Progressive and racially diverse nations, such as the United States, face a broad spectrum of challenges, including racism. Modernist as it is, American society has been under the spotlight concerning the constant public cries about the unfair treatment of some groups, particularly racial minorities, relative to the dominant white race. Yet, America has one of the world’s best constitutions championing equality and freedom for all. In the wake of this, sociologists have attempted to theorize how the phenomenon happens despite inclusive legislation and laws in the world’s most advanced economy. Many terms, including white advantage and structural racism, have emerged in sociological scholarship in recent decades. The core meaning of these terms explains why complaints about unfairness and discrimination are widespread despite efforts to attain racial tolerance. This essay focuses on this phenomenon. It describes white advantage in terminology and meaning, uses examples to explain its rampant existence in the United States, and its relationship with structural racism to help explain the challenges of handling racism in the country.
Keywords: racial intolerance, structural racism, white privilege, racism
America is among the world’s most racially diverse nations. Yet, in it is diversity, the country is confronted with an ever-solidifying social concern, racial intolerance. For a long time, sociologists have theorized that racism, or what some people may want to call racial intolerance, is a societal construct that manifests in different ways. Historically, the United States struggled with blatant racism from slavery and colonial foundations. However, the citizenry, aware of the tradition’s direct and indirect adverse effects, gradually began accepting people from other races as humans, culminating in the emancipation of enslaved people and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 many decades later. Today, every American has equal rights regardless of their race. However, the country must now handle a new form of racism blatantly existing in its social fabric. This essay addresses white privilege, particularly its meaning, examples, and relationship with structural racism. The analysis suggests that white advantage and systemic racism are intertwined, the former perpetuating the latter.
The Concept of White Privilege
Sometimes, self-identifying or referring to other people as “white” may appear as though we are strengthening the controversial racial categories that the world is desperately attempting to deconstruct. According to a review of the literature, at the same time, people want to give the impression that they recognize racial categorizations as problematic social constructs, racial discrimination, and the benefits white-skinned persons enjoy are a reality (Collins, 2018). The same literature reports that white privilege can be used to unpack existing systemic inequalities. In its simplistic definition, white privilege refers to the unearned enjoyments routinely accorded to the members of the white race (often unconsciously) since they are not exposed to racist treatment (Halley et al., 2022). The benefits enjoyed are mainly invisible to the white individuals since they appear like “a given” things everyone in society experiences.
It is imperative to contemplate what it means to perceive society structurally and systemically instead of thinking of it as persons making choices to build better awareness of privilege. According to Collins (2018), once it is realized, it becomes easier to single out persons who are given unearned advantages in such a system because of the benefits they enjoy. The latter study indicates that institutional racism, a term closely related and often understood in the context of white privilege, arises when a political or social system confers unearned benefits to people constituting the majority population. A review of the studies, including Halley et al. (2022), suggests that having white privilege does not necessarily make one a racist. Consequently, it is helpful to recognize these inherent privileges to refute them to avoid continual reinforcement of the existing hierarchies.
Exemplifying White Privilege
The core idea of white privilege is its institutionalization, its occurrence in a systemic society. The reviewed literature in the previous section warns against the temptation of thinking that everyone enjoying these advantages is necessarily racist. The latter perspective helps us to appreciate that singling out cases as representing white privilege could be challenging in some ways. Particularly, the selected example does not always have to be those in which explicit or implicit racism was experienced. Neither does such a choice need to be one in which public opinion is drawn into thinking directly about racial categorizations. Instead, the option should depict the unconsciousness with which the advantaged population approaches the idea of race and its advantages or disadvantages.
Having laid this ground, many widely known examples of what white privilege could mean do not suffice. This selective approach leaves a few examples, including the Federal instruction by President Trump to all its agencies to stop training on racial sensitivity on topics such as the critical race theory and white advantage in September 2020 (Schwartz, 2020). According to the latter literature, the president called such programs divisive and anti-American. Addressing all federal agencies in a memo, the Office of Management and Budget director hinted that President Trump had been made aware of these programs that promote open workplace discussions on race and attempt to look for potential remedies to systemic racism. An excerpt from the memo read as follows:
… or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is inherently racist or evil or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil (Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget, 2020, paragraph 4).
The above example qualifies as a case of white privilege for one primary reason. Particularly, it suggests that some groups within the population (represented by President Trump) suppose that the United States, much as it is not racially homogenous, is not inherently a racist nation. This approach is the opinion held by the advantaged racial majority in any society, which assumes there is nothing wrong with the current racial groupings. To them, which is purely in the conceptualization of white privilege, everyone has the same opportunities, and no one gets favors from anyone.
Structural Racism and Its Relationship with White Privilege
By now, the meaning and concept of white privilege are apparent. However, although roughly mentioned, structural racism is yet to be fully described. According to Halley et al. (2022), also called institutional racism, structural racism refers to a system where public policies, cultural representations, institutional activities, and other traditions work in different, often supportive ways to perpetuate racial inequalities. This type of racism identifies society’s culture and history that have permitted advantages associated with whiteness and underprivileged with color to endure through generations.
The most significant aspect to comprehend is that once such structures are established, no one must actively think of discrimination, privilege, or race for the systems perpetuating the right to disadvantage individuals of color. According to Massey (2001), historical discrimination practices, including housing segregation, confine people of color, particularly blacks, to regions with less desirable or inferior housing. The often-resulting low house appreciation translates to low wealth accumulation, limiting access to better educational opportunities, health services, and other opportunities. Cumulatively, these processes make some groups less qualified for job opportunities than others.
The given example of white advantage can be analyzed through the lens of institutional racism. It is imperative to think of the memo as representing executive power, a political institution. The political system makes laws meant to foster social welfare. One of the policy areas is racial equality. Most Americans are aware of the notion that America has been struggling with racism throughout its history. Complaints about all types of racism, including structural, implicit, and blatant, have been around for centuries, causing many to accept that white privilege is a reality (Blumer, 1958). The most critical thing to note is that those advantaged by their whiteness constantly seek strategies to safeguard and advance their positions at the expense of the weak. The given case is a perfect example of the advantaged group attempting to protect its position.
One may want to question the validity of this argument, to which a perfect answer can be fetched using another example of a social event occurring in the same year of the Trump administration. The memo was written as part of the administration’s response to an upsurge of anti-racist demonstrations and advocacy pioneered and spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 (Taylor, 2021). The ensuing protests fueled concerns about racial intolerance that is critically rampant in some parts of the United States. In many ways, the white community is often accused of racial injustices through many institutions, such as the police and the department of corrections, who may have realized their position was at stake, prompting the memo. The address can be considered a way to dispel race fears, hiding the fact that America is racially divided. President Trump, like others thriving on white advantage, including white supremacists, was only expressing that white privilege does not require those it protects to think about it.
White privilege is closely related to and often identified together with structural racism. Conceptually, white privilege accords unearned advantages to white people and disadvantages people of color. The concept’s most significant idea is that the phenomenon happens unconsciously because the protected groups apparently think they are entitled to some privileges without necessarily thinking about other groups’ welfare. America is rife with institutional racism stemming from widespread white privilege. The executive memo to federal agencies to abolish racial sensitivity training exemplifies white advantage, which, by extension, also demonstrates the challenges of rooting out systemic racism in a country where racial intolerance is a constant. The discussion has critical implications for social policymaking in the United States. While sociologists acknowledge the challenge of fighting systemic racism, they also propose numerous approaches to handling it. However, it is not within the scope of this essay to recommend strategies for dealing with the issue, implying the need for further scholarship in the area.
Blumer, H. (1958). Race prejudice as a sense of group position. In Gallagher, C. A. (Ed.). Rethinking the color line: Readings in race and ethnicity. Sage Publications.
Collins, C. (2018). What is white privilege, really. Teaching Tolerance, 60, 1–11.
Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget (2020). Training in the federal government. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/M-20-34.pdf
Halley, J., Eshleman, A., & Vijaya, R. M. (2022). Seeing white: An introduction to white privilege and race. Rowman & Littlefield.
Massey, D. S. (2001). Residential segregation and neighborhood conditions in US metropolitan areas. America becoming. In Gallagher, C. A. (Ed.). Rethinking the color line: Readings in race and ethnicity. Sage Publications.
Schwartz, M. (2020, September). Trump tells agencies to end trainings on ‘white privilege’ and ‘critical race theory.’ Npr. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/05/910053496/trump-tells-agencies-to-end-trainings-on-white-privilege-and-critical-race-theory
Taylor, D. B. (2021, November). George Floyd demonstrations: A timeline. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html