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“Heirs of Oppression”

In the U.S., we Whites have been racialized as White through violence and oppression.  White racial identity itself has been constituted (socially constructed) in ways designed to keep Whites in power and systematically disadvantage Blacks and others.[i] We are what one author calls “heirs of oppression.”[ii] This is our moral history and it generates our moral challenge.

Every person inhabits and performs a multi-faceted identity made up of at least race, age, class, ability, sexuality, and religion.  Every person’s age, ability, and to a considerable degree our sexuality are anchored in scientifically-objective realities.  Our race, however, is socially constructed.  We clearly differ in skin color, eye shape, and hair texture, but these superficial differences cannot be added up to identify distinctive races.  Obviously this doesn’t make race any less real.  People are killed, allowed to live, rewarded, forgiven, rejected, accepted, feared, and hated because of their "race." But since our racial identity is socially constructed, it can be socially analyzed and critiqued.

And the most prominent, most damaging, and most compelling fact about the racial identity of White persons in the U.S. is that this identity is profoundly morally problematic.

So if your grandfather steals a car and then gives it to you, do you own it?  Obviously not.  Are you guilty of theft?  Also obviously not. 

To repeat, none of us is guilty of constructing Whiteness as profoundly immoral. Some Whites living today perpetuate this White identity in their daily informal and formal interactions with Blacks and others.  But the racial identity that marks us was generated over 400 years of U.S. history.

Given these historical realities, we Whites need to strengthen our cultural humility.  I believe this means holding each of your own cultural commitments lightly, rather than with white knuckles.[iii]  We do not need to give up our cultural commitment to punctuality, for example, or even to heterosexuality, if we hold this value.  We just need to understand and live in the realization that our commitments create one possible perspective, one identifiable culture, and there are many coherent alternatives.

Professor and racial equity activist Vivian Chavez explains that cultural humility involves three elements:  (a) Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, (b) Recognizing and mitigating power imbalances, and (c) helping create institutional accountability.[iv]  Her 30-minute film provides an excellent overview of this quality.

Does it make sense to you, as it does to me, that Whites should respond appropriately to our morally problematic racial identity? To me, response-ability means the willingness and ability to respond.  Although we did not create the racial situation in which we find ourselves, it is our moral obligation to try to do something about it.  I believe that two responses are necessary for most of us:  The first is to become aware of Whiteness and its effects, and the second is to make significant, material choices based on our learning.

Response #1:  Understand Whiteness

            So many of us Whites believe that “We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” and “We are colorblind,” that it’s difficult to see White privilege as it actually exists.   People of all racial identities live with prejudices; they’re part of the psychological makeup of every cultural group.  For example, diversity expert Verna Myers, who is female, feminist, and Black, tells the story of hearing a woman’s voice make the standard announcement from the cockpit at the beginning of a cross-country flight and then, when the plane was lurching through scary turbulence, wishing to God that the pilot was a man.[v] This is prejudice, and we all rely on it to evaluate short people and tall ones; a woman in a miniskirt or a hijab; the skin color and facial features of Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Whites; and, according to a Chevy ad, a guy standing next to a car vs. a truck. 

            There’s an important distinction, though, between prejudice and systemic racism.   Black feminist author bell hooks clarifies why systemic racism can only be enforced by those who belong to the group in power.  She asks,

            Why is it so difficult for many white folks to understand that racism is oppressive

            not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks (they could have

            such feelings and leave us alone) but because it is a system that promotes

            domination and subjugation?  The prejudicial feelings some blacks may express

            about whites are in no way linked to a system of domination that affords us any

     power to coercively control the lives and well-being of white folks.  That needs

             to be understood.[vi]

This reality about the power of Whiteness was obviously apparent in 1640 when

the entity with the legal power was the one that subjugated Blacks.  And yet this misuse of power has escaped many of us who believe that we “don’t have culture,” and that ”the problem” belongs to those who do—Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Caribbean Americans, etc.  It’s crucial to acknowledge that White is also a cultural color and that in the 21st century U. S., Whiteness is an issue that needs to be treated with cultural humility, which means that it should be problematized, assessed, and put in its place by everyone. 

We need to do this because, currently, the playing fields are anything but level.  The legacy of those original, morally reprehensible actions defining Whiteness is a status quo sharply skewed in the direction of Whites. 

What evidence supports this claim?  Well, we might start with the 2015 “Lynching in America” report from the Equal Justice Initiative that details a version of terrorism in the United States that historically reinforced racial inequality.[vii]  EJI researchers “documented 3959 lynchings of black people in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. . . .” (p. 5).  “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. . . not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime” (p. 5).  Often, lynchings were treated as community education events, and parents were encouraged to bring their children.  EJI concludes, “Lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes.  Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order” (p. 23). Unfortunately, the report shows, “The narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us” (p. 3). 

I’ve already mentioned federal and state laws and policies that have reinforced this kind of discrimination for centuries.  They’ve had a huge impact on general economic indicators.  U.S. census data report that between 10% and 14% of Whites live in poverty, and the same figures for Blacks are 37% to 55% and 26% to 40% for Latinos.  Five to 6% of Whites are unemployed, about 17% of African Americans, and over 40% of Pacific Islanders.  The median household income of Whites is close to $85,000 a year; Latino families earn about $32,000 a year; and Blacks are the lowest racial group at just over $20,000.[viii] Can Whites seriously claim that these differences are due mainly to the fact that most people with skin tone different from ours are lazy, uneducated, or incompetent?

Government policies contributed a great deal more to the unequal distribution of wealth than character flaws.  Some of what today’s Black families are up against began when their grandfathers returned from helping win World War II and tried to take advantage of the G.I. Bill.  While there is nothing discriminatory in the language of the Bill itself, it was applied in racist ways across the country.   For example, by October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86% of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92% of the unskilled ones by blacks.  And this didn’t just happen in the South.  In New York and northern New Jersey, ''fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.''[ix]   Parallel problems plagued applications of the educational support provisions of the Bill.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, “the G.I. Bill exacerbated rather than narrowed the economic and educational differences between blacks and whites among men from the South.”[x]

The racist application of home financing policies continues today.  In 2011, Countrywide Finance was fined $335 million by the Department of Justice for forcing subprime loans on Hispanics and African Americans.  One year later, Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to pay $175 million to resolve allegations it charged African-Americans and Hispanics higher rates and fees on mortgages even when they qualified for better deals. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2014 alone, they filed complaints or entered consent orders with half a dozen banks for charging Black and Hispanic customers higher rates than they charged Whites.[xi]

Tim Wise explains that these data are especially significant, because they reveal important reasons for racial disparities not just in income but in wealth.  The most significant part of most U.S. families’ net worth is their home.  It represents the largest investment and, except in deteriorating neighborhoods or recession periods, a well-maintained home’s value increases at least as much as inflation.  Home equity is used to finance college educations and other wealth-building investments.  What happens to a group that is systematically denied the opportunity to invest in prime real estate by redlining and other discriminatory practices and that is offered only subprime loan packages by discriminatory lenders?  These families can’t build the wealth that white folks accumulate by investing in starter-homes in desirable communities and growing their equity gradually.  This is one significant reason why poverty statistics are so racially skewed.[xii]

And consider how discrimination in hiring still helps tilt that part of the playing field.  You would think that, if a resume accurately records impressive experiences and qualifications that fit a job description, it ought to be put in the “interview” pile.  But not, apparently, if the name on the resume appears to be Black.  In 2003, a National Bureau of Economic Research team

respond[ed] with fictitious resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. To manipulate perception of race, each resume [was] assigned either a very African American sounding name or a very White sounding name. The results show significant discrimination against African-American names:  White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. We also find that race affects the benefits of a better resume. For White names, a higher quality resume elicits 30 percent more callbacks whereas for African Americans, it elicits a far smaller increase.[xiii]

Data coming from another direction demonstrate that, “When it comes to illegal drug use,” as The Huffington Post reports, “White America does the crime, Black Americans get the time.”  Nearly 20% of whites have tried cocaine, as compared with 10% of Blacks and Latinos, and higher percentages of Whites have also tried hallucinogens, marijuana, OxyContin, and meth.  But Blacks are arrested for drug possession nearly three times more than Whites.[xiv]

 The Department of Justice report on Ferguson is just one recent example of the decades-old trend of local, state, and national law enforcement’s treatment of persons of color.[xv]  When New York City’s mayor discussed “the talk” that parents of color know is a necessary part of the parenting of every Black, Brown, or mixed-race child (“Whenever you’re confronted by an officer or other white authority, here’s the way you should behave:”), he was castigated by law enforcement officers for simply telling the truth.

More proof exists in the demographics of people in power.  Despite the fact that voters elected an African American President twice, and Oprah is indeed a billionaire, the overwhelming majority of persons in power in the U.S. in 2015 are still white.  Local, state, and national lawmakers; judges; teachers; principals; superintendents; CEOs and CFOs; firefighters; law-enforcement officers; NBA, NFL, and MLB coaches; symphony conductors and most other leaders are not persons of color.

  In short, gay-bashing is still a problem, women still earn less than men in the same job, and people with disabilities still suffer discrimination.  But all the demographic data and the thousands of stories about microaggressions make it clear that, in the U. S., at this time of our history, the biggest reason that the playing field is steeply tilted is White privilege.


[i] Harvey (2014), p. 52

[ii] [ii] J. A. Corlett, Heirs of Oppression (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[iii] J. Stewart, Personal Communicating and Racial Equity (Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt, 2015), pp. 49-52.



[vi] b. hooks, Black Looks:  Race and Representation, (New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 13.

[vii] Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America:  Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, 2015,


[ix] I. Kantznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White:  An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.  (New York: Norton, 2005).



[xii] http:///




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