White privilege 101: Here's the basic lesson Paul Ryan, Tal Fortgang and Donald Sterling need

Here's one way to fight back against ignorance: A refresher on how privilege works, and why race and gender matter

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 9, 2014 6:48PM (EDT)

Tal Fortgang, Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy           (Fox News/AP/Mark J. Terrill/Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
Tal Fortgang, Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy (Fox News/AP/Mark J. Terrill/Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

It was no surprise, really, to suddenly shift from 67-year-old Cliven Bundy's sudden exposure as a classic-style racist (though he vehemently denied it), to 80-year old Donald Sterling's sudden exposure as a classic-style racist (though he vehemently denied it — as did even V. Stiviano), to 19-year-old Tal Fortgang's vehement denial that racism even exists, except as some kind of left-wing conspiracy theory:

I condemn them declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.

As Salon's own Peter Finocchiaro pointed out, "[Fortgang's] meteoric rise to fame owes entirely to his biographical data. His youth is the entire point." For years now, the GOP has been desperately trying to present itself in fresh-faced terms — it's how Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle become part of our political landscape. It's how Paul Ryan got sold as a budget wunderkind, and how he's trying to resell himself as the second coming of Jack Kemp, if not Jesus. And above all, it's how the Tea Party was sold to us as the reinvention of the same old conservative movement that's been with us at least since the days of Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin before him.

So, of course, with one wave of news cycles on Bundy's racism, and another wave of news cycles on Sterling's racism, there was a deep abiding need to wash all that away, and a young fresh-faced conservative college freshman was the best possible way to do that: Take that, you Millennial Obama voters! Take that, you rising new American demographic wave!

And yet, Katie McDonough correctly argued, his denial of racism and his own privileged position represents a new majority view among whites, who think they're more discriminated against than blacks, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary (more on that below). And this is where the danger and the challenge to progressives lies — as well as the challenge to the Democratic Party. If—as recent research suggests — whites grow increasingly conservative as perceived minority voting power grows, then the “Rising American electorate” argument itself is in danger. It could be every bit as much a fantasy, in its own, much more sophisticated way, as the Tea Party fantasy that the GOP can just double down on where it is, and get by on better messaging and a sprinkling of more diverse spokes/front people.

There is a way to fight back against this very real, and so far unrecognized, threat. And that is for white people — especially white men — to step up and push back (lovingly or forcefully, as the situation dictates) against this sort of polarizing rhetoric and the thinking and feeling that's connected to it. It's not just a matter of paternalistically “helping out” women and minorities when they're attacked. The fortunes of white working-class men have plummeted since the early '70s — not because women and minorities have stolen their cheese, but because they're snookered into thinking like that, making themselves easy marks for far more sophisticated actors to take advantage of. And what's long been true for working-class white men will increasingly become true of white men with college degrees as well. One of Thomas Piketty's central points is that any sort of labor, however skilled it may be, is going to lose out to inherited capital in the long run, if the basic structures of today's capitalist economy aren't changed.

So how do white men fight back, not just for the sake of others, or society as a whole, but for themselves, as well? There are lots of ways they can do this, but here I'd like to focus on just one: by gaining a much a more solid, objective understanding of what minorities (especially blacks) and women already largely understand as a basic fact of life -- how racial and gender privilege work, with white male ignorance as a key component. It's only by unifying against an already unified economic elite that Americans of all races and ethnicities can keep hope alive for a more prosperous future.

Before going any further, I just want to quote from McDonough's article, where she references a sampling of the information already out there:

It’s likely that Fortgang will have the opportunity at Princeton to learn about the racial wealth gap, the legacy of red-lining, the unemployment rate among college educated men of color versus their white counterparts, the convergence of racism and sexism that leaves women of color disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, the gender pay gap experienced by black women, the deadly violence faced by black children and the myriad other manifestations of racism in the United States. Basically all of the things that he will never have to experience as an extraordinarily privileged white man.

Two Lenses

In what follows, I'm going to refer to some of the same kinds of data, but I want to do it through two particular powerful, specifically focused lenses. They are lenses that Tal Fortgang would never dream of putting on, for they would show him everything he's hiding from. And for all his unacknowledged privilege, he is vastly the poorer for it, just as those who condemned Galileo were all the poorer for refusing to look through his lenses as well. They are lenses that will allow us to see, very clearly, the injuries of race and gender that he mocks as mere conspiracy theories — but also, how to heal them as well.


The first lens is a very broad one, a legal theory perspective known as “situationism,” a social science-based realist approach (not to be confused with the philosophy associated with the Situationist International) that is opposed to the inherited pre-scientific conceptions of human nature and rationality as a foundation for law, public policy and related fields. It's perhaps most readily grasped in terms of what it's against: dispositionism. Most of us unconsciously see the world in dispositionist terms: People are who and what they are because of their dispositions, or characters.

For example, if you're fat, it's because you're lazy, gluttonous or both. In a stable, uniform social environment, all other things being equal, a dispositionist explanation for things may well make a good deal of sense. But we don't live in a stable social environment, much less a uniform one, and all other things are almost never equal. In this case, obesity in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent decades, yet there's no good reason to think that laziness or gluttony has changed anywhere near that dramatically. If anything, we're more obsessed with health and fitness. Instead, what has changed is the social, economic and cultural situation in which we live — not least the profound changes in our food industry, and the advertising that goes with it.

That doesn't mean there's no such thing as laziness or gluttony. Situationism does not exclude the very existence of dispositions and dispositional differences. It merely provides us with a broader perspective, so that other, less obvious factors can be taken into consideration. The Situationist blog, established by Harvard law professor John Hanson, is a source of frequent reports and brief updates on related, multi-disciplinary research across a wide range of topics, among which race and gender are just two examples. Just as the situationist perspective allows us to see dispositionist explanations in a broader perspective, it also allows us to see the particular influences of racial and gender situations as part of a broader story about the many complexities of the human condition.

Perceptual Segregation

To get more specific, I would now like to take up the second lens I mentioned earlier. It's the concept of “Perceptual Segregation,” first set forth in a law review article of the same name , by University of California, Berkeley, law professor Russell Robinson. Robinson doesn't use the explicit language of situationism, but the analysis he engages in nonetheless fits nicely into that broader framework. Put simply, Robinson argues that the very different frameworks in which most blacks and whites are raised and live give rise to very different experiences of the world, even when they are physically present in the same place together. Because their life situations remain highly segregated for a large part of their lives, their resulting perceptions of the world remain segregated as well — although in a way that white people usually don't even see. In that paper, Robinson writes:

While many whites expect evidence of discrimination to be explicit, and assume that people are colorblind when such evidence is lacking, many blacks perceive bias to be prevalent and primarily implicit.

In light of situationism more broadly, there a few significant observations worth noting that can help us to unpack this brief quote, which are worth keeping in mind as we proceed. I offer them as ideas to consider, as you read further, not as dogmatic statements you must agree or disagree with. They are:

  • The difference between the white and black perspectives reflects and arises from a difference in their situations.
  • Blacks are largely correct on both main counts: Discrimination, though far more subtle, remains widespread, and is primarily implicit (one reason whites tend not to notice it).
  • Blacks are, by necessity, far more situationally sensitive than whites, which is a large part of why their perceptions are more accurate.
  • A critical, situationist examination of colorblindness is key to substantial racial progress at this point in American history.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, let's now turn to four key points — which I'll expand on below — that Robinson makes, which can help us both understand the full scope of the problem of a perceptual segregation, and how we can work to dismantle it, just as we dismantled slavery and legally mandated physical segregation in the past. These are:

1) Perceptual segregation is quite real, and has long-standing historical roots.

2) Given the preexisting historical reality, perceptual segregation is situationally reasonable: Both blacks and whites are acting in a manner consistent with the legal standard of what a “reasonable person” might think and do. Neither one — either individually or as a group — is dispositionally evil (although there may be individual exceptions, of course).

3) Nonetheless, even though whites are acting in a reasonable manner, that doesn't mean that their perceptions are reliably accurate. There are situational blind spots of white colorblindness, and if we are serious about overcoming perceptual segregation, then white people will have to make intentional efforts to overcome these blind spots. This is not because of anything about their dispositions. It's not because they are bad people — the vast majority of them are not. It's because of the situation they are in — and the relationship of that situation to the situation of black Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other minorities).

4) In order to make progress, white people need to learn to heed the insights of black situationism.

Again, this is not for any dispositional reason. It's not because blacks are smarter, or morally superior, or anything else about them dispositionally. It's simply a function of the situation they are in— a situation that allows them, indeed forces them to notice things that white people's situation makes it very hard for them to see.

Let's now consider each of these, in turn.

Perceptual Segregation -- Yesterday and Today

Historically, Robinson notes that the perceptual divide was recognized in Plessy v. Ferguson — but that black perceptions were dismissed as groundless. He quotes this passage:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

Robinson goes on to note that while Plessy's rationale was "rebuked by Brown," part of its logic survives and resurfaces in racial discourse to this day in "the belief that blacks tend to imagine racial discrimination and choose to perceive themselves as victims." He adds, "The thinking underlying this charge is that discrimination is rare, and thus blacks who assert discrimination are likely using race deliberately and dishonestly as an excuse for their own failings." This sort of thinking supports white racial agitators, like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, playing the race-card card in order to demonize those who actually see the situation of race much more clearly than most of the rest of us do.

Shifting focus to the present day, Robinson goes into some detail documenting the contemporary racial perceptual divide, beginning with a massive workplace survey of 3,000 employees from Rutgers University, and proceeding to surveys of perceived discrimination from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Gallup and Pew Research Center. Although the exact figures vary somewhat, the basic story is the same: Whites see a rosy world in which racial progress is substantial, and discrimination is rare, while blacks see the reverse. For example, quoting from the Rutgers survey:

[W]orkers describe two very different workplaces. The workplace described by the white worker is one where equitable treatment is accorded to all, few personally experience discrimination, and few offer strong support for policies such as affirmative action . . . . In stark contrast, the workplace of non-white workers is one where the perception of unfair treatment is significantly more pronounced, where many employment policies such as hiring and promotion are perceived as unfair to African-American workers, and where support for corrective action is high.

Following that quote, Robinson went on to say, “Half of the African-American respondents said that 'African-Americans are treated unfairly in the workplace,' while just 10 percent of white respondents 'agreed with that statement.... Almost half (46 percent) of the African-Americans said their employer awarded promotions unfairly, compared to 6 percent of whites.”

One factor that's certainly contributing to the different perceptions of fairness is the response to discrimination claims, as these claims come primarily from minorities, and the discouraging results are typically more readily shared with other minorities — part of a process that Robinson describes as creating “racialized pools of knowledge.” I'll discuss this further in the section below regarding the insights of black situationism.

The workplace study is powerful, because everyone is reporting experience of the same specific workplace. But it's also potentially limited. Perhaps that workplace — though fairly large — was not typical of America as a whole. That's why it's so significant that the broader social surveys report strikingly similar statistics. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board found that “More than three fourths (79 percent) of whites reported that blacks ‘have as good a chance as whites’ to ‘get any kind of job,’ but fewer than half (46 percent) of blacks shared that view. Whereas the vast majority of whites (69 percent) perceived that blacks were treated ‘the same as whites,’ the majority of blacks (59 percent) reported that blacks were treated worse than whites.”

Similarly, the Gallup poll found that “two-thirds of nonblacks say they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated,” compared to nearly two-thirds (59 percent) of blacks who are dissatisfied. The Pew Research Center survey also found high rates of perceived discrimination among blacks, varying from 67 percent when applying for a job to to 43 percent when applying to a college or university. But white supermajorities of 2-to-1 or larger believed that blacks rarely faced bias in those situations.

As we'll see in the next section, there are plausible reasons for both whites and blacks to believe as they do. Yet, as we'll see in the sections that follow, there are blind spots that hide important facts from whites' common perceptions — facts that blacks are much more conscious of.

Situationally Reasonable Perceptual Segregation

Robinson clearly states at several points that in his view, both whites and blacks are largely acting reasonably — a key concept in Anglo-American law. For example, he writes, “[B]oth the outsider [blacks and women] and insider [whites and men] may be reasonable and yet differ substantially as to the likelihood that discrimination occurred; neither can be wholly blamed for the disparity because of irrational perceptions.” Even what constitutes discrimination may be defined quite differently, Robinson notes — recalling the colorblind notion that bias must be conscious (even spoken out loud) in order for it to count for whites, while blacks are much more attuned to nuances of social dynamics.

Although Robinson doesn't explicitly use situationist terminology, he is making a situationist argument: What is reasonable is highly dependent on the situation one finds oneself in, and the situation of the two races diverges in ways that white legal theorists and practitioners generally have failed to recognize, to put it mildly. The reasonableness of the white (and male) perspective has generally just been assumed, so Robinson feels no need to justify it with arguments. But he does argue that both races rely on racialized pools of knowledge, and that their reasoning reflects their incentives.

For blacks, the knowledge largely relates to the experience of past discrimination and how patterns set in the past persist into today; the incentives are to avoid future discrimination. Given the "pervasive prejudice" perspective, Robinson writes, “It is rational — rather than strategic or paranoid — for blacks to be attentive to racial dynamics and to view some conduct that many whites would see as benign as in fact discriminatory.”

Indeed, it can be downright dangerous not to be on guard. In a direct parallel, Lilly Ledbetter's lack of “paranoia,” her failure to suspect discrimination and sneak a peek at the paychecks of male co-workers, was held against her by the Supreme Court, and used to deny her the right to sue for pay discrimination.

In contrast to this view, if one assumes that evidence of discrimination needs to be explicit, and that “people are colorblind when such evidence is lacking," then it's reasonable to think that discrimination is relatively rare, and not to recognize much of what blacks would identify as discriminatory behavior.

The Situational Blind Spots of White Colorblindness

Robinson does not devote much attention to dwelling on white blind spots, but they are obviously quite important, as Tal Fortgang clearly demonstrates. The most glaring of these blind spots are the continuing reality of racial discrimination in America today. We've already noted the difference between black and white perceptions of discrimination. Now it's time to turn attention to the reality.

We noted above that the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board found that “More than three fourths (79 percent) of whites reported that blacks ‘have as good a chance as whites’ to ‘get any kind of job,’” and that, similarly, the Pew Research Center survey found that “white super-majorities of two-to-one or larger, believed that blacks rarely faced bias” in situations including applying for a job. This contrasts rather dramatically with the data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a month-in, month-out basis.

Overall, the black unemployment rate averages around twice that of the white rate — just as it did 40 years ago. Part of that is due to educational differences, but black college graduates have an unemployment rate averaging 60 percent higher than white college graduates since 1990, with little change over time. In fact, black college graduates have a 15 percent higher unemployment rate than whites with only a two-year AA degree. In turn, blacks with an AA degree have an unemployment rate that's almost 30 percent higher than whites with just a high-school education over this same period of time. What's more, in 30 months since 1990, blacks with an AA degree had an unemployment rate equal to or higher than white high school dropouts!

The conclusion is inescapable: Blacks still face pervasive discrimination in the job market, regardless of whether it's conscious or intentional. The fact that whites don't see this constitutes a serious blind spot on their part. The same can be said about discrimination in housing, education and treatment by criminal justice system as well. In many cases, even blacks being discriminated against may not know that they are being targeted, so it's not surprising that whites are also unaware.

For example, in the latest survey of housing discrimination for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Urban Institute found that minority home-seekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than equally qualified whites, both for rentals and home sales. This is true for all minorities in all categories (including Asian-Americans), except for home sales to Hispanics, where no discrimination was found — although Hispanics were actually more discriminated against than blacks when it came to rental units. Blacks were told about 11.4 percent fewer rental units, and 17 percent fewer homes, and were shown 4.2 percent fewer rental units and 17.7 percent fewer homes.

Statistics like these make it obvious that blacks continue to experience discrimination in virtually every walk of life. Not every black. Not every time. And certainly not from every white. But when the question is phrased “Do blacks have as good a chance as whites?” the objective answer clearly is “No, their chances are not as good as whites'” and supermajorities of whites are simply blind to this reality.

Thus, whites suffer from two distinct blind spots when it comes to racial bias. First, they are blind to their own individual implicit biases, which undermines the basic dispositionist assumption behind the logic of colorblindness. And second, they are blind to the sheer magnitude and pervasiveness of racial discrimination which black Americans continue to experience, even today.

The Need to Heed the Insights of Black Situationism

As can be seen by the statistics cited above, blacks face much more discrimination than whites generally realize. Yet, it's also the case that discrimination nowadays is most commonly not explicit or overt. That's why attention to social dynamics is so important. It can provide clues as to what to expect, which is why blacks necessarily pay close attention to it, just as women do regarding sexism.

Whites looking for explicit expressions of racism are like 19th century scientists trying to track long-lasting, stable particles against the stable background of space; blacks paying attention to racial social dynamics are like 20th century scientists studying interactive fields of force out of which particles probabilistically emerge. It would be so much neater, so much easier if the universe worked in a 19th-century way. But it doesn't. And black Americans have been dealing with that reality since their first ancestors were kidnapped and brought to these shores — way back in the 17th century. It's way past time for white America to catch up.

A key learning opportunity for whites in the workplace comes when discrimination claims are made. Most often, blacks (and other minorities) will see something that whites do not — patterns of behavior that may not be conscious, but that need conscious attention to correct. Thus, it's a perfect opportunity for whites to learn to see what they're missing. But that's typically not what happens — which only makes matters worse.

Indeed, the way in which discrimination claims are handled is probably one of the key factors contributing to perceptual segregation — as I noted above when discussing the Rutgers workplace survey. It's time to take a closer look at what they found. Regarding those reporting discrimination, “Sixty-three percent of this group said the employer ignored their claim or took no action,” Robinson wrote, while “Just 7 percent reported that the employer reprimanded the alleged perpetrator.” But it gets even worse:

In fact, the employee making the charge of discrimination was more likely to be transferred or fired as a result of the complaint (5% of the time) than the alleged perpetrator (2%).

A response rate like that clearly discourages making claims of discrimination — which in turn helps to perpetuate the illusion that discrimination itself has actually disappeared. Blacks have always recognized the tactical and strategic value — bordering on necessity — of playing along with white pretenses in downplaying the role of white prejudice. The forms have changed drastically over time, from slavery to Jim Crow to the formally colorblind workplace of today. But the underlying dynamic remains strikingly similar. Blacks know that it's a bad bet to make a discrimination claim — and whites only know that they don't hear that much about it.

Each may be a reasonable conclusion to draw, based on their different experiences, but one is much more accurate than the other, and neither leads to solving the underlying problem. Blacks come away with a much sharper, and more painful picture of the situation of discrimination that they are still caught up in. Whites come away even more oblivious than ever. Robinson goes on to note that “the survey’s authors concluded that 'race is the most significant determinant in how people perceive and experience the workplace.'” Most blacks would not be surprised with that finding. But most whites would be—yet another example of how significant race is, even as whites continue to believe that it is not.

One obvious conclusion to draw is that to advance racial justice, we need to stop blaming blacks for calling attention to continued racial justice problems, and start seeing their insight as a valuable resource for guiding us toward better solutions. A major difficulty that stands in our way is the dispositionist mind-set, which insists on equating racism with overt racist attitudes. That mind-set turns any claim of discrimination into a “race card” attack, rather than a learning/healing opportunity. Ironically, it's precisely blacks' superior ability to see things situationally — seeing beyond individual dispositions — that we have the most to learn from, if only we could get the process started in the first place.

We white folks are caught in a perceptual double-bind: We can't find our spectacles without our spectacles. That's why we need to borrow, to take our training from what blacks have learned to see. It's not a burden they are trying to lay on us — it's a blessing, if only we can find the eyes to see it for what it truly is.

I don't expect Tal Fortgang to understand any of this — any more than Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling would. But so what? They may all be privileged, just like the kings of old. But the world cannot wait to pass them by. We only need the means — and now they are at hand.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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