But do like the terms institutional racism and inequality.
My views on racial inequality can be summed up here. I realize the argument I’m about to make will be controversial for nearly all black people, and some white people, particularly progressives.
When debating white privilege, a common argument made to debunk the whole notion is that there are many poor and working class white people who are just as unfortunate as poor black people. Although this maybe true, the black poverty rate is 3 times the white poverty rate. But this is beside the point.
The term privilege is problematic because individuals with a certain privilege tend to be unaware of the privilege. As an able bodied person, I’m unaware of the privileges I have such as the lack of accommodations for physically handicapped people in certain areas of society. In the case of poor white people, they are unaware of how privilege extends beyond class. Many have faced similar struggles as poor black people, working minimum or low wage jobs, struggling to make ends meet. Obama in 2008 elucidates their resentment against poor black people who complain:
“In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives…”
The issue here is not that poor whites are unaware of the economic privilege many whites have, but that privilege doesn’t only reflect one’s income. There is real evidence that race alone determines how one is treated in the job market, housing market, and by law enforcement. But this however, even in 2016, isn’t widely known, and especially for poverty stricken white people. This is why terms such as racial inequality and institutional racism are more effective than white privilege. It is a more nuanced way of articulating privilege and generates more discussion about the evidence listed above. The term privilege has an implicitly negative connotation, one feels guilty about having privilege. This explains why it is difficult for economically disadvantaged white people to realize that institutional racism exists. Racism today is not blaring in ones’ face, like the clear segregation of the Jim Crow Era. It is almost impossible to see a whites only sign in modern America. By saying the term white privilege, many imagine laws that explicitly state that white people get a benefit over everyone else. Such laws don’t exist in the 21st century.
Language matters, especially in the current political landscape that is more polarized than ever. The public and politicians alike fiercely oppose the other parties’ views. Partisanship in Washington is becoming an exceedingly dividing force and terms like privilege have proved to be counterproductive in the public sphere. Progressive rhetoric needs to emphasize more how racism operates, rather than alienate their opponents in debates who shut off their ears when they hear the term privilege.