows privileged group members to avoid the negative psychological implications of inequality and supports prejudicial attitudes[6].

In the essay, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack, Peggy McIntosh sought to enumerate the social, political and cultural advantages accorded to whites in American society. McIntosh claims there are parallels between white privilege, male privilege and heterosexual privilege

In his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois first described the “psychological wages” of whiteness:

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.[8]

This concept was later taken up by David Roediger in his book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class[9] Theorists associated with the journal Race Traitor, such as editor Noel Ignatiev, argue that whiteness (as a marker of a social status within the United States) is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to what they consider an oppressive social order. This loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: from the suppression of slave rebellions to whites-only unions to support for police brutality. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of a white appearance as a marker for social consent. With enough “counterfeit whites” resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this tradition argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. Without such a period, they argue, progress towards social justice is impossible, and thus “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

The theory of White privilege in America may be seen as having its roots in the system of legalized discrimination that existed for much of American history.[10] In her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America Stephanie M. Wildman writes that many Americans who advocate a merit-based, race-free worldview do not acknowledge the systems of privilege which benefit them. For example, many Americans rely on a social and sometimes even financial inheritance from previous generations. This inheritance, unlikely to be forthcoming if one’s ancestors were slaves, privileges whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality[11]. In addition to legal rights, whites were sometimes afforded opportunities and benefits that were unavailable to others. For example, government subsidized white homeownership in the middle of the 20th century through the Federal Housing Administration, but not homeownership of other minorities[12]. Some social scientists suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege that have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism[13].

Historians and authors, including Noel Ignatiev and Karen Brodkin, discuss the historical trajectory from exclusion to acceptance of Irish and Jewish émigrés in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in terms of white privilege. Many see a continuing, although not legalized or acknowledged, system of advantage to white people in areas such as housing, salaries, access to employment (especially to positions of power), access to education, even life expectancy[14].


Sociologists in the American Mosaic Project report widespread belief in the United States that “prejudice and discrimination in favor of whites is important in explaining white advantage” or in their terms that “prejudice and discrimination create a form of white privilege.” According to their 2003 poll, this view was affirmed by 59% of white respondents, 83% of Blacks, and 84% of Hispanics.[16]

[edit] Wealth

Whites have historically had more opportunities to accumulate wealth. Some of the institutions of wealth creation amongst American citizens were open exclusively to whites, notably land distributed under the Homestead Act and other settlement efforts in the West. Similar differentials applied to the Social Security Act (which excluded agricultural workers, a sector that then included most black workers)[citation needed], rewards to military officers, and the educational benefits offered returning soldiers after World War II. An analyst of the phenomenon, Thomas Shapiro, professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University argues, “The wealth gap is not just a story of merit and achievement, it’s also a story of the historical legacy of race in the United States.”[17].

Over the past 40 years there has been less formal discrimination in America. However, the inequality in wealth has been sustained. Many whites were able to pass along their wealth in the form of inheritances and transformative assets (inherited wealth which lifts a family beyond their own achievements) which continually give advantage to white Americans.[18] Pre-existing disparities in wealth are exacerbated by tax policies that reward investment over waged income, subsidize mortgages, and subsidize private sector developers[19].

Thomas Shapiro argues that wealth is passed along from generation to generation, giving whites a better “starting point” in life than other races. According to Shapiro, many whites receive financial assistance from their parents allowing them to live beyond their income. This, in turn, enables them to buy houses and major assets which aid in the accumulation of wealth. Since houses in white neighborhoods appreciate faster, even African Americans who are able to overcome their “starting point” are unlikely to accumulate wealth as fast as whites. Shapiro asserts that this is a continual cycle which whites consistently benefit from. [20]These benefits also have effects on schooling and other life opportunities.

[edit] Justice

A 2002 Department of Justice survey found that, although the likelihood of being stopped by police did not differ significantly between white drivers and other races, black or Latino drivers were three times more likely to be searched than white drivers.[21] Young white offenders are likely to receive lighter punishments than minorities in America. Black youth arrested for drug possession for the first time are incarcerated at a rate that is forty-eight times greater than the rate for white youth, even when all other factors surrounding the crime are identical. [22][23]

[edit] Employment and economics

Racialized employment networks are yet another facet of employment which benefit whites at the expense of blacks. Deirdre A. Royster[24] conducted a study which compared black and white males who graduated from the same school with the same skills. She looked at their success in their school-work transition and subsequent working experience. What she found was that the white graduates were more often employed in skilled trades, earned more, held higher status positions, received more promotions and experienced shorter periods of unemployment. Since all factors of these graduates education and skills were strikingly similar, the differences in employment experiences could only be attributed to race. Royster concluded that the primary cause of these racial differences was due to social networking. The concept of “who you know” seemed just as important to these graduates as “what you know.”

Since older white males predominantly control blue-collar trades, they are more likely to offer varying forms of assistance to those in their social network, other whites. Assistance can be anything from job vacancy information, referrals, direct job recruitment, formal and informal training, vouching behavior and leniency in supervision. This assistance available to whites is a form of privilege which consistently puts black men at a disadvantage in the employment sector, “these ideologies provide a contemporary deathblow to working-class black men’s changes of establishing a foothold in the traditional trades.” [24].

This concept is similar to the theory created by Mark Granovetter which analyzes the importance of social networking and interpersonal ties with his paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” and his other economic sociology work.

Other research shows that there is a correlation between a person’s name and their likelihood of receiving a call back for a job interview. A field experiment in Boston and Chicago found that people with “white-sounding” names are 50% more likely to receive a call back than people with “black-sounding” names, despite equal résumé quality between the two racial groups[25]. White Americans are more likely than black Americans to have their business loan applications approved, even when other factors such as credit records are comparable[26].

Black and Latino college graduates in America are less likely than white college graduates to end up in a management position[27]. This is true even when other factors such as age, experience, and academic records are similar.[28][29].

Discrimination in housing policies was formalized in 1934 under the Federal Housing Act which provided government credit to private lending for home buyers. Within the Act, the Federal Housing Agency had the authority to channel all the money to white home buyers instead of other minorities. The FHA also channeled money away from inner-city neighborhoods after WWII and instead placed it in the hands of white home buyers who would move into segregated suburbs.[30] These practices and others, intensified attitudes of segregation and inequality.

While discriminatory practices have since been outlawed, there are still unofficial tactics which take place to advantage white homeowners and disadvantage minorities. Property ownership is one of the most valuable assets one can obtain. But “most white families have acquired their net worth from the appreciation of property that they secured under conditions of special privilege in a discriminatory housing market.” .[31] This net worth accumulation assists in placing whites in more favorable conditions to receive low interest loans, mortgages and financial assistance in the housing market. Chip Smith[32] paints a quick picture of some additional ways whites are privileged.

  • Whites are offered more choices; 60%-90% of housing units shown to whites are not made available to blacks.
  • 72.1% of whites own their own home opposed to 48.1% for African Americans
  • 46% of whites had help from their family in making down payments on homes compared to 12% for African Americans
  • Whites are half as likely to be turned down for a mortgage or home improvement loan
  • Whites pay on average a 8.12% interest rate on their mortgage, lower than the 8.44% African Americans pay on average
  • The median home equity for whites is $58,000 compared to $40,000 for African Americans

[edit] Education

Whites go to schools where, on average, 80 percent of the other students are white as well. Even schools that appear to be integrated often segregate students based on abilities. Gaps in school related cognitive skills between minority students and others develop before kindergarten.[33] Since white students have a higher likelihood of being “school ready,” they are grouped together. This presents white students with an educational advantage, magnifying the “unequal classroom experience of African American students” and minorities.[34]

Often the material that black and other minority children are tested on in school is culturally biased, not taking into consideration dialect and other differences between populations. Williams and Rivers (1972b) showed quite clearly that test instructions in Standard English penalized the black child and that if the language of the test is put in familiar labels without training or coaching, the child’s performances on the tests increase significantly.[35] For example, it has been pointed out that ideally a child’s language development should be evaluated in terms of his progress toward the norms for his particular speech community.[36] Other studies using sentence repetition tasks found that, at both third and fifth grades, white subjects repeated Standard English sentences significantly more accurately than black subjects, while black subjects repeated nonstandard English sentences significantly more accurately than white subjects[37].

Evidence shows that traditional psychological and academic assessment is based on skills that are considered important within white, western, middle-class culture, but which may not be salient or valued within African-American culture.[38][39] When tests stimuli are more culturally pertinent to the experiences of African Americans, performance improves.[40][41]

Educational inequality is also a consequence of housing. Since most states determine school funding based on property taxes, schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive more funding per student. As home values in white neighborhoods are higher than minority neighborhoods, local schools receive more funding via property taxes. This will ensure better technology in predominantly white schools, smaller class sizes and better quality teachers, giving white students opportunities for a better education.[42] The vast majority of schools placed on academic probation as part of district accountability efforts are majority African-American and low-income.[43]

Inequalities in wealth and housing allow white parents the option to move to better school districts or afford to put their children in private schools if they don’t approve of the neighborhoods schools.[44]

Minority students are less likely to be placed in honors classes, even when justified by test scores.[45][46][47] Visible minority students are more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule violations do not differ significantly by race.[48][49] Adult education specialist Elaine Manglitz argues the educational system in America has deeply-entrenched biases in favor of the white majority in evaluation, curricula, and power relations.[50]

[edit] Self-image

Beverly Daniel Tatum points out that most white people do not think to describe themselves as “white” when listing descriptive terms about themselves, whereas people of color usually use racial or ethnic identity descriptors. Tatum suggests this is because the elements of one’s identity that are congruent with the dominant culture are so normalized and reflected back at one that one is apt to take such traits for granted. This is not the case for identity aspects of those who are defined as “other” by the dominant culture, whether it be on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other microcultural aspects.[15] The true reasons behind this occurrence are unknown, but may also be due to many different unspoken psychological effects on minorities and majorities alike, whether it be pride, shame, or an environmental stimulation such as a rally.

Tatum writes that dominant microcultures (in this case, white people) set the parameters in which “subordinate” microcultures operate. Subordinate groups are often labeled as substandard in significant ways: e.g., blacks have historically been characterized as less intelligent than whites.[15] Subordinates are also defined as being innately incapable of being able to perform the preferred roles in society.[15]

The use of skin whitening treatments by non-whites has been linked to the benefits of white privilege. According to several theorists, the relationship between white privilege and skin whitening is explained by colorism and colonial mentality.[51][unreliable source?][52][unreliable source?]

[edit] The absence of racism

Definitions of privilege also include not experiencing racism (the absence of racism) as a privilege[53]. Privilege, then, includes both human rights, which are understood to be deserved, and unearned immunities and advantages, because disparity of both types exists.[54][unreliable source?]

[edit] The Persistence of White Privilege

In her personal account of experiencing white privilege, Heidi A. Zetzer, the Director of the Hosford Counseling & Psychological Services Clinic in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, & School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara explains why white privilege is such a persistent problem. She categorizes it as an “institutional and individual manifestation of racism, however indirectly or unintentionally.”[55] This indirectness of white privilege is what makes it so prevalent. If people are not educated on the matter, it is unlikely that they will take note of it. Secondly, those that are aware of it suffer under the stigma of benefiting from an unfair system. Zetzer asks “How can I see myself as a just person when I willingly participate in a system that is inherently unfair?” The guilt formed by this opinion creates a spirit of inactivity in solving the problem. “White guilt,” as Zetzer deems it, is an impediment to change. Consequently, even if people become educated on white privilege it is unlikely that they will take action to change it and instead allow the problem to persist.

Zetzer also specifies the type of changes necessary to make progressive steps in dealing with white privilege and its implications. She notes that most people who become educated on white privilege undergo a first-order change in which they gain increased awareness, knowledge and skills. However, for progress to be made in equalizing problems such as white privilege, individuals need to undergo second-order change. Second-order change is characterized by a paradigm shift in which people use their awareness, knowledge and skills to take action. Zetzer believes the first, and easiest, way to initiate this transformation is through dialogue. Honest and multicultural dialogue is the first way to build alliances which can then “transform people and systems and turn intention into action,” [56] thus slowly changing the persistence of white privilege.

[edit] Criticism

Assumptions of white privilege theory have come under criticism. In discussing unequal test scores between public school students, opinion columnist Matt Rosenberg laments the Seattle Public Schools’ emphasis on “institutional racism” and “white privilege”:

“The disparity is not simply a matter of color: School District data indicate income, English-language proficiency and home stability are also important correlates to achievement…By promoting the “white privilege” canard and by designing a student indoctrination plan, the Seattle School District is putting retrograde, leftist politics ahead of academics, while the perpetrators of “white privilege” are minimizing the capabilities of minorities.”[57]

[edit] Low impact of white privilege

Conservative scholar and opponent of affirmative action programs, Shelby Steele at the Hoover Institution, believes that the effects of white privilege are exaggerated. Steele argues that irresponsibility is a larger problem for blacks, who may incorrectly blame their personal failures on white oppression. He also argues that there are many “minority privileges”: “If I’m a black high school student today… there are white American institutions, universities, hovering over me to offer me opportunities: Almost every institution has a diversity committee… There is a hunger in this society to do right racially, to not be racist


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