“White privilege” has become a buzzword in discussions about racial inequality and racial justice.
In a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, Ken, John, and their guest, Naomi Zack, considered Cornell West’s criticism of Obama the crux of which is that Obama is afraid to acknowledge that the United States is a white supremacist society, which is the root of all other race-related problems in the United States. Ken, John and Naomi all seemed to agree that West’s criticism was off-mark, citing the important difference between “formal” and “material” equality (or rights). The idea seemed to be that there is an important difference between a society that allows legal discrimination based on race in voting, housing, etc. and one that doesn’t and that a society that legally prohibits discrimination based on race isn’t literally a white supremacist society. I think that people like Cornell West, Michelle Alexander, and Ta-Nehishi Coates would disagree: a society that formally (i.e., legally) prohibits discrimination based on race can still be a white supremacist society. Moreover, they argue that the United States is such a society (although Alexander seems to shy from the term “white supremacist,” Coates doesn’t). I think that anyone can understand why Obama (or any other politician) would not want to acknowledge that the United States is a “white supremacist” society. But I want to present two reasons to think that a society can properly be described as “white supremacist” even if its laws forbid racial discrimination.
The first reason is historical: in a society whose earlier arrangements were clearly white supremacist, we should be wary of claiming that our current societal arrangement is not white supremacist, especially when the kind of racial inequalities that existed in the earlier societal arrangements continue to exist in the current societal arrangement. Slavery was clearly a manifestation of white supremacy; Jim Crow laws were also clearly a manifestation of white supremacy despite the existence of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. We might think that since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are living in a post-white-supremacist society. And how can a society that is formally colorblind be a white supremacist society? But consider voting rights as a case study. Although the aspiration of the 15th amendment was to secure voting rights regardless of race, it took another 100 years and a massive civil rights movement to "secure" these rights. Perhaps the elimination of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, eliminated the last impediment to achieving voting equality. But I suggest that we should treat such claims with a healthy skepticism given the fact that attempts to achieve voting equality have failed before and "we" only later became aware of this failure. Moreover, there is reason to think that the racial caste system that originated with slavery and was maintained through Jim Crow is being continued under the aegis of the War on Drugs, as Michelle Alexander has forcefully argued.
The second reason is ahistorical: in the U.S. today there is widespread economic and educational inequality that breaks down along racial lines (with darker skinned individuals being on the short end of the stick). If you’re in doubt about this, take a look. (Just look at the graphs, if you want. A picture is worth a thousand words.) Unless one is willing to chalk those differences up to differences in the moral or psychological qualities of darker skinned peoples, then it seems the only other explanation of this inequality is past and/or ongoing discrimination along racial lines. Presumably enlightened individuals would reject the “moral and psychological qualities” route (since it is racist). But that implies that the existing inequalities are due to racial discrimination—specifically, discrimination in favor of people with lighter skin over people of darker skin. And how is that not white supremacy?
So I think the fact that a society formally prohibits racial discrimination does not thereby entail that it cannot be properly described as “white supremacist.” But should it be described this way? Why not use a more euphemistic term? Although I think it is clear why it is inexpedient for politicians like Obama to use the in-your-face term, “white supremacist,” I think there is value in doing so. In short, if one isn’t able to acknowledge the problem, it is unlikely that the problem will be adequately addressed. This, I take it, is the point of Cornell West’s criticism. If you are a white American and your American-ness is a central part of your identity, it will be difficult to own that America is a white supremacist nation. It is psychologically easier for such an individual to ignore the inequalities or to explain them in some other way (a phenomenon widely confirmed by self-affirmation theory and motivated reasoning, more generally). But the practical or psychological difficulties in confronting a difficult fact does not necessarily mean that we should not confront that fact. Especially not if our goal is to fix the problem rather than sweep it under the rug.