An Invitation To Whiteness: Why Not Addressing White Privilege Entrenches Social and Economic Inequality
Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immi […]
Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immi […]
A few years ago, this writer wrote: that until White privilege is addressed and eradicated, it will continue to be the serpent in any and every Garden of Eden of feminist, liberal or progressive creation. And as we view the landscape of American social, political and economic life, we can see, not so much a re-introduction of White privilege, but an amplification of its reality and presence.
Recent studies and reports continue to bear out not only a persistent economic and wealth gap between Whites and many groups of color, but a widening of that financial chasm as well. It is due, in large part, to this nation’s failure to properly and thoroughly deconstruct and fundamentally address the social impact and economic consequences of White privilege.
Privilege that was, initially, enjoyed by wealthy, well-spoken Englishmen, would later encompass the various European ethnic immigrant groups in America.
Created over four centuries, race has become a powerful and enduring narrative. Moments in America’s past reveal how this idea took hold and became the lens through which the world is viewed.
Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slaveholder, wrote the foundational words proclaiming human equality in the Declaration of Independence. He was also the writer of a lesser-known influential document, Notes on the State of Virginia. Written in response to questions from France about the American colonies, Notes was a kind of tourism guide promoting America.
Notes on the State of Virginia wasn’t supposed to be this exposition about race, but in the midst of Jefferson’s descriptions of geography and climate, he expressed his views on the inhabitants of this new country – the Native, the European and the African: “I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the Whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
One could argue that Thomas Jefferson was the first person to truly articulate a theory of race in the United States, but then again, he had painted himself into a corner. It was he that said, in the Declaration of Independence, that we are all created equal. So, if in fact we’re all created equal, and if in fact we’re all entitled to liberty, then how can he justify owning 175 slaves (going up to as much as 225 in his lifetime)?
Although we see in Jefferson’s work the intellectual crafting of the construct of White privilege and supremacy, in 1619 when the first Africans arrived in Virginia, religion and wealth, not physical appearance, defined status. Blackness and Whiteness, or any ethnicity for that matter, were not yet clear categories of identity. There was more regard for a person’s supposed status; it was somehow more fundamental than what color they were, or what their particular background was.
The notions of racial inferiority raised by Jefferson had evolved over time, shaped in part by an intense need for labor (in other words, economic factors) in the American colonies — just as the drive for land lent itself to the pretext of the savage Native and the barbaric Mexican.
Colony by colony, new laws made slavery permanent and inheritable for Black people. And for the first time the word “White,” rather than “Christian” or “Englishman,” began appearing in colonial laws and statutes.
Even by the time Jefferson sat down to write Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, a plantation economy dependent on slavery was already deeply entrenched. Slavery had become so widespread, that for many Whites it seemed the natural state for Black people.
Many of the European-descended poor immigrants began to identify themselves, if not directly with affluent Whites, certainly with being White. And here is where we begin to see the emergence of the idea of a White race as a way to distinguish themselves from those lesser peoples that they, in their minds, could not see as anything more than a slave or a savage.
This is something, by and large, that all immigrant groups experience in one way or another when they come to America, no matter what point in time it is — they come to a country that has, historically, always been highly racialized.
It’s a country where race has its origins in slavery as well as in the conquest of Indigenous peoples. So any group coming from the outside after this nation’s genesis has to fit into this racialized society in some way. And how that “fit” will take place isn’t always clear or immediately evident.
Between 1880 and 1920, the U.S. acted as a huge magnet for immigrations from all directions. Most settled in large cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Boston. Previous immigrants had come to America from western and northern Europe and were often well educated, spoke English and were considered as having useful skills. Except for the Irish, most were also Protestant.
By 1880, the trend of immigration changed. Most coming to America were from southern and eastern Europe and tended to be Catholic or Jewish, poor and knowing no English. Their habits and culture were very different from native-born Americans.
For this new wave of immigrants, life in Europe and Asia was difficult at best. They came seeking to escape famine, land shortage and religious or political persecution. Others, known as “birds of passage,” wanted to come to America temporarily for money with the intention of returning to their homeland.
There were some political efforts in some southern states to recruit immigrants from more “desirable” locations, such as Germany and Belgium, in an attempt to increase the White labor force for mills and the selling of farm land.
Most immigrants arrived by steamship. Travel across the Atlantic from Europe took approximately one week, while Pacific crossing from Asia took nearly three weeks. The cheapest accommodations were in steerage, the cargo area where conditions were crowded and unsanitary.
Upon arrival at the designated port of entry, immigrants faced the question of whether they would be admitted to the United States. The process at Ellis Island in New York City required a physical exam and government inspection of documents. As the major immigration station in the U.S. at the turn of the century, nearly 20 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island.
Immigrants arriving from Asia gained admission at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Processing at Angel Island, in contrast to Ellis Island, is virtually free of fairy-tale rhetoric. Immigrants faced harsh questioning and lengthy detentions in a rundown, dirty facility.
Writings, known as Tibishi poems, have been found on the detention and barrack walls expressing the Asian immigrant’s bitter disappointment with America. This too is an example of entrenched and continuing White privilege — that even upon entry into the U.S., the lines of racial demarcation were being drawn in favor of Whiteness.
Although life in America was a great improvement, in most cases, it had a hard time living up to the dreams and expectations of most immigrants. It was difficult to adjust to life in a large industrial city.
They lived in what could only be classified as slums, with all the typical issues and challenges that come with ghetto life. Most took the lowest paying jobs and quite often whole families, including young children, worked to earn enough to survive. Working conditions were unsafe with long hours at little pay.
Here we see a convergence in the narratives of poor, European-immigrant groups and the vast majority of Blacks and Hispanics in America. If we were to omit every trace of ethnicity or time in this story, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to believe we are talking about people of color. At the time, all the declarations being made about Blacks and Hispanics, currently, in regard to lawlessness, criminality and immorality, was being made about certain European-ethnic groups then.
Once upon time the ghetto did not have the type of racialized connotations that it holds today. So what happened? The invitation to whiteness is what happened. The invitation by the already dominant culture began to be extended to various European immigrant groups — this exclusive club of White privilege and all that it entailed.
When those who would later be deemed White became citizens, in spite of possible and initial hostile reception, they had the opportunity to gradually adopt the ideologies, norms and practices of Whiteness, to be accepted as White, and to become entitled to the accompanying systemic advantages.
While this invitation was being given to recent immigrants from Europe, rights were being denied to immigrant (and American born) groups of color – privileges such as housing and voting. The physical flight from the slums and ghettos by White immigrant groups was also made possible by New Deal programs.
In the 1930s, the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration to provide loans, or the backing for loans, to “average” Americans so they could purchase a home. As a result, federal programs and banks sank millions into the home construction industry. From this, what we now call the suburbs was born. As more and more European immigrants moved into Whiteness, they moved out of the slums and moved into a new era of respectability – which included access to government-backed loans.
While this “White flight” was taking place from the ghettos of America, FHA underwriters were warning that the presence of even one or two non-White families could undermine real estate values in the new suburbs. These government guidelines were widely adopted by private industry.
Race has a long and ugly history in local real estate practices across America. Starting in the 1930s, government officials institutionalized a national appraisal system, where race was as much a factor in real estate assessment as the condition of the property. Using this scheme, federal investigators evaluated 239 cities across the country for financial risk.
Those communities that were all White, suburban and far away from predominant communities of color, received the highest rating, green. The communities that were, at the time, predominantly Black or Hispanic — or in the process of becoming so — received the lowest rating there was, the color red.
And thus the term “redlining” came into existence and as a result, most of the mortgages went to suburbanizing America — and it was done so along ethnic lines.
Let it be understood, that this is not an indictment against those who happened to be, phenotypically, White, but rather an analysis and deconstruction of the social construct Whiteness and the evolution of White privilege and to examine their current social, political and economic consequences.
The question is then, invariably, asked that if large swathes of the White populace are suffering the economic pinch and would indeed be considered poor; that if millions of Whites are enduring the sting of unemployment and humiliation of job loss, then what benefit is derived from this “White privilege thing”?
When the material supports, for the most part, are in, for lack of better word, recession, never underestimate the personal enhancement to the individual psyche that Whiteness gives. The feeling that no matter how diminished my fortunes are, at least I’m not viewed as the average Black, Hispanic or in a religious-ethnic context, the average Muslim (because in the minds of most, there is something essentially ethnic about being a Muslim).
To be sure, I am not suggesting that the White individual struggling with a terminal illness or the White family trying desperately to make ends meet wakes up every morning saying “thank goodness I’m White.” Nor does this writer believe the average White person (healthy, affluent or otherwise) engages in such overt racial glorification or expression.
Yet, in many subtle conscious and subconscious ways, the average White person begins to expect and depend on that difference of treatment; that favored ethnicity status, if you will – no matter how great or small the privilege.
The prevailing narrative of the European immigrant is that they came here with nothing, worked hard and achieved success. An admirable accomplishment, nevertheless, it is usually told and recited as a defense of the supposed American system of meritocracy and fairness.
The part that is usually missing from this account, however, is the countless people of color who worked just as hard, and in many cases harder, and had nothing to show for it in the end. As a matter of fact, not only did they accrue no net increase for their labor, they actually lost more than they gained.
The Native lost the land that they had been caretakers of for millennia, as well as lives through genocide; the Mexican lost land through the theft by the American government and wealth through practices such as debt peonage (a virtual indentured servitude) and the African in America lost freedom, family and identity.
Each of these groups came here with nothing and worked hard and yet their stories are framed in terms of what the dominant culture believes they’ve taken, not what they’ve truly contributed; what the dominate culture says they’ve been given and not what they have actually earned.
And no, they have not received (nor will they ever) what many European immigrants have been given over the centuries; that which doesn’t guarantee success, but gives opportunities and possibilities that people of color in this country did not have … an invitation to Whiteness.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.