|Race or class privilege?|
Back in 2015, my employer invested quite a bit of money to expose staff and students to the anti-racist work of author Debby Irving. They handed out copies of her book, Waking up White, and set up a book group for faculty and staff, which I joined. They also invited her to campus and she delivered an assembly address to the student body. I was invited to join her for dinner that evening at a nice restaurant.
It turns out, I learned over dinner, that Ms. Irving and I had lived parallel lives. We were born and raised in neighboring Massachusetts towns, our fathers were both World War II vets who got married at the end of the war and benefited from the GI Bill of Rights. We were both the youngest of five children (my younger sister, number 6, was born much later), and we were born in the same year, 1960. And we ere both white people who wrote books about race in the United States.
Unlike me, though, Debby had not given much thought to race until relatively late in life, and in the process of “waking up white," she came to see how she was a product of a system of racial oppression and "white privilege."
I had been studying Black history for most of my adult life, but had been exposed to the concept of "white privilege” only recently.
As a student of history, I understood the advantages of a white skin in America, but for me, Debby was not the best messenger to explain the concept.
That's because of some important differences in our parallel lives. The two Massachusetts towns we grew up in were close in geography but quite different in socioeconomic makeup. Her World-War-Two-veteran dad was a top administrator of one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world, Massachusetts General; my father was a janitor in the public schools. Her father used the GI bill to put himself through medical school and buy a 6-bedroom house in Winchester, where a "typical home" currently goes for $1.2 million according to Zillow; my dad use it to buy a 900-square-foot 3-bedroom (1 bath) ranch in Burlington. Given these contrasts, as I read the book it became perhaps more obvious than to most readers that many of the blessings and advantages she enjoyed—like the country club membership and the vacation home on the lake Maine—had more to do with class than race privilege.
Even the photos on the front (see above) and back book covers scream “class privilege,” and say nothing discernible about race, aside from the color of young Debby’s skin.
Early in her book, Irving wrote that she understood class to be an important factor to consider when talking about inequality in America, and that the reader should expect her to “often conflate classism and racism.” Still, she hoped that white people with less class privilege would not assume they did not enjoy similar kinds of white privilege.
Fair enough. She was writing about her own experience and I do recognize that I have enjoyed blessings that come with a white complexion—or rather, that were not denied to me because of my race.
I am grateful to have grown up in a cozy home, next to a park, owned by my parents, in a safe suburban neighborhood. Most Black World War II vets didn't manage to use their GI benefits to get home mortgages. That injustice had been driven home to me when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic article on reparations, which explained the practice of redlining that made it near impossible for Black people to qualify for VA-subsidized mortgages.
But Debby seemed to think that acknowledging her conflation of class and race in chapter 3 would allow her to do it for the next 43 chapters without distorting reality or alienating any white readers. Imagine a white, single, working class mother with a full-time job reading that Debby's ability to shuttle her children from “one after-school activity after another had a lot to do with the time and money that whiteness afforded me” (209).
Irving didn’t invent the concept of white privilege. Getting white Americans to “check their privilege” is one of the more common strategies of diversity trainers. There is even an annual “White Privilege Conference,” which I once attended. But from what I’ve seen, it seems like the strategy is more effective with people who have a healthy amount of class privilege, like Debby and most of the people associated with elite educational institutions like the one I teach at, which spent a couple of thousand dollars to send me to the WPC in Kansas City.*
Debby’s work—which is largely focused on getting white folks to use the right words and avoid micro-aggressions, like mixing up the names of two black kids—is helpful in those spaces, where the usually small number of Black folks also have a fair amount of class privilege compared to the general population. But it doesn’t do much for the people of color who disproportionately suffer from the deprivations and indignities of the lower classes—or the whites who account for twice as many of the American poor as Blacks.
White privilege workshops and Debby’s book ask us to change our thinking—to get woke, as they say. Acknowledgment of class privilege might require the better off to give up some wealth or income through, say, higher taxes and redistribution of income. Maybe that’s why the concept of “white privilege” is so much more popular than “class privilege” at places like Exeter.
Toward the end of her book, Irving calls for “solidarity” between Black and white people, which she frames as “sharing the burden of race.” As an example, she tells a story of a grade-school class where all the children shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. Debby describes her own efforts at racial solidarity: she has stopped snacking on food in her shopping cart before paying for it, because Black friends get into trouble when they do that; she doesn’t try to “sweet talk” her way out of speeding tickets (223). I’m not sure what she does with the royalties from her book or her speaking fees from places like Exeter.
Debby’s notion of solidarity echoes the calls by many contemporary advocates of racial justice for people to become “white allies.”
When she reaches beyond race relations on the personal level to talk about systems, Debby cites an example of a county in Maryland that sought to lower the achievement gap among school children by redistributing funding from affluent to less affluent districts. Her reflection on the solution is revealing:
Could I have been convinced to have my county's resources shifted from my child's school to a Red Zone school if I didn't understand the achievement gap’s historical roots? I can't know for sure, but I think it may have been a hard concept for me to embrace (209).I don’t know many parents—especially not among the upper classes that I mingle with—who are willing to sacrifice their own kids’ best interests for the advancement of other peoples’ children. That’s true of wealthy people, as the so-called varsity blues scandal illustrates all-too clearly.
And as J. Anthony Lukas shows in his vivid account of the Boston busing fiasco of the 1970s, Common Ground, it’s also true of working-class people like the white parents of Charlestown, who resisted having their children transferred to what they assumed were worse schools across town in Black neighborhoods they perceived as unsafe. They resisted ferociously, but in the end they had no choice. Lukas’s account does not conflate race and class and if you read it you will understand why you can’t fully understand one without the other.
And of course the better suburban schools of Boston, like Winchester, were excluded from Judge Garrity’s integration order.
If we want to promote interracial solidarity and support for racial justice among white people we should not frame racial equity as a zero-sum game in which parents must sacrifice their children.
One way is to stop using the term “privilege.”
Debby’s father and mine both put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis. I consider the pay they got for their military service—like the pay any wage-worker gets after doing the job—not as a privilege, but as an earned right. Once Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, getting those benefits also became a right.
My father's use of his GI Bill of Rights to subsidize a mortgage was an earned right. It was not a “perk” that comes with a white skin (13). Calling it a privilege makes it sound like he didn't earn it or that there was something wrong with him getting it.
There was something wrong with Black veterans not getting it.
When we refer to the exercising of a right as a privilege, we are assisting those who call welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare “entitlements” to undermine support for them. Like “privilege,” it carries negative connotations. It means “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment” and “privilege” seems to implicitly include the adjective “unearned.” It conjures up the spoiled child.
“Rights,” puts the onus back where it belongs, on the policies and systems denying them, not on people exercising them appropriately. The problem isn't the granting of privileges, it's the denial of rights. It’s not a privilege to be able to walk around the store without being harassed or to drive down the street without being pulled over for no reason. It’s a right of due process—a right that should never be denied to anyone. It’s deserved if not earned.
Irving makes a reference in her book to “the long history of white people mistaking one black person for another” (225). Over dinner after her assembly, I suggested that she read more history, especially Edmund Morgan's book, American Slavery and American Freedom. As I've written elsewhere on this blog it’s an essential book for understanding the origins of slavery and racism in America, one that critics and defenders of the 1619 project cited as a model work of history that is helpful for understanding how race works in America today.
Morgan and other historians have shown how white people came to enjoy rights that Black people were denied. In short, Virginia planters propped up slavery and encouraged racism by establishing a government that gave certain privileges to white workers while denying them to Black ones. But no one today should call them privileges. They are basic rights: to vote, to not be whipped by your boss, to own land. The tragedy of Morgan’s story is not that white people got those rights, but that their Black fellow workers were denied them at the same time—and that the enjoyment of those rights were framed as a zero-sum game—a framing we've never been able to escape and that contemporary anti-racism sometimes seems to reinforce.
It’s important to point out that this happened not primarily because white laborers asked for it, any more than Debby’s father asked for Black veterans to be denied GI benefits so he could go to medical school.
Virginia planters were the ones who enacted these labor laws over the course of several decades in the 17th century to serve their economic interests—their need for a cheap, cooperative labor force to tend the tobacco crop.
This tried and true method of dividing and conquering workers by granting rights unequally has been repeated again and again. In a new book I happened to crack open recently, labor historian Joe William Trotter notes how it worked in the development of the urban labor force in early America:
Both free black and white laborers lived "a hand-to-mouth existence characterized by minimal control” over the fruits of their own labor. But early white wage earners enjoyed gradually increasing access to the vote, state power, and their own political, social, and labor organizations, while the vast majority of their African-American counterparts remained linked to their enslaved brothers and sisters through systems of legal and extralegal disfranchisement, economic exploitation, and racial inequality.Replacing “rights” with “white privilege” suggests that racism is good for white people–that our rights depend on others being denied them. In fact, when white and black people with similar interests unite, when they achieve solidarity on the basis of common interests rather than the shaky foundations of white guilt implied in “white privilege” and altruism implied in “white allies,” they create a powerful coalition. Such a coalition might not only prevent the erosion of benefits like Social Security, but might also lead to an expansion of such "rights," perhaps reviving President Roosevelt’s 1944 plan for a “second bill of rights” that would include a right to economic security, including “the right of every family to a decent home,” and every American to a living wage, "adequate medical care," and "a good education."
The GI Bill of Rights “was the most concrete result of the second bill of rights,” but it “fell far short of what Roosevelt sought to provide” (15-16). Although his successor tried to enact universal access to health care—and government-supported health benefits have been expanded to a widening circle of citizens ever since—it still does not exist as a right of citizenship. “Roosevelt’s second bill of rights speech captured the extraordinary 20th century revolution in the conception of rights in America and elsewhere. It marked the utter collapse of the (ludicrous) idea that freedom comes from an absence of government. …[While many Americans then and now accepted the conception of rights embedded in Roosevelt’s speech,] it has come under pressure from powerful private groups with an intense interest in burying or delegitimating the second bill—and in recovering the kind of confused, self-serving, and even incoherent thinking that immediately preceded Roosevelt's New Deal” (16). See Cass Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why we need it More than Ever (2004).
Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014).
*Peggy MacIntosh, who popularized the “White Privilege” concept, also seems to have been the recipient of a great deal of class privilege. As a student, she attended private schools whose current tuition ranges from $43,000 to $66,000 per year and went on to earn degrees from elite colleges, including Harvard. She taught for a time at the Brearley School in Manhattan, which was ranked by one survey, as the second-best girls' school in the country and the fifth-best private K-12 school. Current tuition is $56,000, which 80 percent of students pay for without financial aid. MacIntosh certainly had the chance to observe plenty of class privilege in action.
I understated the case when I said that affluent parents aren’t willing to sacrifice their own kids’ advancement for those of others. Consider the “varsity blues scandal.” Matthew Stewart has written in more detail about the efforts of Americans in the upper classes to maintain their class privilege here. and here. Others have coined the term “opportunity hoarders.”
Joe William Trotter, Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019), xvi.
Morgan’s thesis is often pitted against that of Winthrop Jordan, whose book White Over Black, suggests that racism pre-dated the origin of slavery in Virginia.