The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, coupled with the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept across the world in its wake, have led many white people to question — some for the first time — their role and complicity in structural racism in the United States. Books such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist have topped The New York Times’ bestsellers list in recent months.
As a professor, I find that terms such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy” often provoke defensive reactions — what DiAngelo calls “white fragility” — in white people. Students from blue-collared backgrounds can find it hard to emotionally connect with the notion that they are privileged when they have struggled financially. Others from more comfortable middle-class backgrounds can feel that their family success is being undermined or that they haven’t worked as hard as others to achieve their success. And some students complain that such concepts are merely tools to “shame white people.”
One of the major stumbling blocks here is that such students reduce both racism and white privilege to certain individuals. As the epigraph to Peggy McIntosh’s foundational 1989 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” states, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” Just as systemic racism is reduced to individual bad actors, privilege is misunderstood as something individual rather than a system in which white people as a collective are centered and prioritized.
“Just as systemic racism is reduced to individual bad actors, privilege is misunderstood as something individual rather than a system in which white people as a collective are centered and prioritized.”
McIntosh explains, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” She then lists 50 ways in which white privilege manifests itself. These include:
- I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
Extending the work of McIntosh, DiAngelo notes that many Americans equate white supremacy with groups such as the torch-carrying white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. For sociologists, however, the term white supremacy denotes, as DiAngelo writes, a “socio-political system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white. This system of structural power privileges, centralizes and elevates white people as a group.” Even though in 2020, 59.7 percent of the U.S. population is white, she draws on data from 2016–17, giving examples of this supremacy, including:
- Ten richest Americans: 100% white
- U.S. Congress: 90% white
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which news is covered: 85% white
- Teachers: 82% white
To understand the concepts of “white privilege” and “white supremacy,” we have to move beyond individual experiences to understand the structural conditions and the wider historic and social context in which all individuals are shaped. How have legal and social systems in the U.S. functioned to produce and maintain white privilege? And what is the cost of such white privilege to Black Americans?
One good example is the legacy of redlining, a state-sponsored practice by which the government maintained segregation between white and Black populations. From 1935 to ’40, federal government housing policies shaped 230 cities in the United States. City planners literally drew red lines across the city to establish white suburban housing areas that were often separated by highways from Black and immigrant neighborhoods. Often confined to densely packed and more polluted urban centers, Black Americans were often denied mortgages or only offered mortgages with high interest rates. While these practices were made illegal through the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, many of them continued in new, less overt forms. Before the 2008 recession, for instance, there was an increase on risky loans for low-income borrowers. Afterward, many Black Americans lost their homes and property value decreased in minority neighborhoods.
The legacy of redlining is clear to see in wealth inequities today. A report by the Federal Reserve stated that white families today have nearly 10 times the net worth of Black families and more than eight times that of Hispanic families. As explained in the Mapping Inequality Project, “Redlining directed both public and private capital to native-born white families and away from African American and immigrant families. As homeownership was arguably the most significant means of intergenerational wealth building in the United States in the 20th century, these redlining practices from eight decades ago had long-term effects in creating wealth inequalities that we still see today.”
Another legacy of redlining is health inequities between white and Black Americans. A 2016 report found that African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease than any other group. Black children have a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma than white children. African American adults are much less likely to survive prostate, breast and lung cancer than their white counterparts.
A major factor in determining health and life expectancy is where you live. A study of housing districts in the Washington, D.C., area revealed that the average life expectancy in the affluent white neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland, was 10 years higher than that of people in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of southeast Washington, which is only 10 miles away. This is because where we live determines our access to education, employment, fresh food and outdoor space — factors which all contribute to health.
Through specific examples such as redlining and health inequities, my students are able to see how white privilege and white supremacy are structural phenomena rooted in historic legal and social processes. This offers them an opportunity to move beyond individual defensiveness and to develop empathy and solidarity with Black Americans. One of my current students, for example, shared that during high school she was struck by the massive differences in resources between the predominately Black urban school she attended and the predominantly white suburban school her brother attended. She discovered that her school was in a former redlined neighborhood, which had been denied the same resources and opportunities as white ones. Understanding her experience in wider social and historical context made her commit to tackling racism in her own family and community.
While individual white people are not to blame for policies that began before they were born, we are still benefiting from them at the –- often grave — expense of Black Americans. Seeing the undeniable truth of this, we must challenge rather than comply with white supremacy and work toward creating a country that is more livable for everyone. What are some specific ways white people can recognize and take responsibility for white supremacy?
- Educate ourselves on systemic racism and white supremacy
- Participate in anti-racist training programs
- Commit to having difficult conversations with white family and friends about systemic racism
- Join multiracial organizations such as Showing Up for Racial Justice
- Partner with Black organizations
- Support Black-owned businesses
As constitutional law scholar Bruce Ledewitz states, “Since white racism is the problem, it is the responsibility of white people to end it.”
What are we waiting for?
Ann Gleig is an associate professor of religion and cultural studies who has taught about racism and white supremacy in religion since earning a doctorate in religious studies from Rice University in 2010.
- Anti-Racism Resources: An open-source resource for white people and white parents wanting to dismantle white supremacy. Available at bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES
- “White Privilege Papers” Peggy McIntosh
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander
- So You Want To Talk About Race?, Ijeoma Oluo
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein
- Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla F. Saad
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Debbie Irving