Monday, December 2, 2013

What Is "Black Privilege"?

by Omar Ricks and Gregory Caldwell

We sometimes hear people asking, "If there's white privilege, isn't there also black privilege?"

Here is the short answer: NO. There's no such thing as "black privilege" in an antiblack world. Don't believe anybody who tells you there is. 

Privilege is some kind of benefit you get for belonging. So, when you look at the world, what would "black privilege" even mean anyway? Getting killed by the police every 28 hours? Getting incarcerated disproportionately for the same crimes that everybody else commits? Being the one group that no one wants to live around or hire? You might see a few Black individuals who are privileged, but it's not because they are Black. Again, there's no such thing as "black privilege."

That's really all there is to it. Our saying it isn't what makes it true; the world makes it true. We're just reporting on what the world already does and what most people in the world already know.

Okay. Why go into this any further if it's that simple?
It bears further explanation. A few of the folks asking seem genuinely sincere about Black freedom struggle and so we want to do what we can to help clear this up. There are also a lot of people who are not devoted to Black freedom who bring up the term "black privilege" to throw people off course.

Also, a lot of concessions white people have made to Black freedom struggle have sapped the energy of Black radicalism by appearing to bestow some kind of privilege or even power on Black folks. Anytime you see Black folks getting excited because some event has made us feel like "We Have Overcome" or "Yes We Did"-- for example, the election of a Black president-- you're seeing Black people thinking that we now have been given some kind of real privilege.

We need to be crystal clear on this: There is no privilege that Black people get for being Black.

Black people who voted elected Obama because they situated their votes with the coalition of unions, white liberals, and Latinos that make up the Democratic Party. If you remember, most Black people supported Hillary Clinton, until the white voters of the Iowa Caucuses picked Obama.

Even if we were given some kind of privilege or it were voted into existence for us, it would be dependent on the privilege that white people have to withdraw that same privilege. So it would still rely on white privilege. I hope that we won't drink the Kool-Aid and forget this.

So, what do you mean "there's no such thing as "black privilege"?
First we need to understand something about the concept of white privilege: white privilege exists because Black privilege does not.

Writing in the 1990s, critical race theorists like Cheryl Harris (in an article called "Whiteness as Property") and Theodore Allen (in a book called The Invention of the White Race) developed the concept of white privilege to describe the ways that white people got benefits simply from being white, both during the time of slavery and today. Here's how Harris said it:
White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being the object of property. Slavery as a system of property facilitated the merger of white identity and property. Because the system of slavery was contingent on and conflated with racial identity, it became crucial to be 'white,' to be identified as white, to have the property of being white. Whiteness was the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings. [Cheryl Harris. 1993. Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1721] 
Before Harris and Allen, W.E.B. DuBois saw that, even though white and Black workers were poorly paid, they were still not equal. Du Bois said that's because whiteness all by itself conferred a kind of advantage, a "public and psychological wage," and that blackness conferred its own kind of demerit.
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.  
On the other hand, in the same way, the Negro was subject to public insult; was afraid of mobs; was liable to the jibes of children and the unreasoning fears of white women; and was compelled almost continuously to submit to various badges of inferiority. [W.E.B. Du Bois (1935), Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (NY: Atheneum), 700-701]
They developed the concept of white privilege to describe the large-scale ways that whiteness gets actual financial, legal, social, and psychological benefits to the extent that blackness is denied those same benefits. It's not that white people get some privileges and Black people need to be included in those benefits. White privilege means that you get benefits for not being Black. If you're Black, you don't get privilege for it.

It's also not just a "psychological" thing that white people can simply purge from their minds without simultaneously changing the social structure. White antiracists, claiming to fight their own racism, often cite the above Du Bois quote, but they emphasize the term "psychological wage." Very few of them emphasize the word "public" that Du Bois also used. Du Bois said "public" five times in that passage, but he said "psychological" only once. White privilege comes from the total social and individual framework. It's not just in people's minds.

The fact remains that there is no such thing as "black privilege." There's no privilege that you get just because you're Black. The people who developed the concept knew this. If you're going to talk about racial privilege, you should know it too.

What about Oprah and Obama? Aren't they privileged?
Sure, they're privileged in at least one way: They have access to money and institutional resources. Also, some white people like or identify with them, primarily because they're so different from the rest of us Black folks. They don't have "black privilege." Oprah has rich privilege-- also known as wealth. Obama has the privilege of institutional access because he is president. "Black privilege" doesn't exist.

Of course there are many Black people who have some kind of privilege. But they have this for some other reason than simply because they are Black. Maybe they have money. Having money is like having a little bit of whiteness in your life. It can sometimes serve to buffer you against some of the negative effects of being Black in an antiblack world. But you can't buy your way out of blackness.

Some Black people have a little bit of whiteness in their lives in other ways besides money. They might have light skin/eyes, straight hair, "proper" pronunciation, a big vocabulary, a white partner, academic training and degrees, approval from white audiences/voters, etc. And people might given them some things based on having all of that-- like a job, admission to graduate school, sex, or the benefit of the doubt. But none of that is "black privilege." The privilege they get from having those things is not because they are Black. That's not how it works. Black folks who have privilege get it from somewhere outside of blackness, the whiter the better. Privilege is something that you get in spite of blackness. (Remember what Malcolm X said: "What do you call an educated Negro with a BA or an MA, with a BS or a PhD? You call him a nigger, because that is what the white man calls him. A nigger.")

In fact, all privilege derives ultimately from the fact that all or most Black people don't have access to it.

White privilege, on the other hand, comes solely from being white. That's all. It is enough just to be white. You don't need money or jewelry or cars or degrees or skills or talent or knowledge of any kind. You just need to be white. The whiter the better.

What if I give up my white privilege?
Remember, white people can't "give up" their white privilege. White privilege doesn't actually exist separately from whiteness itself. You get white privilege from being white. Whiteness is its own currency. And it is backed up by force. Force guarantees that whiteness has value and, simultaneously, that blackness is absent of value.

You know how they used to be said that every dollar bill floating around was basically the same as a piece of gold in Fort Knox? (Well, since the 1970s, they really don't say that anymore, but they used to say it.) Well, in the same way, every white person you see walking around is basically a nuclear warhead or a police officer's service weapon. The white state guarantees the value of white people's lives using the deadliest weapons at its disposal. That's what it takes to get privilege. That's where it comes from. And just because you, white "ally"-- in a college-age fit of noblesse oblige-- say that you want to give all that away doesn't mean that the apparatuses and the momentum of over 500 years will reverse course and make exceptions for you.

[Remember that scene in Spike Lee's Bamboozled where the NYPD shoots down Big Blak Afrika (Mos Def/Yasiin Bey) and the Black members of his crew in a hale of bullets, and the only one standing when the smoke clears is the one white boy who was part of that crew? It's like that. The bullets are already out of the gun, they aren't aimed at you, and they cannot be reversed.]

Black people got nothing like that kind of treatment for being Black. And the only thing that will change this is a revolution that ends the world and abolishes the framework of privilege as we know it. But we'll talk about that elsewhere.

So does it matter that some Black people do have particular forms of privilege like wealth and institutional access? Even if there's no such thing as "black privilege," doesn't Oprah's wealth or Obama's institutional access mean that Black people aren't all equal to each other in the eyes of this racist society?
YES. Oprah's money means that she can afford the best lawyers, doctors, accountants, and personal security and will never seriously have to worry about the things that Trayvon Martin and Anna Brown and other Black folks do. It matters that Obama, Condolezza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas could call in airstrikes or prevent certain economic policies or laws from taking effect. It matters because these Black folks are aligned with the status quo and acting directly on its behalf. They are therefore not in the same position as other Black people because of the resources that they possess.

But don't conflate what these Black people have in white institutions with some kind of Black privilege or power. What these Black folks have is kind of like Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson's character in Django Unchained. Stephen influenced his master (Leonardo diCaprio) by quoting his master's father. So, even though he could influence his master, his master still had all the power. Black folks like Obama and Clarence Thomas have influence derived from white people, specifically from white people's institutions, laws, precedents, and practices. Influence is not power.

So those of us Black folks who have privilege are full of shit if we claim that we are different from Black people without privilege. Remember when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates called urban Black youths "Martians" and said he couldn't identify with them? The Cambridge police officers who arrested Gates on his own front porch for allegedly breaking into his own house probably helped dispel his illusion.

On the other hand, the structure doesn't come after all Black folk in the same way. Socioeconomic class among Black folks matters and so does the way we position ourselves toward the police. Remember back in May when the FBI announced a renewed manhunt for Assata Shakur? A lot of people got carried away with the "I am Assata" thing. I, as a Black person, cannot claim that the hunt for Assata is a hunt for me. The police are not after me--a college-educated Black man-- in the way they are after Assata or the way they went after Larry Davis or Robert Charles. I'm deluding myself if I think otherwise.

So there is a balance. We have to acknowledge that there are significant differences (mostly rooted in socioeconomic class) between the way the structure treats some Black people and the way it treats other Black people. But even that is not "black privilege." Tomorrow, it could all change (like it changed for Henry Louis Gates) and we could be arrested or put on a list for terroristic threat or conspiracy just because we wrote this. Some Black people do have privileges that other Black people don't, and those privileges are significant. But we do not have "black privilege." There is no such thing as "black privilege."

What about "playing the race card"? White people can't do that, and Black people can. Isn't that a form of "black privilege"?
Some people point out that, in this post-civil rights era, many white people don't like to think of themselves as racist. Some Black people can make it look like you're racist if you don't go along with them. Some people call this "playing the race card" (although this is a bullshit term that minimizes claims of racism that are valid more often than not). This is still not "Black privilege." It's a form of white privilege. Let us explain why.

The goal of "playing the race card" is to solicit the guilt of whites or the censure of white businesses or the white state. It only works in a time and place in which white people as a whole don't like to think of themselves as racist. In places and times in which white people don't give a damn if Black people call them racist, the "race card" is worthless, no matter how valid the claim of racism.

If something hinges on how white people feel from one day to another or between one place and another, it can't be called "privilege." White privilege is white privilege everywhere. It doesn't require a whole bunch of qualifiers, conditions, and fine print. Any privilege Black people have in an antiblack world always depends on white people's money, votes, or approval.

But what about money? Money is money. My money is green and somebody of a different color could just as easily have it. So isn't money its own kind of privilege?
No. Even the value of money is a function of whiteness. Remember, white super-elites determine what gets counted as money in the first place. Even the capacity to fix exchange rates is set by banks in the USA and Europe, not by the African nations whose resources the USA, Europe, and others plunder. So producing more Black millionaires doesn't create "black privilege."

In fact, check out Saidiya Hartman's book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and look at the chapter titled "Blood Cowries." Centuries ago, West African elites were selling other Africans into the European slave trade. European slaving companies paid for nearly one third of these slaves using the currency that African elites liked at that time: cowrie shells. That's right. Nearly one third of us Black folks who were sold into slavery in the Americas were paid for with cowrie shells that the Europeans dug up from the Indian Ocean and used as ballast in their ships. The African elites might have thought that Europeans would accept cowrie shells as currency in return. They were wrong. And once Europeans established control over their African colonies, they eventually demonetized the cowrie shell completely on the African continent. Europeans even determined what could count as currency on the African continent.
white woman with cowrie shell necklace

Well, I'm white and wracked with guilt and I want to do something about racism. So what if I use my white privilege to make something up called "black privilege"?
That's called affirmative action, and it's still white privilege. It's a set of policies that depends on white people's approval to keep going. It is by no means an "entitlement" that Black people can call a "privilege" of being Black. Now, we have no qualms about taking advantage of it; frankly, it's the very least that a nation can do for the descendants of its slaves and genocide victims. But it all hinges on how white people feel from one election season to another. It is therefore not an essential change in the status quo. White people's desire and whim, backed by their force, still makes the rules. It's their privilege, even if they use it, ever so briefly, on our behalf.

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