The Myth of the Myth of White Privilege?

by Sara Mayeux

On Friday Senator Jim Webb of Virginia caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere when he called, on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, for an end to government affirmative action programs. The op-ed is headlined "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." Now, maybe there's a case to be made for Webb's specific policy proposal vis-a-vis government contracting and hiring, but I don't think broadly labeling white privilege a "myth" is the way to do it. 

In fairness, the op-ed's headline—which could well have come from an overzealous copy editor rather than Webb's camp—is more strident than its content. True, Webb does claim that "WASP elites have fallen by the wayside," which strikes me as dubious but which is hard to tackle given its slippery phrasing (who counts as an "elite"? what's "the wayside"?) But Webb doesn't use the word "myth" itself anywhere in the piece, and he allows that blacks "experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup." His argument, then, seems to be not so much that (some) whites don't enjoy privileges or that (many) blacks don't labor under disadvantages, but rather that white America is not a monolith and that many whites, especially in the South, have suffered from poverty. No one would dispute those facts, but I'm not sure they add up to the conclusion that being considered white in our society isn't, on balance, more helpful than not.

If Webb does buy his own headline—that white privilege is a "myth"—then I'm disappointed and, frankly, surprised, since, as politicians go, he has been an especially outspoken advocate of reform in one of the areas of our society where white privilege remains at its strongest: the criminal justice system. (Granted, it's not that hard to become an especially outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform when the pool you're being compared to consists largely of pusillanimous demagogues, but Webb gets a good grade here even if the curve is pretty easy.)

Princeton sociologist Devah Pager's book Marked: Race, Class, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration is a handy short primer on how blacks suffer doubly from a criminal justice system that is quicker to incarcerate them and a society that is quicker to write them off once they get out of prison. Let's never lose sight of the magnitude of the problem: A black boy born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of spending some part of his life locked up. (The rates aren't great for other races, either: 1 in 6 for Latino boys, 1 in 17 for white boys.)

It's always important to note, when having these discussions, that the differential incarceration rate by race can't be entirely explained by differential crime rates or the extent to which race serves as a proxy for poverty, though it's partly both of those things. Even for crimes that blacks commit less frequently than whites—such as drug possession—blacks are more likely to get arrested, more likely to be sentenced to prison as opposed to treatment, and likely to be sent to prison for longer than a white person convicted of a similar crime. Overall the U.S. relies on prison far more than any of its peers (except Russia); Britain, with a roughly similar crime rate (of course, insert here all the usual caveats about crime stats), has an incarceration rate 1/5 ours. 

I am less interested in divining whether these outcomes are the result of racism in the souls of Americans than I am in figuring out what policies we could adopt going forward to mitigate the devastation that mass incarceration has wrought upon black children, families, and communities. As I heard Michelle Alexander say when she spoke at Stanford a few months ago (and I paraphrase), this could have all happened by accident: The question would remain, how do we fix it? Not to try is to adopt a stance of complicity towards a situation that perpetuates a particularly stark brand of white privilege.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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