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The Idea of White Privilege

In a recent political debate, one participant discussed how to make “our communities stronger.” But after two hundred-plus years of American communities, why are they now in need of “strength”? Her answer: acknowledge “white privilege.” What is she talking about?

Privilege

By the dictionary, “privilege” is “special rights or immunities.” That, however, begs the question: from whence do these “rights” and “immunities” derive? Which brings up another, competing, notion: to “earn.” To earn is to “receive as return for effort.” If there is privilege in the world, does it come from heaven, is it “bestowed,” or is it derived from “effort”?

Recently, a major U.S. university announced “zero tolerance” for “white privilege.” A critic then suggested that the school “shut off the electricity.” Apparently, the school administrators were not amused by the irony.

The notion of a unique “privilege” or special position (“supremacy”) has become a novel feature of the evolving political culture. The idea is both new and ideological i.e., it does not require analysis or reflection. It is, as well, meant for applause or political approval. Like “faith” in theology, the concept simply asserts belief without evidence. At bottom, it is simply “ideology,” and ideologies do not seek evidence, i.e., the “Aryan” race, the “proletariat,” “war to save the world for democracy,” “nation building.”

If one group is privileged, then all the others are, by definition, “underprivileged.” How, again, did they get that way? Was it biology (God) or humanity (war/oppression)?

Nationalism (White’s Only)

The concept “Nationalism,” perhaps the most dominant sociological expression in human history, has also become “Americanized” in today’s society/culture. Properly, the notion is now prefaced by the adjective “white.” Whether this is a description or an accusation remains unclear.

Like “privilege,” the idea “white nationalism” has now become a political movement. The former Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, (not exactly a historian of the idea) now heads this initiative with his book, Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism. McAuliffe’s understanding of the sub-title is restricted to Neo-Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017. Essentially, this negates the expression altogether.

There is no societal connection between rioting and nationhood. But, to repeat, thought/analysis are unnecessary so long as the expression is accepted. Like “beauty,” such beliefs are “in the eye of the beholder.” To their descendants, the Founding Fathers were also “white nationalists,” but, to the British, they were “terrorists.”

Nevertheless, the issue of white nationalism is a daily read and is considered relevant and serious by many. But history does not acknowledge the subject in such a condescending way, nor has reality been bothered by the notion (until now). Consider a single case.

A Case Study: The Battle of the Somme

July 1, 1916: the Somme River, east bank, France. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) begins its charge at 7:00 AM across “No Man’s Land” toward the German trench-line, about a mile away. Although the enemy has absorbed about two million shells the previous week, they are still safe and secure in their own trenches. Machine guns in place, they begin strafing the “Tommies,” killing around eight per second according to one eyewitness. By 4 PM, the day is done. British casualties are 60,000 total, 20,000 killed.

That’s what happened on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There was no “privilege” on that day. The Battle of the Somme went on until November 18th, one of hundreds of battles that absorbed white soldiers in the First World War. The British Commander at the Somme, Douglas Haig, ordered 92 more offensives like the first one. That’s right, 92. By the end the British had “conquered” about five miles of ground, a long way off from Berlin. General Haig remains a respected figure in British military lore.

But perhaps “privilege” is a civilian notion, while the millions of Caucasian soldiers who returned in body bags throughout history are discounted. In the American Civil War, about 720,000 white soldiers died (within a 32 million population) in a cause that ended slavery but has since been erased amidst “white supremacy” ideological beliefs.

Behind the word “privilege” is the incessant quest for “equality.” If, goes the idea, one is privileged within millions, there is “inequality.” But here is another criteria for authentic “equality”: soldiers going home in body bags accurately reflect the population. Has warfare been historically “sexist”?

Exaggerated Notions

Indeed, ideology has seemed to replace history and thought in modern America. People seem to be “chasing rainbows.” Replicas of the past, designs, statues, place-names, writing, are seen as objects of destruction rather than reminders of actual historic people and events. Contemporary incidents are held up as symbolic of wider and deeper “institutional” societal attributes. Single issues are representative. The deaths of individuals – Trayvon Martin in Florida (2012) and Freddie Gray in Baltimore (2015) – nearly brought the country into an apoplectic fit over “racism” that is alleged as defining society. The millions of men killed in battle are accepted as ordained (“privileged”), while a single civilian death can be represented as a profound national crime.

Slavery may ask for “reparations.” How do we “repair” damage from deaths at age 18 for nothing in “no-man’s land”?

To anguish over someone’s murder is appropriate and necessary. But to inflate singular and episodic events into belief-systems or societal convictions is fraudulent. This is also, tragically, evident in warfare: if a soldier was shot by a civilian, often, in war, the entire town was torched.

George Orwell caught this human disconnect years ago in 1984 and Animal Farm, in which “thought police” replaced reason and sanity with the irrational and ideological. Orwell was referring to Josef Stalin’s Russia, his political “purges,” and his removal of any vestiges of the country’s Czarist history. If one does not like history, one simply erases it. Barring that, convenient adjectives are invented, and, most remarkably, accepted.

Today’s America is fast approaching this public acceptance, and a favorite subject is historic and national “sins.” It has become nearly an obsession. We search for what’s wrong (and there’s enough) rather than what’s right (same). Some of the ideas prevalent today are as close to “Stalinist” thought that we have seen in some time.