White Privilege and a Third Way on Race

Like many, I was amused by the recent Samuel L. Jackson interview flap, in which the interviewer asked Jackson about his super bowl ad. The problem was that it was Laurence Fishburne and not Jackson in that ad. As this opened the door to much twittering about racism that predictably generated more heat than light, I thought I’d carry my blog into the minefield of race. I say “minefield” because one false move in any direction and one is subjected to the vilest of condemnations, comparisons to Hitler, etc. – which is a true pity because it would help us all enormously if we could talk about it openly and freely, without being shamed into silence or charged as an unredeemable racist for every misstep or every deviation from the party line of the listener. And when it comes to stifling discussion on this topic, I find my liberal allies and my conservative friends “across the aisle,” as it were, equally culpable. My own views, I think will cause equal discomfort to both sides, and hence with luck might push dialectically toward a third way. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

It’s tempting to shame Jackson’s interviewer, Sam Rubin, for being a racist, but this would be a mistake on at least two levels.

First, we have no reason to believe that race was an operative factor in his faux pas. I often get actors mixed up, white and black, including Fishburne and Jackson in some of their shots. Of course, unlike me, Rubin is an entertainment reporter, and such a glaring mistake, whether the actors confused were white or black, is a serious faux pas. Even there, I sympathize, having made incredibly stupid mistakes myself from time to time, but if this proves part of a larger pattern, Rubin may need a new line of work.

Second, even if race were an operative factor – i.e., Rubin blurs black actors together more easily than white actors – shaming is not the best response. It is safe to assume that if Rubin’s stumble was race-related, this isn’t because blacks really look alike but rather that if one grows up day in and day out from infancy surrounded by white faces, one becomes better at picking up distinguishing cues of white faces.  Awkward, yes; racist, no. This is actually an iteration of a quite common scenario in our culture – and one that I believe my fellow progressives consistently mishandle. The scenario is this: Someone inadvertently expresses a racist structure, or what can function as a racist structure, with no bad intent. Certainly, Rubin did not intend to confuse the two black men, nor did he intend to suggest that black men all look alike. No one intends to jeopardize his career by presenting himself foolishly on public TV (Jerry Springer guests and reality TV stars excepted). To those who would promote racial harmony and equality, Sam Rubin is still a potential ally. Yes, he slipped (as we all do from time to time), but as far as we know his heart is in the right place. He is certainly not a lost cause, certainly not in the same camp as the white supremacist on Jerry Springer who speaks of blacks with bad intent.

So on to “shaming” as a form of corrective action. An unintentional slip may warrant a confidential follow-up, a little nudging combined with a willingness to hear the other side, but in general it doesn’t warrant shaming because shaming, in general, doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character.  I hold racial harmony and equality a dear goal, but I cringe when I see my progressive colleagues shaming white people who slip in the manner of Rubin, with no ill intent. There are enough people out there with racist intentions who deserve to be shamed. Why alienate potential allies because of an unintentional slip that exposes some racist tic of the culture or that is politically incorrect enough to be construed as racist? The bottom line is that shaming, the reinforcement of self-loathing, doesn’t build character for blacks and doesn’t build character for whites. Save it for the select few malicious racists who deserve it.  Lumping Rubin in with such freaks places the “us versus them” boundary line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side. (Although Gandhi and Mandela were famous for not writing off even avowed racists, I do not rule out “shaming” as a mechanism for dealing with those who spew racist views with expressly bad intent. But where there is no bad intention, shaming does more harm than good.)

So how do we break the ossified “us versus them” line? I’ll try to point a way out through a concept that has gotten quite a bit of traction recently in the public sphere: “white privilege.” “White privilege,” I could argue, is the breaking point of the current age of race relations. It is equally misused on both sides. To the standard conservative, “white privilege” is the crowning concept in a long line of liberal misconceptions about race. “What white privilege?” they ask. When policy issues addressing racial inequity appear, the standard conservative line argues that slavery ended 150 years ago, that blacks have the same opportunity as whites to work hard and climb the ladder – indeed blacks have greater opportunity, since they have all “our” freedoms plus affirmative action and set-asides and minority-owned business preferences, etc.

There is a certain logic to this, but upon a closer look that logic proves spurious and historically naïve. Africans were taken in chains, separated from all who spoke their own language, subjected to a multi-generational, cradle-to-grave, systematic attack on all human values, had spouses and children sold away in the middle of night, were forbidden education, literacy, or any other form of self-determined skill-building. Their condition was not “like the Irish immigrants,” as Bill O’Reilly idiotically likes to say.  You can’t one day say, “You’re free now,” and conclude that everyone, black and white, is suddenly at the same starting line. Since slavery, economic and educational conditions for blacks have never, in the aggregate, reached par with whites, this is a problem that public policy can and should address.

The standard liberal line on “white privilege” at first seems more innocuous. Whites have certain advantages in our society. No sane person can deny that whites, on average, have greater economic and educational resources at their disposal than blacks. Whites are more likely to be born into middle and upper classes than their black counterparts. This comes with certain privileges or advantages. People born into those classes have a level of access to education, jobs, contacts, visible role models, family safety nets, etc., that tend to keep them in those classes, not in every case, but in the aggregate.  The problem is that for liberals, “white privilege” has become a shaming device, a catalyst for self-loathing. The message all too often seems to be that whites (like me) should feel embarrassment and guilt for the advantages we and not others are born with. But self-loathing does not and never will build character. Not for blacks. Not for whites.

So the problem with “white privilege” is that both sides use it in a way that fetishizes the current, unproductive “us versus them” lines in the sand. We need to push off of both sides to a new position. Progressives have a point in the sense that blacks and whites are not and never since slavery have been at the same starting line. Conservatives have a point in that the introjection of racial guilt and shame about the history of slavery is not going to solve the problem. We become what we visualize. We need to visualize not guilt, not self-loathing in ourselves or others. We need to visualize a way out of the “us versus them” dilemma, a third way. The “third way,” when it appears on the horizon line, will involve all of us opening up, being more cognizant of the fact that we and our white and black interlocutors are all flawed, all make mistakes, but we are all in this together. We will put the self-loathing on both sides behind us. The third way will have us visualize harmony in our daily actions, to visualize it as if there is no other way, to envision ourselves and others as happy, fulfilled beings.  We need to acknowledge the historical basis of racial disparities and work out policy changes without inducing any collective shame and self-loathing. We can build something together but it involves getting on the same side in the tug of war … and cutting ourselves, our black and white neighbors, and Sam Rubin a little slack.