White Privilege, White Guilt and White Flight: We Can Do Better

Thank you, Howard Schultz and Starbucks. Let's go ahead and talk about #Racetogether.

By Jason Scott Jones Published on March 28, 2015

I hope we’re all done making fun of Starbucks for its #RaceTogether campaign to promote awkward conversations with strangers. Friends of mine joked about what the next Starbucks campaign might be — #ReligionTogether, #PoliticsTogether or #DoILookFatinThisApron? Together — and we all had a pretty good laugh. But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m grateful to Howard Schultz for taking the chance of looking silly, because let’s face it — there are plenty of truths about race that we Americans don’t talk about, at least across the color line.

Here’s a good example: “White privilege.” I rarely hear us white people talk about it among ourselves (except among people we agree with, or to trash folks with whom we don’t). But the facts are glaringly obvious, like an asteroid falling into the middle of New York City’s Central Park at noon on a Saturday. It’s too obvious to ignore, so we spin it. We take the undeniable reality as proof of something else we already believed, rather than incorporate it into our real-world view, and make plans to change it.

Liberals are eager to admit that white privilege is real, and they are ready with a long list of government remedies — most of which fit neatly in their broad program for progressive social reform, backed up by the punitive, regulatory and spending power of the state. When critics point out the often disastrous results these liberal programs have on the people they’re meant to benefit, liberals too often shut their ears and double down: The only reason that the Great Society didn’t work, they will insist, is that it wasn’t quite “great” enough. Give us four more years and another trillion dollars, and then just watch what happens….

In the face of such responses, conservatives are tempted to deny white privilege outright, and not because they are secret white supremacists. No, they’re afraid — afraid that admitting the existence of white privilege will do more harm than good. It will simply empower liberals, and offer the pretext for still more futile, catastrophic expansions of government power, which threaten liberty and prosperity for all.

In each case, these activists treat the experience of black Americans not as significant in itself, but rather as a piece to be shifted, advanced, or sacrificed in a game of political chess.

The Asteroid in Central Park

Instead I’d like to start with that huge asteroid in the park, and weigh its raw, rocky facts: Most black Americans’ ancestors didn’t emigrate here by choice, but were kidnapped and forced to work for free on threat of death for some 300 years. They could be bought and sold like cattle and killed with impunity. Then for another 100 years, they were excluded from voting and subject to lynchings, police harassment, segregation laws, eugenics campaigns, government experiments and systematic discrimination.

White people organized and led this campaign, and collected the wealth that resulted from it, though they spent some of that treasure in a bloody war which did end slavery, while leaving blacks third-class citizens (as Christians are in most of the Middle East today). Then black Christian civil rights activists used non-violent resistance to shame white Christians into dismantling these laws, and whites set up elaborate government programs intended to repair the damage. Behold, the Great Society.

At the same time, the West discarded most of the Christian social mores that used to train young people (especially young poor people) to restrain their sexual urges and channel them into marriage and child rearing. The culture adopted instead a Rousseauean embrace of animal instinct and instant gratification, which can be neatly summed up as “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Middle-class people, white and black, indulged these ideas while young, then mostly settled down, got jobs, got married and saved for their retirement. Poor people, white and black, followed these ideas into prison and long-term poverty.

Have I got all of that right?

“Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to pour water?”

Rather than try to disentangle all the knots of history, I’d like to step forward as a white guy and acknowledge all the obstacles that I didn’t face while growing up. Even though I was born to a high school senior and my parents were divorced before my first birthday, I didn’t live in a culture which ten years before had banned my father from certain hotels, or kept him at the back of city buses. I didn’t have to witness my parents wearing those scars.

As rowdy as I might have acted, nobody ever looked at me and my white friends and thought that we might be a street gang, then crossed the road to get away from us. Nor were there record labels putting out albums glorifying people from my group for selling drugs, pimping out women or shooting cops.

When I went to work in Washington, D.C., I was plenty rough around the edges. But all it took was some self-help reading in etiquette, and I could fit right in at parties on Capitol Hill, where my working-class background suited an inspirational narrative: Mr. Jones Goes to Washington. I doubt that my black friends, who came from intact families and got better grades than I did, would have felt at home at those same parties.

Ironically, my half-Asian daughter Marion would also feel out of place — as I learned at a major event where I was the speaker. Marion watched from the back, and a well-heeled old lady accosted her: “Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to pour water?”

Government Can’t Fix What Society Destroyed

I now see a little, just a little, of what my black friends see. It doesn’t lead me to the liberals’ conclusion, that this complex historical reality can be redressed by throwing government into the empty place in our consciences. Government cannot repair the soul. In fact, it can make things worse, can entrench ugly perceptions and engrain self-destructive habits, while freezing in place a hierarchy that leaves white liberals still at the tippy-top.

It’s past time both sides accepted two inconvenient truths: Yes, there are millions of Americans still alive who grew up under the shadow of Jim Crow. No, that doesn’t call for a massive expansion of paternalistic government programs or racial micromanagement.

The great truth about today’s America is that all decent people, the overwhelming electoral majority, want equality of opportunity in education, good career choices and equal rights for every child in this country. But the long and winding path to justice cannot be a forced march goaded by bureaucrats. Instead it will be trod by virtuous people working with charity and empathy through the free institutions of civil society. Or else it will remain the road not taken.

We have already tried the other way, tried to atone for white privilege through “noblesse oblige,” through big government. And we have seen the outcome: It is Detroit.

As I argued in The Race to Save Our Century, American society cannot be fixed by government tinkering, nor will it spontaneously regenerate if we just pare the government back. It took the Christian churches to shame the segregationists, and only the virtues taught in those churches can conquer poverty and exclusion. Such virtues were once broadly accepted in America, and they made it possible for persecuted Russian Jews, and half-starved Irish Catholics, to rise to the middle class. Those groups didn’t have to face a color bar blocking their upward path. But much more importantly, they weren’t the one group that entered the American cultural mainstream at the very moment — the 1960s — when the cultural river was being poisoned by the gods of animal instinct and instant gratification.

Americans of every background now swim in that same polluted river. We need to work together to clean it up, to place freedom, faith and family at the center of a common agenda of national recovery. And just as the churches led the marches on Selma and Washington, D.C. a half a century ago, the churches can make the difference today — if we come together.

That won’t be easy, much less instantly gratifying. We should get clear on that from the outset, lest failing to count the cost, we quit along the way. There is only one place that such a meeting can occur: under the cross.

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