The Snowflaking of White Privilege
If America is ever to become a pluralistic, multiracial democratic republic we must come to terms with racism and white privilege…
Some white people really don’t want to hear that if they’d been born Black their lives would have almost certainly been much harder. It shatters their ability to cling to the number one most important aspect/benefit of white privilege. It confronts them with the end of innocence.
This is particularly difficult for America’s elite media. The very idea of calling out, for example, Trump supporters for their racism is “beyond the pale.” And I mean that nearly literally.
A “palus,” the “pale” referenced in that old phrase, was a sharpened stake sticking out from a fence designed to keep people within a certain area: it was the 13th century version of barbed or razor wire. They were called “paling fences.” The British used them back then to keep Irish people from leaving their Gaza-like confinement areas in eastern parts of Ireland, the area that, for the British, was “beyond the pales.”
America’s news media is as wary of calling Republicans racists as the Irish were of getting themselves impaled (also where that word came from) on the British fences. Think about it: when was the last time you heard or read Trump, or his cult followers, being explicitly identified as “racist” by any of our major media outlets.
And yet they are racists.
Even when Trump calls Letitia James “Peekaboo James,” evoking the old “Jigab**” slur from the era of his childhood, they look away. Even when he uses his favorite descriptor for Black people: “thugs.” Or when he talks about brown-skinned immigrants “poisoning the blood” of America. They’ll acknowledge he’s quoting Hitler but appear terrified of calling him a racist or pointing out he’s using racism as a political weapon.
On my radio/TV program yesterday, a caller brought up the topic of Trump’s racism in the context of white privilege. I commented that I was probably in my 50s before I realized that the biggest, most important, most powerful, most impactful aspect of white privilege was that, as a white guy, I didn’t have to think about the color of my skin every day.
I don’t have to worry how the color of my skin will influence the interaction when I’m pulled over by a cop. I don’t have to wonder if the color of my skin was why I was given a crappy seat in a restaurant. If I’m walking around a department store and somebody seems to be interested in the same things I’m looking at, I don’t need to wonder if they’re following me because of the color of my skin.
A few months ago, Karen Hunter — one of the truly top-notch hosts on SiriusXM — was kind enough to invite me on her show. She asked me what white privilege meant to me and I gave her the description in the previous paragraph. Karen seemed thoughtfully amused, suggesting that perhaps I was bragging.
But what I meant was that I was absolutely shocked when this realization hit me: horrified that I hadn’t understood it earlier, that I hadn’t learned about it in school, that my parents had never discussed it with me.
Of course, I knew it at some deep level. I had all the knowledge necessary for that insight. I’d just never applied it to myself and my own life: I’d always told myself the story that I got where I was because I was smart and worked hard: I’d left home at 16 and never went back. Throughout my life, I’d omitted the color of my skin from my personal origin story (which, of course, is the highest expression of white privilege).
Similarly, I’m aghast at all the racist rightwingers on a jihad against any school or teacher who would help the kids growing up today come to what had been a belated realization for me.
They’re on their crusade against DEI, CRT, and Black history because when white kids are hit with that realization it’s usually accompanied by empathy for those people who are forced, every day, every time they leave the house or apply for a job or even get admitted to a hospital, to confront the many ways in which their skin color can make their experience so very different from that of white people.
And G-d forbid white people have empathy for their fellow human beings born with darker skin.
That could lead to America becoming a society where “the content of your character” is more important than the color of your skin. Republicans love to quote that phrase of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but what they’re really saying is that we shouldn’t discuss skin color and its impact at all.
After my riff on the air yesterday about my personal insight, a listener named Donna sent me the following email:
“Stop with the white privilege. Don’t you know every time you mention that and racism you are constantly dividing our great country. Why do progressives always do this. All races are privileged during their lives. Yet you never mention them. Many Muslins, Asians, Jews, Puerto Ricans and many other races are privileged. Do you not know they work from the bottom up to get that privilege. I know many immigrants came here legally like the Irish and Italians etc. that worked damn hard to get here and were treated like the lowest class of people. Yet they worked hard to get that privilege. So cut out your nonsense.
“When you work hard to raise your family and [are] proud of this country you can become privileged. It’s your choice. The opportunity is yours. Stop putting us into different classes. It really harms this country. I believe we were put here to be kind to each other and help each other not to divide. Please stop your nonsense. I’m white and don’t feel privileged. Lost a parent at young age and worked hard. No privilege there. I don’t appreciate your constant rambling about this.”
My point in quoting this email is not to call out or embarrass Donna, but to highlight her almost perfect articulation of how most white people think of their own white privilege. Which is to say, they don’t: “No privilege here.”
And, apparently, no privilege in our media, either.
Dan Froomkin over at Press Watchers has spent a good part of the past year identifying this same type of denial, both among Trump-humpers and in our mainstream media. In his Press Watch newsletter last week, he asked the question, “How much of Trump’s support is due to racism?”
He also explores the problem of the American press’ near-absolute unwillingness to call much of Trump’s and his followers’ behavior and rhetoric what it clearly is: good-old-fashioned all-American racism.
Froomkin points to a recent Washington Post article about how Trump and most GOP politicians regularly take openly racist positions, both rhetorically and on legislative issues. But throughout the article, the authors refused to describe these Republicans as racists. They wouldn’t even quote anybody calling them racists: that would be, by the standards of today’s journalism, beyond the pale:
“When mainstream journalists do address racism,” Froomkin writes, “they do so with euphemisms and denials. These days that means they understate the racist rhetoric from Trump and other leading Republicans, and they actively cover up the racism of his supporters and make excuses for them.”
This is, he notes, even worse than simply ignoring racism because its effect is to normalize it. And he encourages his journalistic peers to take the next step and do some real reporting:
“Reporters should be fanning out to assess racism’s role in the choices the electorate is making. And that doesn’t mean asking: Are you racist? When they say no, that’s meaningless.
“It means asking them what they believe. Do they subscribe to the great replacement theory? They’re racist. Do they believe that white Europeans are more desirable as immigrants than Africans or Asians? Racist. Do they believe that immigrants are ‘poisoning the blood’ of the country? Racist. Do they feel like minorities are unfairly getting ahead of them in line for the American Dream? Racist.”
As I was writing the first draft of this article yesterday afternoon, an email came into my in-box from Donald Trump.
It was absolutely dripping with the racism that Trump has proudly exhibited all the way back to the days when he was demanding the death penalty for five innocent young Black men accused of a Central Park rape, a demand he continues to make today, long after they were all exonerated and the man who actually committed the crime was arrested and successfully prosecuted:
“Reports all over the country,” Trump starts out, “show that Obama is hellbent on stopping our 2024 campaign. He’s RETALIATING because I’m the President who ripped his disastrous ‘legacy’ to shreds.”
Right. Go after the Black guy to raise money and get out the vote in the last weeks of your primary campaign. Nothing racist about that, right?
Trump then features three headlines citing his destruction of President Obama’s legacy:
“How Trump is rolling back Obama’s legacy”
Source: Washington Post
“Trump Discards Obama Legacy, One Rule at a Time”
Source: New York Times
“Obama’s Legacy Has Already Been Destroyed”
Source: NY Mag
Trump wrapped up yesterday’s pitch to his racist base with this:
“Come January 20, 2025, we will FINISH the job and remove the last remnants of Obama’s legacy AND cast Biden’s legacy to the ash heap of history along with it.”
While that email presumably went to millions of Americans, I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be called out by the media. There won’t be a story about it in today’s newspaper or this morning‘s television. Just like most media refused to call him a racist when he told four Black congresswomen to “go back … [to the] places from which they came.”
Politico quoted a few Democrats calling Trump’s “go back” comment racist, but didn’t identify the statement or Trump himself as racist. Ditto for NBC News, CBS News, and USA Today. The New York Times at least identified the phrase itself, but did so by way of correcting an error of Trump’s:
“Wrapped inside that insult, which was widely established as a racist trope, was a factually inaccurate claim: Only one of the lawmakers was born outside the country.”
Last night on Fox News, one of their hosts did a segment asking if DEI was responsible for the door blowing off a Boeing plane. Because, you know, Black people are stupid and if you hire a bunch of them to build airplanes you’re gonna have substandard airplanes.
Nothing racist about Fox “News,” right?
If America is ever to become a pluralistic, multiracial democratic republic we must come to terms with this endemic racism and white privilege.
Our media must stop being terrified of the paling fence Republicans have erected around themselves and their racist rhetoric. So what if these “conservatives” (the modern-day euphemism for “racists”: William F. Buckley Jr., the godfather of modern conservatism, wrote about whites as the “advanced race”) are such snowflakes that they’ll yell, scream, and play victim?
It’s way past time to call racists what they are, teach the actual history of America, and — as a society and culture — make unacceptable the kinds of semi-coded racist rhetoric and racially-targeted Red state anti-voter legislation that’s so common today across the GOP.
And that begins with white people: we must understand our own sordid history, acknowledge our privilege, and strive to remake America into a nation that works for all its citizens.
As President Kennedy said of world peace but also more generally argued when it came to racial reconciliation, “We are not helpless before that task.”