US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Adventures in white privilege at at U.S. Catholic, too

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Gene Marks column at Forbes responding to President Obama's recent speech in Kansas, "If I were a poor black kid," starts promisingly enough: "My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder."

Fair enough. But then Marks goes on to list all the things he would do if he was "a poor black kid," basically listing all the technological, educational, and social options he can imagine as a middle-aged and at least middle class white guy, thus presuming that every "poor black kid" can even conjure up those possibillities, much less make them reality.

Now I can't blame Marks too much, since we suffer from the same disease, that is, a general lack of awareness about how being white (and male and middle class) sends us into the world with a gigantic "savings account" of social capital that makes it a lot easier for us to succeed in the world that, it turns out, was created more or less by white males. Many people call that disease "white privilege" (and use "knapsack" and other analogies for the advantages it brings).

Marks uses the difference between his children and that "poor black kid" as an example, so I'll list all the things that my 2-year-old white suburban niece has in her saving account that many poor inner city or rural kids of any color often do not:

1. Her parents are married, they were married before she was born, they planned on having her, they were financially prepared to receive her.

2. Many of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles have college degrees; some have graduate degrees. All of them are employed (some are retired, which means they have enough wealth not to work). Many are wage-earners in the top 5 percent. She is expected to get a college degree, and her parents are already preparing for her to go to college, and they will most likely have the means to pay for her college education. As a result, she will be at least a fourth- (if not fifth-) generation college graduate and very likely a member of the (upper?) middle class. If she owns her home, she will be a sixth-generation property owner.

3. She lives in a Chicago suburb in which most people own their homes, are invested in their fine public schools, and will donate money to them in addition to paying property taxes. There is also a rich civic culture of churches, parks, libraries, and other benefits, many of them publicly funded, to which she has access. There is little to fear in terms of violence.

4. Her grandmother is her full-time caregiver every day while her parents are at work.

5. She already knows how to use a computer, a camera, an iPhone, and she has many pieces of technology suited to her age that are preparing her for school.

6. She speaks English as her first language. Her parents read to her (in English) every day, and they have a library of educational DVDs that she watches daily.

7. She has piles of enriching toys, art supplies, and a dog that keep her intellectually stimulated.

8. She is white, as are her parents, all her relatives, most of her parents's friends, and the majority of her community. She lives in a country where white people are the majority (for now), hold most of the wealth, and until recently have held all the positions of political and economic power, and still the majority of them.

None of this is my niece's fault; she is the heir of generations of a combination of work, wealth accumulation, racial privilege. So am I, and so is Marks. I'm sure the amount of each is open to debate.

So what is my responsibility as a beneficiary of white privilege? I think we can look to Catholic social teaching here. To begin with, I have to acknowledge the advantages I have, and to acknowledge that a good portion of it is unjust; and some of it has even come at the expense of others, people of color both in this country and the rest of the world. (And I'm probably being kind here--I'm sure someone who really knows what they are talking about could tell me, and a lot less kindly, but probably justly.)

After that? I have to acknowledge a social debt, a moral obligation to remedy these injustices, to seek some way of making amends, and to insist on evermore just ways of structuring the common good so that every human being has a fair chance at "success," however defined. Notice I haven't spelled any of this out. I have a feeling that it would hurt.