White Privilege Did And Does Exist
I’m responding to Barbara Palmieri’s letter of February 21, 2019. I’m even older than Ms. Palmieri, and therefore remember some attitudes and ideas that were commonly accepted as truisms not so long ago.
I assure Ms. Palmieri that white privilege did, and still does, exist. Ms. Palmieri’s family deserves all the successes they worked so long and hard to achieve. But the obstacles they overcame didn’t include racism.
Privilege can mean no more than living in a society that allows its members to pursue their ambitions for a better life, not necessarily with direct help or support from the community at large. White privilege for Americans of European racial background may not open all doors of opportunity automatically, but neither does it go out of its way to put up insurmountable barriers. The same can’t be said for persons of color.
A few decades ago job applications from people of color were routinely dismissed from consideration, even if they were qualified by education and/or experience. So they were shut out from entry into the life of the larger community: Few persons of color held public office or other positions of authority. If the playing field for white people of limited means has never been really even, non-whites at the time couldn’t get on the field at all.
My family background isn’t very different from Ms. Palmieri’s. I was the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I worked through college, but one of my high school teachers took it upon herself to persuade her women’s club to offer me a small scholarship, which paid for my first semester at a state college. But when, in a special high school enrichment class, I met inner-city kids who were much more talented than I, nobody came forward to volunteer the same sort of help to them.
That is why, for the past 50 years, national and local laws have been enacted to counter inadequacies that have persisted for so many generations. Success isn’t guaranteed to the recipients of these laws, only the chance to compete on a more equal basis. And, if political correctness means we stop calling each other by hateful or disparaging names, I’m all for it.
The Good Fortune of My (White) Race
I am deeply chagrined to know that someone in my community considers white privilege to be “nonsense.” This position ignores the historic disenfranchisement that African Americans faced, and I consider it a gross diminishment to say that it is “too bad there is a lingering legacy of discrimination.”
I applaud all the success Ms. Palmieri’s family have enjoyed, and she is rightfully proud of all their accomplishments. I, too, rose from an impoverished childhood. The difference between our perspectives is that I recognize my progress came from both my hard work and the good fortune of my race.
The Wilson administration effectively barred African Americans from most federal government positions, and it was also rare for them to obtain any state or local government positions. Ms. Palmieri’s father would not likely have had the benefit of a government retirement and her mother would not likely have been selected for a WAC position during World War II had they been African American.
Her parents’ ability to buy a “dream house” was also out of reach for most African Americans because many banks would not offer them loans, and most realtors practiced redlining, which excluded them from owning property in desirable locations. Her father-in-law’s father’s ability to own barber shops in Atlantic City, her father-in-law’s acceptance to law school, and her children’s completion of college were and are out of reach for most African Americans for the same reason: a discrimination in access to capital that continues to this day.
Every aspect of my life has been made easier by virtue of my birth, and I do not begrudge any preferential treatment our society affords to people of color. Righting past wrongs is long overdue and is a debt that can never fully be repaid.