Black Privilege

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In the dying embers of this post, someone offers a very familiar attack on Affirmative Action:


That's the price of affirmative action. It taints black achievements, in the mind of many, with the question of "would this man have succeeded without race preferences" even in cases where the answer is undoubtedly "yes!"

There are some legitimate criticisms of Affirmative Action. I think this is one of the dumbest. The underlying premise is that society is generally fair, and no one receives a leg up ever, except black people. Or it assumes that such advantages exist, but negritude, in the nation of white leagues, black codes, and red lines, imparts the sort of boost heretofore unwitnessed.

But the history of America, itself, is, in no small measure, the history of an Affirmative Action program for white people. Mitt Romney was born in a Detroit neighborhood where the deed read:

Said lots shall not be sold or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race. But this shall not be interpreted to exclude occupancy by persons other than of the Caucasian race when such occupancy is incidental to their employment on the premises.

In other words, the neighborhood, like virtually every nice neighborhood in Detroit, and many throughout the country, was a giant set-aside for white people who didn't want to compete with blacks. But no one feels that Mitt Romney achievements--or the achievements of white people in general--are tainted by red-lining. No one says, "Would Mitt Romney have succeeded without race preferences?"



The very people who call for Obama's papers, are themselves, beneficiaries of privilege, who make questionable claims about their own achievements:

So how did Trump get into Wharton? 

Gwenda Blair's book on the Trump family reports that he gained admission as a transfer student only because of "an interview with a friendly Wharton admissions officer who was one of Freddy's old high school classmates." (Freddy is Donald's older brother.) Trump was also the son of one of the wealthiest New York businessmen of the era, the developer Fred Trump. That certainly couldn't have hurt his admission chances.  Blair also reports in her Trump biography that his grades at Fordham were merely "respectable." 

Trump has consistently portrayed himself as an exceptional student at Wharton. In March, for example, he explained his doubts about the president's birthplace by saying, "Let me tell you, I'm a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country...."

The writer Jerome Tuccille reported in his 1985 biography of Trump that while "it has been reported that he graduated first in the class ... Donald denied that he ever made such a claim. Actually he was not among the honor students that year." 

Tuccille continues: "Donald agreed to attend Wharton for his father's sake. He showed up for classes and did what was required of him but he was clearly bored and spent a lot of time on outside business activities." 

 In 1988, New York magazine reported that the idea that Trump had graduated first in his class was a "myth." 

The fact of the thing is this: life is unfair. I am at a stage in my career where I can tell you that, on balance, it helps that I am black. In a field (magazine journalism) where you can count the number of black writers on your hands, it makes me stick out.  I say that without a whit of guilt, fully aware that at other points in my life it didn't help (like when I was trying to become a writer) and at still others it actively hurt. 

Life is a series of episodes. In some of them you have hand. In others, you do not. I don't really see much use in questioning anyone's biography, because fortune smiled on them. I am not someone who derided George Bush because he was rich, or even much cared how he got into the Ivy Leagues. A fresh pair of spikes, and state of the art coaching always helps. But I still believe in the race, in the legitimacy of all runners.

I've talked repeatedly about my concerns with race-based Affirmative Action. But none of those concerns involve ill-gotten goods. Who is the successful human who can claim that they have never, not once, been advantaged by society? And who, with honesty and intelligence, would seriously claim that, among those advantages, black privilege is king?

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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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