Addressing White Privilege Is Only a Small Step in Combating Systemic RacismHillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have repeatedly addressed covert racism and racial injustice, but the United States needs more than rhetoric to solve the problem.
The Democratic Party has held the support of minority voters for decades, but increased awareness of racial injustice has put its platform into sharper focus. Specifically, since Hillary Clinton began her bid to be president, many have critiqued her past involvement in legislation harmful to minorities. Others have pointed out a “race problem” not only in Clinton’s campaign but in the entire Democratic Party.
Americans seem to be slowly coming to terms with the state of race relations in the United States. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 49 percent of white Democrats believe that too little attention is paid to race relations and 78 percent believe the U.S. needs to continue making changes to address racial inequality.
Perhaps social movements such as Black Lives Matter and mainstream media coverage of police killings of African-Americans have made it easier—or simply more urgent—for Americans to discuss covert racism. Regardless of the reason, the Clinton campaign is picking up on the shift and has begun to address the issue, largely ignored in the mainstream political dialogue, on the campaign trail.
Take, for example, Clinton’s speech at the NAACP’s annual convention in July:
Speaking about “the racial inequities in our health-care system,” Clinton addressed the advantages of being white, stating:
Right now, black kids are 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than white kids. Five hundred percent. Right now, a black baby in South Carolina is twice as likely to die before her first birthday as a white baby.
Imagine if those numbers were reversed and it were white kids dying. Imagine the outcry and the resources that would flood in.
She ended her speech by addressing privilege more directly. “Ending systemic racism requires contributions from us all, especially those of us who haven’t experienced it ourselves,” she told the audience. “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers you face every day.”
On Thursday, Kaine also brought up white privilege in a lengthy speech at the Progressive National Baptist Convention in New Orleans. He addressed Clinton’s plans to combat racial injustice, noting that she has “spoken frankly about the work that all Americans have to do, and, I will say, especially white Americans.” He notes that white Americans need to get out of their “comfort zone” and “learn other realities.”
“I do believe we’re making progress,” he said. “But just making progress past overt feelings of racial superiority isn’t enough.”
The Clinton campaign’s acknowledgement of this issue is significant because many white Americans remain hesitant to accept their roles in a racist society—after all, the Pew poll mentioned above also “finds that black and white adults have widely different perceptions about what life is like for blacks in the U.S.” Additionally, almost 60 percent of Republican whites polled in the survey think too much attention is paid to race. Acknowledging white privilege, many argue, is the first step in dismantling covert racism.
In 2013, Duke University sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explained how covert racism dominates U.S. society. Bryn Morgan of The Dartmouth reported on the lecture, writing:
Bonilla-Silva said whites believe that they are not racist and often use the election of President Barack Obama to support the claim that America has moved beyond its racially tense past.
He said these beliefs are “sincere fictions” and countered that blacks and other racial minorities are still behind whites in society, receiving inferior education in “so-called integrated” schools and colleges.
He said white citizens use rhetoric to express this covert racism: semantic moves, such as saying “some of my best friends are black,” projection, which blames discrimination on the victim and the incomprehensible response to the topic of race. People often argue that they did not personally own slaves or were present at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington to deny their personal prejudice.
In a CNN op-ed on Friday, Kaine gave an example of covert racism in housing, explaining how an African-American woman named Lorraine was prevented from renting an apartment because of her race. “Stories like Lorraine’s remind us why it’s so important for those of us who haven’t faced barriers like these to acknowledge our privilege,” he writes. “We have an obligation to correct these injustices wherever they occur.”
It is important to acknowledge that this type of rhetoric is a change from how politicians normally tiptoe around modern constructs of racism. For instance, Perry Bacon Jr. of NBC News explains that this is a momentous shift from how Obama approached race issues:
First, Clinton and Kaine, because they are white, can speak about so-called white privilege in a way that Obama would be hesitant to do.
Obama took great steps, particularly in his first term, to avoid being cast as a president speaking on behalf of African-Americans, as opposed to leading the whole country. And perhaps because of his own racial background, Obama’ s remarks on race rarely put the onus on whites directly, as Clinton and Kaine have. …
A focus on white privilege might help with more subtle problems: the intersection of housing and education policy that results in millions of black and Latino kids going to schools that are full of poor, non-white students; the lack of diversity in industries like Hollywood and Silicon Valley; the persistent pay gaps between white and black Americans, even when they have similar levels of education.
In these speeches and many others, Clinton and Kaine have outlined policy changes that would affect systemic racism. As Bacon acknowledges, these proposals aren’t different from those of Obama or many other Democrats. “She is calling for an expansion of implicit bias training for law enforcement personnel, greater data collection to scrutinize police departments and see if they disproportionately arrest or kill people of color, and a shift from so-called broken windows policing to building closer ties between minority communities and law enforcement officials,” he writes. “The Obama administration is already pursuing versions of many of these policies.”
It’s clear that the Clinton campaign is taking a new approach in addressing aspects of racial inequality, but whether it will have any effect can’t be predicted. Many authors and activists of color have pointed out that addressing white privilege is, after all, only a tiny step in the movement toward dismantling racist systems. “Racial justice organizing is not about confessing race privilege, saying all the right radical things and trying to avoid offending people of color,” says Klee Benally, a Native American organizer.
Many also stress that while this acknowledgement of privilege is important, it’s better to know when to stop talking. Jamilah King of Mic writes that “the most important thing is to do more listening than talking.” Kara Brown of Jezebel agrees. “Stop talking for a minute and just listen,” she says. “Comparing the situation a person of color is in to some personal anecdote of yours is not as constructive as you think it is.”
Clinton has had trouble in the past for failing to listen to the concerns of people of color. Take, for example, the time she shut down Black Lives Matter protesters at one of her speaking events (something her husband is also guilty of doing). And Kaine has faced criticism for his support of Project Exile when he was mayor of Richmond, Va. The project “was to literally live up to its name by making illegal gun possession a federal, not a state, crime, which allowed prosecutors to send convicted felons, most of them black, to a distant federal penitentiary for at least five years,” writes James Oliphant of Reuters.
“Clinton, in office, may choose to avoid these issues, despite her campaign rhetoric,” Bacon notes, addressing the biggest concern for those hoping to dismantle the racist structures embedded in the United States. The Clinton campaign’s recognition of white privilege is a reflection of the current conversation about race relations, but it’s unclear whether a Clinton presidency would follow through with the types of policies needed to undermine systemic racism—and Clinton’s past political history doesn’t inspire confidence.Wait, before you go…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.Support Truthdig