Letter to the editor: White privilege is about inherent advantages
White privilege. Do I have it? My parents and grandparents were academics, so they made a decent living and didn’t even suffer losses during the Great Depression. They studied and worked hard to get where they did, and they saved and invested wisely so that they were able to leave something to the next generation. But white privilege is not about what you did, but about what you were allowed to do. Assume for a moment that my family was black.
My father’s maternal grandfather had a wholesale and retail hardware business in Springfield, Mass. If he had been black, it’s quite likely that his business would have been burned down by one of the white mobs that were active in his day, the late 1800s and early 1900s. His daughter would not have gone to Wellesley and Cornell, where she met her husband.
My dad’s other grandfather, born in the 1860s, was a farmer in Pennsylvania. He and his wife (also from a farm family) became teachers, then he became a superintendent of schools. If he had been black, he might have lost the farm because banks would not lend to blacks. Black schools no doubt paid teachers less than white schools, and the combination of lack of income and assets would have made it hard for them to send their son to Lehigh University and Cornell. Even if they could have afforded it, Lehigh didn’t admit a black student until 40 years later. (Cornell University did admit blacks at the time.)
My grandfather, after receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell, taught botany at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened because the university was all-white. But if they had lived in Columbia (or just about anywhere), they would have encountered segregated schools and neighborhoods with racial exclusion codes that prohibited any property owner from selling or renting to non-whites — so if my grandparents had been black, they would likely have been denied the opportunity to buy a decent home and send their kids to good schools. My father would not have gone to the University of Missouri, and it’s unlikely that he would have attended Harvard Medical School. He would not have become the medical researcher, medical school dean at Case Western Reserve, and international expert on infectious diseases that he was. There would be few if any savings and investments.
Many black families have indeed achieved success, and many white families have not. But my family’s ability to accumulate advantages over the generations was helped by not having to overcome racial obstacles at every turn. My dad realized this, and he didn’t let his privilege go to waste. He did a lot during his career to support minority medical students and faculty at his institution and elsewhere, and to remove those obstacles where he could. He listened and learned, something we can all do if we try.
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