Since the colonial days, America has been a land of stark economic inequality with a relatively stable class structure. The institution of slavery and its enduring effects are the most striking examples. While the economic benefits of slavery were concentrated (as some like to point out, not all whites owned slaves), these benefits generated wealth that has been inherited and built upon. In contrast, the poverty of the victims of slavery was also inherited, providing little or nothing for people to build upon. As such, to grasp one aspect of white privilege (or white advantage) all a person needs are the most basic knowledge of American history and a minimal grasp of how inheritance works. While exceptions should be considered when thinking about generalizations, one needs to be on guard against the fallacies of hasty generalization (drawing a general conclusion based on a sample that is too small) and anecdotal evidence (rejecting statistical data based on an anecdote that is an exception). So, while examples like Obama and Oprah are relevant to discussing race in America, they are but two examples among millions. White poverty has been and is real, but this does not disprove the generality of white advantage. After all, the claim that white privilege or advantage exists is not the claim that every white person is doing well and that everyone else is doing terribly. Rather, it is a claim based on statistical analysis of the entire population.

While part of the American myth is that hard working Americans made themselves into successes by their own hard work, the reality is that there are many notable cases of public resources being used to benefit certain broad segments of the population. These segments have consistently consisted of white Americans while largely excluding others. These have also served to build white advantage. Some examples are as follows.

In 1830 the Indian Removal Act resulted in native people being forced from their lands, which opened the ground for the 1862 Homestead Act which overwhelmingly benefited white settlers.

In 1934 the Federal Housing Administration was created to address the housing shortage in America. It was also intended to segregate housing. It succeeded in both goals, providing many white Americans with the opportunity to own houses while pushing blacks and other minorities into urban housing projects. Home ownership was also subsidized with public money through the mortgage interest deduction. And so home ownership became the engine of American inequality.

 While Social Security is considered a general benefit today, when the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed, it intentionally excluded agricultural and domestic workers, who were mostly Black, Hispanic and Asian. The Wagner Act was also passed in 1935 and it gave unions the ability to engage in collective bargaining and set out consequences for unfair work practices. While unionization helped improve the situations of white workers, non-whites were largely excluded from these benefits. Fortunately, unions have become more diverse and “white union members have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans.” These are no doubt additional reasons for the right to try to destroy unions.

After WWII, the G.I. Education Bill, Veteran Administration Housing Authority, and Health Care System provided members of the military and veterans with public support for higher education, housing, and health care. While not the only factor, this public support is seen as the foundation upon which the prosperous American middle class was built. Wealth was redistributed to good effect for those who received it. While not all veterans were white (the United States operated segregated Asian and Black units during the war), most benefits were limited to white veterans and a million black WWII veterans were largely denied these benefits. The federal government and states also invested heavily in public higher education and for a while college was relatively affordable.

When the above examples are brought up in discussions of white privilege, some people counter with three true claims. The first is these lie in the past, the second is that things have changed, and the third is that many white people are not doing well.

While these do lie in the past and things have changed, there is still that fact that the effects of the harms and benefits linger. As noted above in talking about slavery, to understand that white advantage is real one just needs a basic knowledge of American history and a minimal grasp of how inheritance works. For example, grandparents who went to college and got a house from the GI Bill were generally able to pass on that wealth to their children, who then passed on benefits to their children. In contrast, the black veterans who got nothing from the bill had exactly that extra to pass on to their families. There will, of course, be stories of white veterans who ended up with nothing to pass on and examples of black veterans who did very well and were able to pass on wealth; but these are the exceptions. But is true that many white people are not doing well. White Americans are obviously not exempt from the economic woes of today, including low wages, grotesque income inequality, lack of affordable health care, food insecurity, high housing costs and so on.

The average white American can look at these past benefits and point out, correctly, that they are not getting the same benefits. As examples, college and housing are extremely expensive and the state is doing little, if anything, to help the average white person. That is, the entitlements of the past are gone or shifted to benefiting the wealthiest, including politicians. While there are many reasons for this, one is racism, and this can be illustrated by the parable of the pools.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together includes the history of the closing of public pools in America because of a racist response to integration. The paradigm pool is the 1919 Fairground Park pool in St. Louis, Missouri, which was believed to be large enough for 10,000 swimmers. In 1949 the city integrated the pool, resulting in the Fairground Park Riot in which whites attacked every black person they saw in the area. The pool was segregated again, then desegregated by a NAACP lawsuit. Visits to the pool declined dramatically and the city closed and drained the pool. While this was one example, the closing of public pools to avoid integration led to a case that reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled, in the 1971 Palmer v. Thompson, that closing a pool rather than integrating it was constitutional. Roughly put, closing a pool hurt everyone and hence was not based on racism. While swimming remained (and remains) popular, public pools largely declined in favor of backyard pools and segregated swim clubs. This ended up hurting everyone and set the stage for the harm that followed.

That many white people would accept losing a benefit rather than allowing it to be shared and that denying a benefit to everyone was constitutional did not go unnoticed. In the years to follow, public benefits were subject to cuts for everyone and the propaganda campaigns against them typically included racist elements. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States saw racism employed to get white Americans to accept cuts in entitlements, social programs, and other public expenditures that once  benefited Americans broadly. Bill Clinton kept Reaganomics going and with few exceptions American economic and political policy (and law) has been focused on ensuring that wealth is consistently distributed from the lower classes to the wealthiest classes. When there are attempts to change this siphoning of wealth, these are countered with the usual arguments and rhetoric, including appeals to racism.

Ironically, racism was and is used to get white Americans to agree to policies and laws that hurt everyone (but the rich) including themselves. This is still consistent with white privilege, since whites still enjoy other privileges and the benefits accrued by past generations have not been completely eroded. But the young white people who are trying to pay rent, go to college, or even meet basic expenses are realizing that the system is harming them, and this can lead to the bizarre situation where some people argue that there is no racism or white privilege because white people are suffering. But part of their suffering is due to racism and its role in destroying so many public goods. The money is, of course, still there—it just gets funneled upwards and helps explain why we have so many millionaires and billionaires today.

As the wealth acquired by whites in the past is eroded by the need to use those resources, I wonder what impact this will have. While the right has been exploiting white economic worries, they are also committed to racism. As such, even if they wanted to restore public benefits (which they do not) they would have to give up their racism. The establishment Democrats are also largely committed to the status quo, although they are more willing to allow public funds to benefit the public.  It will be interesting, and probably terrifying, to see the outcome of this—although history does over some suggestions.

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