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White Privilege, White Progressives and the Audacity of Obama's Definition of Hope

By Edward Rhymes PhD  Posted by Edward Rhymes (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   2 comments
Message Edward Rhymes

It appears that when the stakes are high and the psychic shades are opened, many so-called white feminists and white female liberals run to the familiar confines of latent racism and white privilege. Let me make myself perfectly clear, in this writing I will not put forth an argument for or against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in regard to the presidency, but rather I want to offer a counter to the erroneous assertions made by the aforementioned players.

Darren Parker in his article “White Female Liberals aka ‘Progressives’” touches on an aspect of racism and white supremacy that is often overlooked: “The reality is that white women represent the second most privileged category of human in the US. In spite of the reality of sexism no category of man of color has the level of wealth, power, privilege, education, or control as white women.”

When Steinem writes something as asinine as Blacks receiving the vote after the Civil War and women not receiving the franchise until 1920 as some sort of indication that gender trumps race as the most crippling and restricting factor in American society, it should be a powerful eye-opener that white women, by and large, have not been our allies in the struggle for racial justice. Steinem’s ominous omission of Jim Crow is deceptive and irresponsible given that even as recently as the 60’s, Blacks were being killed for trying to exercise their right to vote --- prompting the need of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960’s. To date, I can’t recall one white woman being lynched for voting or trying to vote in America.


Steinem goes on to say that if a woman ran for president with Obama’s lack of qualifications, she would not be taken seriously. In response to that I say: would Hillary be the U.S. Senator from New York and a possible nominee for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, if her husband wasn’t Bill Clinton? The years of experience as the first-lady that she touts, is a privilege that 42 other women have had the opportunity to enjoy, none of which were the hue of Michelle Obama.

Over the past year or so the question has usually been framed as thus: Who would America elect first for President, a woman or someone who is Black? This is a misleading question and choice. The more direct question that we should be asking is: given a choice, would America choose a white woman or a Black man? If we look at this at the state and federal level, that question has been asked and overwhelmingly been answered. Thirty-four white women have been elected or have served in the U.S. Senate compared to 2 Black men since Reconstruction (Carol Mosley-Braun was the first and only Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1993) --- presently, there are 16 white women serving in the U.S. Senate compared to one lone Obama. Thirty White women have served as state governors compared to two Black men since Reconstruction (the latest being Deval Patrick of Massachusetts elected in 2006). So in the highest halls of the state and federal government we have proven that a white woman can and does receive more opportunities than Black men to serve and to lead.

Additionally, since the economy has now come into play in this presidential race, let us take a look at the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, 2005 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. In it we see that white women ($32,683) outdistance Black ($31,732) and Hispanic ($26,921) men in annual earnings --- sadly Black and Hispanic women are the most woefully at-risk making 29,145 and 24,255 respectively.

Hillary’s allusion to Dr. King’s ability to inspire as compared to LBJ’s ability to make the Civil Rights Act a reality smacks of racism at its most pernicious level. The old Blacks “sho can talk” but are short on ability stereotype is very evident in this analogy. Once again, the acclaimed and much-heralded liberal Mrs. Clinton, like Steinem, ignores the racial realities of American history; that politics in America has been a game that almost has been exclusively reserved for whites until recent history and proves that when push comes to shove and white power and privilege is threatened, she is not above stoking the fires of racial prejudice. It is also important to note that in invoking the MLK and LBJ comparison she also resurrects the reality that after King’s now famous speech in opposition to the Vietnam conflict, he was referred to by LBJ from that moment on as “that n-word preacher,” --- in other words, “how could he do this to me when I’ve done so much for his people?” Sound or look familiar? This is further accented and buttressed by former President Bill Clinton’s reference to the 46 year-old, Harvard-educated, elected-U.S. Senator Obama as a “kid” --- coming dangerously close in tone and temperament to the familiar racist designation of “boy.” If the Clinton campaign wants to draw a distinction between the record and experience of Barack and Hillary, then that is a conversation that can and should take place. However, that’s not what I heard or felt in Bill Clinton’s words. I heard the arrogance of a man who believes because of Black America’s love affair with him (for reasons I don’t understand) he has the right to say to Obama: “know your place boy” or “wait your turn boy.” It is a tone and attitude that I am all too familiar with and the liberal label or the progressive tag does not make one immune to it (and if the truth be told, the Clintons have always been far more centrist than they ever were liberal or progressive). Furthermore, as I have stated in other writings, during the economic boom in the Clinton years of the 90’s, Black men were the only group who lost ground. And it also has to be further recognized that part of the Clinton legacy is a sinister capitulation to the racist characterizations and misrepresentations leading up to welfare reform and a less than lukewarm defense of affirmative action.


Even though the gains enjoyed by white women, were secured in large part by the struggles of the Civil Rights movement; it is this allegiance to whiteness that when given a choice to support their sisters and people of color (and their own self-interests as well) by keeping affirmative action measures in place, they invariably choose their sons, their husbands, their fathers and their brothers who have been enjoying the benefits of centuries of good ole American written and unwritten affirmative action measures --- in 1996 when Proposition 209 came before the people of California, 57% of White women voted in favor of it; in Washington (1998) 51% of white women voted against affirmative action and in the recent defeat of affirmative action programs in Michigan, 59 percent of white women voted to approve Proposal 2 (82 percent of non-white women voted against it) .

So in what construction, or rather reconstruction, of reality by Steinem, Clinton and their ilk are Black men wielding more power in this country than white women? Many white liberals and progressives have allowed themselves to be convinced by the hyper-exposure of certain Black figures, that a certain level of vigilance is no longer necessary when it comes to racial justice and equality when practically every indicator (economic, educational, health etc.) says otherwise; that the absence of fire-hoses, dogs, lynchings and burning crosses also means the absence of racism and the achievement of racial equality.

This brings us to the Senator from Illinois. Shelby Steele, in his interview on PBS with Bill Moyers, stated that to fit into the current and popular definition of Blackness, that many Blacks live an existence of betrayal to their own desires, ambitions and dreams while subordinating themselves to a group identity that is at its core “grievance-driven.” He went on to say that many Blacks manipulate and prey upon “white guilt” or the perceived need of absolution by many Whites because of America’s racist history. Viewpoints such as Steele’s have always been a perplexing to me and I believe there is a reason why such viewpoints are out of the mainstream of Black thought. It is not because we as Blacks have a herd mentality nor is it that we, by-and-large, expect something for nothing, but rather it is because it runs counter to the historical record, the facts, the numbers and our own personal experiences.

Moreover, if there are whites who are guilty of racism and bias; if there are whites who are guilty of enjoying the benefits of white privilege without examining the damaging consequences of that privilege, then I believe some level of guilt is appropriate. The murderer who murders; the rapist who rapes; the embezzler who embezzles should feel some level of guilt. Shouldn’t I, for the woman I disrespect or the man that I injure, feel some angst? By guilt I do not mean a pit of despair and hopelessness; or that whites should be beholden to me as a Black person in any way, but rather a guilt that spurs action and real personal and societal transformation. Guilt, at its core, is just another word for conscience. Dietrich Bonheoffer, Nazi holocaust victim, in his Christian classic The Cost of Discipleship talks about and details the phenomenon of “cheap grace.” His central point was that cheap grace represented forgiveness without requiring repentance (or a change of heart and conduct); an enjoyment of the consolations of absolution without restitution. I believe this is where we find ourselves today in the struggle against racism and the quest for racial & social justice.

Americans, for the most part, want an easy route to change or societal transformation in regard to race and racism; a “cheap morality” if you will, that pays lip-service to the virtues of equality and justice without any serious challenge of institutional & systemic racism or white privilege. It is a “cheap activism” that says “fight the power,” but avoids self-examination and an honest accounting of American society and history. I have never agreed with much Shelby Steele has said, but I do agree with him when he says that, for many whites, Obama is absolution. When his stance on the issues is closely examined, other than the color of his skin, what real change from the status quo does Barack offer? Obama, to his discredit, has helped to foster this cheap political and social grace scenario with statements like Blacks are 90% of the way too equality; class was more in play in Jena than race and the incompetence during Katrina was colorblind. This, by the way, should silence all those who say that Obama hasn’t talked about race during this campaign because he has, and what he has had to say is disheartening and has ingratiated himself to any and all who believe that colorblindness equals equality. And that is the audacity of Obama’s definition of hope, it is “cheap change;”he offers to America societal conversion without controversy. James Cone, noted theologian and activist, made a profound statement that lends itself to this paradigm: “…if America could understand itself as not being innocent, it might be able to play a more creative role in the world today. And you see, America likes to think of itself as innocent.

And we are not.” This is not about not letting whites off the hook, but about unfinished business and working until we have given our “last drop of devotion.”

Currently we live in a society where White men with prison records receive far more offers for jobs than Black men with identical records, and are offered jobs just as often -- if not more so -- than Black men who have never been arrested; where the income gap between black and white families has widened in spite of the gains of the civil rights movement (a key reason for the disparity is that incomes among black men have declined when adjusted for inflation. They were offset only by gains among black women); where mass incarceration of black men have decimated our communities. This is not an us-against-them clarion call; nor should this serve as a basis for hatred or animosity against any person or group of people. However, what I hope it does accomplish is a demand within the Black community for more. Demanding more of our politicians and elected officials; demanding more of white liberals and progressives who say they believe in racial justice and equality. Have we as Black folk been so spiritually devastated that we are willing to treat the mere mention of equality and justice as if they are the actual fulfillment of those things? That overtures, and only overtures, can satiate a desire for real equity? We have, in times past, demanded far too little and gotten exactly what we have asked for… far too little.

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Dr Edward Rhymes, author of When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy, is an internationally recognized authority in the areas of critical race theory and Black Studies. Please view his Rhymes Consulting Services website at (more...)

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