There is a temptation, when racists like President Donald Trump and tiki-torch bullyboys command so much attention, to let the rest of ourselves too lightly off the hook, because most of us who happen to be white don’t think like bigots. Still, we remain beneficiaries of social arrangements that make it hard for people of color to prosper. White privilege, I think, is a bigger problem than individual bigotry. We resist seeing it, but it’s there.
I could try driving home this point with statistics and studies, but I’d run out of column space. So let me tell it the best way I can: by testifying about what I saw when I reflected on the ways my own family benefited from racially specific privilege, and how obvious it was. It partly had to do with money, but mostly it was about education because education was the sap in my family tree.
I have Jewish and Catholic grandparents, both from groups not-altogether-favored in Protestant America. Yet they had white skin, and so they got their chance. My Jewish grandparents immigrated in 1908, though my grandfather had wangled a naturalization in an Atlanta courtroom a decade earlier. I suspect his sponsor had perjured himself testifying, as the record reflects, that my grandfather had lived the requisite five years in the U.S.; I have no reason to believe this was true. (Fleeing the pogroms, you may cut some corners.) It seems improbable, though, that an African immigrant would have had as easy a time in that same courtroom – and in any event an African would not have been admitted to this country after the Emergency Quota Act of 1921.
My grandfather prospered in business, and sent his son, my father, to Harvard (the yearbook reveals a virtually all-white class). My dad went on to be a diplomat and a professor at Columbia.
My Catholic grandmother, who immigrated from Canada at around the same time, started as a paid lady’s companion, but married a New England accountant who weathered the Depression by working as a bank officer. Their daughter, my mom, went to the elite Boston Girls’ Latin School (I don’t have her yearbook, but everybody seems to be white in nearby classes), and then Radcliffe (not one non-white face in the graduation photo), Cornell and Hopkins. Later on, she taught college.
And as for me, the third generation? I went to the best high school in Ann Arbor, run by the Education Department of the University of Michigan, state-owned but with an admissions process like a private school’s. There were African Americans in my town; in fact I lived next door to them. But out of a graduating class of 60 at my school, exactly one was African American.
I proceeded on to an Ivy university, which I could afford because of a 50 percent tuition reduction based on my father being a Columbia professor. Looking at the freshman facebook of my class, you can go page after page without seeing a non-white face. My graduate school class at another elite institution had just one African-American student. And so the first time I had any significant number of black classmates was 24 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when I matriculated at law school.
Profit from privilege
I was raised to despise racial prejudice and have taught my children the same. But have I enjoyed a racially-exclusive education? It seems I have. Have I passed this racially-exclusive educational privilege along to my children? Why, yes. The kids are all products of elite private universities, with almost no public schooling among them in their earlier years. That means that, while they have all had some non-white colleagues throughout their educations (far more than I did, thank goodness), they have almost never had to share in the privations of Baltimore’s majority-black public school students. And the prospects for my grandchildren, the fifth generation in this saga, look similar.
Education both requires money and breeds it. Over time, money from parents and grandparents has bought our family’s young educational options. Take my children: One son’s job was a direct result of unpaid internships he filled while in college; family support alone made those credentials economically feasible.
All of my children began their education preparing for one kind of career – and ended up incurring costly curriculum changes or additional schooling costs in order to switch educational tracks that led to the careers they actually have. Privilege buys second chances.
I don’t want to give the impression that my family were not strivers; every single one of us worked hard, and in that sense we’ve each earned our success. But after the first generation, all of us received boosts from our families’ existing money and education. Privilege could be, and was, rolled along like a ball from generation to generation. But to profit from such privilege, somebody had to receive the ball to start with. Hardly anyone seemed to be handing that ball to African American families when and where I was schooled.
Last summer, I saw a wonderful play called “The Niceties,” a two-act confrontation between a white professor who has made good and a black student who challenges the professor’s status. The student says it better than I can:
“[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you… You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on.”
The student’s proposed solution, rejected by the professor, naturally, is that the professor abjure her status and resign. And that challenge extends, mutatis mutandis, to people like me. In my case, the abjuration might have taken the form of letting my kids attend the urban public schools. And that was never going to happen (except for a brief period where one child was part of a gifted and talented program).
As the late, great Gil Scott-Heron sang: “The philosophy seems to be, at least as near as I can see: When the other folks give up theirs I’ll give up mine.” In a world without governmental safety nets, few parents like me are going to give up privilege. But if we can’t bring ourselves to do that personally, we’d better get a government that does it for us by creating opportunities for those historically denied them.
Unfortunately, right now we have a president and a government that seem, if anything, to be fans of lead boots. We’ll need to rid ourselves of these cheerleaders for inequality, but it won’t be sufficient. Those of us who will not be “giving up theirs” need to do something more. I challenge my peers to own their privilege – and do something.
Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.