“White Supremacy Ate My French Homework” Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

In his NYT obituary of Joan Rivers, Robert D. McFadden refers to her as “the brassy Jewish-American princess from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in Westchester County.” This jumped out at me, not just because “JAP” is a slur (which it is, but one could argue that it honors Rivers to violate PC), but because… Flatbush? Some of my family lived in more or less that part of Brooklyn at more or less the same time, and it seems an odd place to label “princess” country.

I made that point on Facebook, which led to a discussion about whether one must be born a “JAP” to be one, or whether one can, through scrappy hard work, deck oneself out in tasteless-but-expensive garb and become a princess in the derogatory sense. Can one ever earn unearned advantage? Is that a thing?

Which brings us back to the more general question of “privilege.” Can privilege be earned? Is the combination of talent, hard work, and luck that brings a handful of people from not-so-privileged backgrounds success enough to move such individuals into the “privileged” category? Or does the word specifically refer to advantage that’s the result of being born to the winning side of some systematic inequality?

That’s a big part of the conversation that’s emerged in the response to my earlier post, in which I took issue with Rod Dreher’s choice to call out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “privilege” when what Coates was describing – taking a French class as a successful adult, in a situation that wouldn’t have been available to him as a kid – seemed a fairly clear-cut case of earned advantage. Freddie deBoer takes issue with that assessment:

Of course Coates has been the beneficiary of unearned advantage.

It’s an unearned advantage to be born without crippling medical ailments. It’s an unearned advantage to be born male. It’s an unearned advantage to be born in the United States rather than in Afghanistan or Somalia. And so on. Is that what most people mean when they talk about privilege? Maybe not, but then another of the central points of privilege theory is that the privileges that are most profound tend to be those we don’t acknowledge. Besides: Coates has written at length about the benefits he had growing up thanks to his parents, and to being politicized by his father, a former Black Panther. That’s a classic kind of privilege, parental privilege, and one that absolutely matters.

Such talk will inevitably piss some people off, but it shouldn’t. The fact that Coates has been the recipient of great advantages compared to many people in the world doesn’t change the fact that he has also been faced, his whole life, with the disadvantage of living in a structurally racist society, or the relative disadvantage of his own economic circumstances compared to some others. The point is that “privileged” is not a binary category, and in fact essentially all people are some combination of advantaged and disadvantaged.

Despite a tone that suggests he and I are in stark disagreement, I basically agree with him on this. And he’s right that Coates, going the 2012 article I suspect he’s at least partially referring to, probably would as well. How anyone ends up where they do in life is always going to be some incalculable mix of effort and unearned advantage. One of the great flaws of “privilege” as a concept – and as deBoer notes, I’ve held forth on this topic quite a bit; if my ending was “underwritten,” it was out of a fear of length of the holding-forth that could ensue – is that it fails to account for the myriad unearned advantages and unfair (but often invisible) obstacles that don’t fall into any particular privilege framework. Is talent “privilege”? Is growing up in a dysfunctional but upper-class family a lack thereof? It’s always going to be possible to point to individual rich people who’ve had it worse than individual poor ones, individual black people who’ve had it easier than individual white ones, and so on. We can all point to people we know who are, on paper, more privileged than we are, but have struggled more than we have, and vice versa.

But this is only a problem when one tries to apply “privilege” to individuals. The concept works much better for describing society, because it’s about all-things-equal. While unearned, idiosyncratic advantages have doubtless contributed to Coates’s success, that doesn’t somehow tell us that white privilege (or white unearned advantage) isn’t significant in some broader sense. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d be wary of taking this critique of privilege as far as deBoer does when he describes “a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t.” Yes, life is complicated, but it’s not that complicated. Are we really going to say that the Harvard legacy kid has precisely the same level of unearned advantage as the kid who got in thanks to hard-work-and-dedication-privilege?

Two readers address this question of systematic inequality more eloquently than I could, so let’s end with their observations. The first:

I think the critique of Coates’ essay regarding privilege misses a key component of TNC’s entire project. When you argue: “people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television.” You miss the key difference, in a way that Dreher does as well. TNC’s point (and he links repeatedly to the research backing it up both on Twitter and in the Reparations essay) is not that there’s some vague privilege in having grown up in one neighborhood vs another and that if only his family had been middle class he’d be different. It’s that structurally, a black child in a family that we would call middle class is vastly more likely to grow up in a bad neighborhood, attend worse schools, and have far more contact with actual poverty than a white child with the exact same family profile. That is the access to culture we’re talking about here. It’s not a vague sense that someone reads with a child or that mom and dad talk about books or whatever. It’s that for black families, being middle class isn’t enough. They will live in worse neighborhoods, they will have greater contact with poverty (and violence, and likely the police) and their outcomes will be constrained because of it.

That’s what’s actually more galling about Dreher’s response. It’s that he hand-waves away the research TNC puts forward with anecdotes about his family, and so he never confronts the structure of the argument at all.

And the second:

I suppose this list of qualifications – senior editor a respected magazines, writing for top publications, spending a summer studying French at Middlebury – is a set of markers of class and privilege. But consider this set of qualifications: tenured professor at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country, respected scholar with an international following, board member of a number of prestigious cultural institutions. Pretty upper class, right?

Of course, I’m describing Henry Louis Gates, who if we all recall was arrested in 2009 after being locked out of his house.

I’m neither a senior editor at a national magazine, nor a professor at a prestigious university, but if I’m ever locked out of my house, I don’t worry that a neighbor will call the police on me. Yet should that nonetheless happen, I’m extremely confident of my ability to explain the situation to the police and avoid arrest. And I’ll wager however much you like that Dreher is in the same position.

Here would be where I point out that this is white privilege – but I think “privilege” is not actually helpful, nor accurate. Rather, here is where I point out that this is in fact a question of class, that class has many components, and that alongside income, wealth, education, and profession, race is one of them.

Race is part of class, and I think a lot of the bitterness comes from the realization that however many achievements a black American may achieve in 2014, race often still trumps achievement as a designator.

“White Supremacy Ate My French Homework”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Like Bill McKibben, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on learning French with interest. I did so both because French, and because of how powerful and prescient I’d found his reparations article. I read this latest essay as a reflection on the ways that studying a highbrow, so-called universal subject can bring about deeper insights on more particular struggles. While I came to the piece with as good a sense as anyone of how studying French can impact Jewish identity (that being, in a roundabout way, the subject of my doctoral dissertation), I had very little idea of what effect it might have on black identity. But it seemed natural enough to me that it might have one. It didn’t, then, seem out-there to me that Coates would take the opportunity of describing his adult-ed French classes to segue into musings on the state of education for African-American children.

Rod Dreher has a somewhat different take. A part of Dreher’s critique of Coates makes sense. Another part of it, however, does not, and then there’s Dreher’s witticism in the comments to his own post: “The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that TNC’s essay amounts to ‘white supremacy ate my French homework.'”

The more I think about that sentence, the more I think that it expresses exactly the sort of breezily-expressed viewpoint – not quite racist (although I’ll leave that for readers of the race in question to decide), but definitively insensitive – that gives conservatism a not entirely fair reputation as… less than ideal, let’s say, when it comes to issues regarding race.

But first, the bit that made perfect sense:

Dreher takes Coates to task for conflating “white” childhoods with ones steeped in cultural capital. This is a common problem with “privilege” critiques – people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television. This gets at a problem I’ve long had with the word “privilege” – while the concept it refers to is sound, the word itself has a tendency to give the impression that anyone with one form of privilege is privileged in the colloquial sense, i.e. all-around advantaged.

On the one hand, it’s part and parcel of lack-of-privilege that you don’t know how it goes for the more privileged in whichever area. On the other, if the end goal is highlighting actual injustices, then it should be pointed out where advantages actually lie. It’s completely fair to point out that some aspects of Coates’ struggle with French are related less to racism than to his class background, or to the fact that he was older than his classmates. Next, the not-so-fair:

Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!

I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist.

Agreed that Coates doesn’t end on a particularly upbeat note, but why exactly shouldn’t studying French lead Coates to reflect on racial injustice? Because anyone who gets to go to a language summer school somewhere “verdant” should be so busy expressing gratitude that they wouldn’t even find the time?

Dreher proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole in a follow-up post. “Ignore the author’s tendentious race politics,” writes Dreher, “and there’s a deeply human lesson in that essay.” Dreher, in other words, instructs readers to ignore the point of the essay. More frustratingly, he constructs a dichotomy between the black and “human” aspects of it: “What he discovered at Middlebury was not the effects of white supremacy, but the limits inherent within himself — limits all of us will eventually discover about ourselves, one way or another.”

Dreher seems oddly attached to the idea that Coates could only possibly have been talking about a universal experience – as if anything particular to Coates’ experience as an African-American was something that a better editor would have thought to take out. There’s a certain irony in this, given that Coates’ essay inspired Dreher, in turn, to discuss the particularities of his own upbringing.

Dreher remains committed to calling out Coates’ “privilege”… when what he’s actually calling out are achievements Coates has earned.

From his initial response:

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it.

And the second:

He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.

We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.

I suppose Coates is privileged in the it’s-been-a-privilege sense. Unearned advantage, though, is a tough case to make.

How Much Do Whites Care About Racial Disparities?

New research suggests the answer is “not much”:

America’s criminal justice system disproportionately hurts people of color, particularly black and Hispanic men. Supporters of criminal-justice reform tend to point to that disparity as a good reason to change the system. But as reforms move from proposals to actual bills, the key question is how to persuade the general public that change is needed. A new study suggests that highlighting racism in the criminal justice system is not the answer, and in fact pushes white voters in the opposite direction. Even when whites believe the current laws are too harsh, they’re less likely to support changing the law if they’re reminded that the current prison population is disproportionately black.

Carla Murphy unpacks the study:

A white female researcher went to a train station near San Francisco and asked 62 white voters to watch a video of mug shots of male inmates – before asking them to sign a petition easing California’s three-strikes law. Some watched a video where only 25 percent of inmates were black. Others, where 45 percent of inmates were black. When it came time for signing, most white voters viewing the video with fewer black inmates signed the petition. Those viewing the video with a higher percentage of black inmates, however, refused to sign, “regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was.” … Researchers conducted a separate “real-life” experiment with white New Yorkers around stop-and-frisk. The results were similar to San Francisco’s.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown raises an eyebrow:

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics, and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” said [researcher Rebecca] Hetey. “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

A good reminder to heed the work of British sociologist Stuart Hall and similar communication scholars: Never assume your audience will take away what you intend for them to take away. Between the producing (“encoding” in Hall-speak) and the receiving (“decoding”) of a message, there’s a lot of space for conscious or unconscious fears and prejudices to meander in.

Jamelle Bouie sighs:

It’s disheartening. But, if I can indulge my cynicism for a moment, it’s also not too surprising. From previous research, we know that – among white Americans – there’s a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a black man,” note [researcher Jennifeer] Eberhardt and other researchers in a 2004 paper, “can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal.”

Indeed, they continue, simply thinking about black Americans can lead people to see ambiguous actions as aggressive and to see harmless objects as weapons. When Michael Dunn saw 17-year-old Jordan Davis and his friends, he perceived a threat, imagined a gun, and opened fire, killing Davis. “I was the one who was victimized,” said Dunn in a phone call to his fiancée before his trial. It’s ludicrous, but it’s not dishonest. Like many other Americans, Dunn sees black people – and black men in particular – as a criminal threat.

Chart Of The Day

Wealth Gap

Josh Marshall highlights a depressing one:

The chart illustrates a pattern that most of us probably do not find surprising. But the sheer chasm separating single white men from Black and Hispanic single women is still shocking to see visualized so clearly. Single white men have 438 times the assets as single Black women and 365 times that of single Hispanic women. As we can see, marriage is a huge determinant of wealth – but mainly if you’re not white, and especially if you’re a woman.

Note that the chart provides data for wealth with and without vehicles (in most cases, cars). Here I’ve referenced the latter statistic. As the report notes, owning a car is an important way to access more employment opportunities among other things. But that wealth is not easily accessible in dollar terms, which is highly relevant for the following reason. Great disparities of wealth not only have a huge impact on life opportunities and the prospects for wealth accumulation. They are hugely important factor in the precariousness of economic life experienced by different demographic groups.

The Color Of Homeownership

Kriston Capps notes a new study indicating that recent changes in the housing market “essentially wiped out the gains made by black homeowners since the 1970s”:

The survey controlled for “trigger events” that increase the likelihood that homeowners will lose their homes, including divorce, death, or job loss. (And more mundane factors, such as when a kid leaves home for college.) [Researchers Gregory] Sharp and [Matthew] Hall also accounted for homeowners who developed disabilities. The study found that about six percent of the sample transitioned from homeowners to renters. But black homeowners experienced an exit rate 68.2 percent higher than white homeowners. Although racial differences in trigger events were “minimal,” the report said, black homeowners were nevertheless more likely to “see their households shrink, to lose their jobs, and to suffer from substantial income losses” than white homeowners. So, even accounting for events that can lead to downward life trajectories, African Americans were much more likely to lose their status as homeowners – suggesting they are more vulnerable and subject to predatory, exploitative, and racially motivated lending practices.

Jamelle Bouie elaborates:

In addition to showing the consequences of past discrimination, Sharp and Hall argue that African-Americans have been victimized by a new system of market exploitation. Banks like Wells Fargo steered blacks and other minorities into the worst subprime loans, giving them less favorable terms than whites and foreclosing on countless homes. In a 2012 lawsuit, the ACLU and National Consumer Law Center alleged that the now-defunct New Century Financial, working with Morgan Stanley, pushed thousands of black borrowers into the riskiest loans, leaving many in financial ruin. As early as 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that blacks were twice as likely to receive subprime loans. And in a New York University study published last year, researchers found that black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely to receive subprime loans than white families making less than $30,000.

Together, all of this means that – according to Sharp and Hall – African-Americans are 45 percent more likely than whites to lose their homes.