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White Privilege 101: Here’s the Basic Lesson Paul Ryan, Tal Fortgang and Donald Sterling Need

A refresher on how privilege works, and why race and gender matter.

Photo Credit: Nejron Photo / Shutterstock


It was no surprise, really, to suddenly shift from 67-year-old Cliven Bundy’s sudden exposure as a classic-style racist (though he vehemently denied it), to 80-year-old Donald Sterling’s sudden exposure as a classic-style racist (though he vehemently denied it — as did even V. Stiviano), to 19-year-old Tal Fortgang‘s vehement denial that racism even exists, except as some kind of left-wing conspiracy theory:

I condemn them declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.

As Salon’s Peter Finocchiaro pointed out, “[Fortgang's] meteoric rise to fame owes entirely to his biographical data. His youth is the entire point.” For years now, the GOP has been desperately trying to present itself in fresh-faced terms. It’s how Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle become part of our political landscape, how Paul Ryan was sold as a budget wunderkind, and how he’s trying to resell himself as the second coming of Jack Kemp, if not Jesus. Above all, it’s how the Tea Party was sold to us as the reinvention of the same old conservative movement that’s been with us at least since the days of Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin before him.

So, with one wave of news cycles on Bundy’s racism, and another wave of news cycles on Sterling’s racism, there was a deep abiding need to wash all that away, and a young fresh-faced conservative college freshman was the best possible way to do that: Take that, you millennial Obama voters! Take that, you rising new American demographic wave!

And yet,  Katie McDonough correctly argued, his denial of racism and his own privileged position represents a new majority view among whites, who  think they’re more discriminated against than blacks, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary (more on that below). This is where the danger and the challenge to progressives lies, as well as the challenge to the Democratic Party. If, as recent research suggests, whites grow increasingly conservative as perceived minority voting power grows, then the “rising American electorate” argument itself is in danger. It could be every bit as much a fantasy, in its own much more sophisticated way, as the Tea Party fantasy that the GOP can just double down on where it is, and get by on better messaging and a sprinkling of more diverse spokes/front people.

There is a way to fight back against this threat. That is for white people — especially white men — to step up and push back (lovingly or forcefully, as the situation dictates) against this sort of polarizing rhetoric and the thinking and feeling that’s connected to it. It’s not just a matter of paternalistically “helping out” women and minorities when they’re attacked. The fortunes of white, working-class men have plummeted since the early ’70s, not because women and minorities have stolen their cheese, but because they’re snookered into thinking that way, making themselves easy marks for far more sophisticated actors to take advantage of. And what’s long been true for working-class white men will increasingly become true of white men with college degrees. One of Thomas Piketty’s central points is that any sort of labor, however skilled it may be, is going to lose out to inherited capital in the long run, if the basic structures of today’s capitalist economy aren’t changed.

So how do white men fight back, not just for the sake of others, or society as a whole, but for themselves, as well? There are lots of ways they can do this, but I’d like to focus on just one: by gaining a much a more solid, objective understanding of what minorities (especially blacks) and women already largely understand as a basic fact of life — how racial and gender privilege work, with white male ignorance as a key component. It’s only by unifying against an already unified economic elite that Americans of all races and ethnicities can keep hope alive for a more prosperous future.

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