Three hundred plus years ago the ruling English class in the American colonies gave privileges (like the right to bear arms, hold public offices, marry other whites, and receive payment for work) to poor European farmers and indentured servants to seperate them from their poor or enslaved African brothers and sisters. This was a calculated move to avoid combined uprising by the working and enslaved classes like Bacon's Rebellion. White Privilege was forged in Capitalism to stratify and divide the working class making them easier to exploit for capitalist gains.
In post civil rights America, privilege has compounded generationaly for those considered white people in terms of wealth, freedoms, social mobility and social acceptance. For those newly white people that were not able to parle privilege into entrance into the middle class and beyond, today privilege still means enjoying such statements as, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” or “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.” (Read Peggy McIntosh for an extended list of privileges)
No matter what white privilege grants people today, as with any capitalist system - nothing is free; and White privilege comes at a heavy cost - to both those excluded from it (i.e. people not considered white) as well as for those granted privilege. The following lists 3 ways, those of us considered white, pay for privilege today:
1. Loss of Economic Prosperity as a Group
Pre civil rights the majority of working class white people in America were democrats because democrats pushed policies like the New Deal that economically helped poor white people move from the lower to middle class while excluding people of color from this opportunity. However - this all changed when JFK made his civil rights speech in 1963 and LBJ signed the civil rights bill into legislation - according gallup poll data from the 1950s and 60s, at these pivotal moments in time those considered “racially conservative” in the south (defined by gallup as white people who checked they would never vote for a black president) turned from southern Democrat to southern Republican. One can infer that for this group of white people protecting whiteness was more important than protecting economic growth. This has continued to play out through the Tea Party, and now Trump’s base: where white working class people throughout America vote for policies that benefit the one percent as long as they are wrapped in racist social issues and rhetoric. For example the ardent resistance to universal health care coming from poor communities that would benefit from a single payer federal system as well as more robust social welfare programing.
Beyond choosing whiteness at the cost of policies that would offer economic prosperity to all white people not just the 1 percenters, abolishing white privilege would increase GDP ( with no sources needed to back up this assertion). Ending oppressive systems cuts wasted funds to oppress (think of the cost of our school to prison pipeline alone) and increases the ingenuity and working force of a nation.
While equity means redistribution and therefore potentially economic loss for white people in the short term - privilege guarantees economic loss for generations. To reverse this loss white people as a group need to give up some privilege.
2. Loss of Self-Assurance
White fragility (the discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice) is real and it represents a loss in self-assurance. Their are only 3 ways to avoid this loss: (1) lose all empathy and humanity, (2) live in pure ignorance, or (3) devote yourself to ending all forms of oppression. As humans - the first two options are almost impossible to live with which means the only way to fully guarantee keeping your self-assurance is to work towards ending oppression - which means giving up privilege.
3. Loss of Humanity
When looking back at the photos of lynching black men, one often sees entire white families in their Sunday bests as if lynching was the after church town event. These photos depict a people who have dehumanized another group to the point where they can hang an innocent man after church with a smile on their face. In these moments this group shows how they have lost their humanity. One must lose part of their humanity to dehumanize another person. While we no longer hold town lynchings, we still demonize black and brown men in the media, we still disproportionately suspend black and brown boys, we still shoot unarmed black and brown children. As a group we have lost our humanity - a loss passed down from generation to generation. To rediscover our humanity we must heal ourselves.
Healing comes in many forms. Its starts with acknowledgement of our privileges and knowledge of why white privilege exists, who it really benefits, and its cost to us. Then it moves toward working through knowledge of self (read My Grandmother's Hands for support here). It continues with action and redistribution - giving up our privileges to support XY and Z. And it ends when we end racial injustice - because the end is coming.
Ian McLaughlin & Ryan Williams-Virden