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Understanding Privilege

May 07, 2015

Talking about white privilege is a heated and difficult subject for some. You can almost see blood pressure raise and lips purse when mentioning the phrase in what was supposed to be polite Starbucks conversation. “I’ve never owned slaves,” or “I’ve worked hard for what I have,” or “Why does everything have to be about race,” or “If they wouldn’t break the law, the police wouldn’t arrest them,” are common responses. Fair enough. In my personal daily confession I’ve talked to God about these same reactions in my own soul. As a southern, white male, I’ve received an abundant dose of “us and them” from an early age, the most dominant story being that because segregation is no longer legal it no longer exists. To quote Atticus Finch during his closing arguments of To Kill a Mockingbird, “We know [this] is in itself a lie . . . a lie I do not have to point out to you.” It’s true that segregation is no longer legal, but segregation’s legacy has had a dramatic influence on our current relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Yesterday while in carpool I heard a story from NPR about segregation in the post-WW II housing market, and how decisions made under “separate but equal” have widened the gap between both separation and equality. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute detailed how Baltimore neighborhoods reflect a national legacy of segregation. During FDR’s New Deal, the federal government offered public housing to help alleviate the burden of a depressed economy. In the Baltimore area whites were offered suburban homes while blacks were offered urban housing. Even though housing was made affordable, it was not equally offered to all. Years later, as Rosthstein reports, the suburban homes offered now sell for around $500,000 while the urban housing available to blacks often deprecated in value. The accumulated wealth from suburban homes was often bequeathed to the next generation while those in urban housing had little to offer. Under the same government sponsored program both a cycle of prosperity and poverty were born.

Both whites and blacks during a segregated depression received government assistance, but the way in which the government offered subsidies have bolstered a system bent toward privilege for whites. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but understanding this small snapshot of the “why” of privilege helps to crucify the blame that creeps into my soul when I hear stories of anger and violence. It is neither an excuse, nor should it be denied. While we fight the good fight for justice for all, maybe we should broaden the focus of a heated racial spotlight so that, Christ—the light of the world, might burn away both the sin in my own soul and the sin of an inherited system whose history we are quick (either through natural deafness or earplugs) to dismiss.