And now, a couple of more difficult and complicated questions about the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 (see my earlier post for all the violent details.)
Was I guilty? Was I neutral?
I’m not talking about my angry ripping down of Sharon Osowski’s sign. That’s easy. Yes, I was guilty of several crimes and sins there.
No, I mean before that impulse swept over me. At the moment when I walked back into the classroom in a state of Dodgeball Bliss, when I first saw those girls chanting about how it was all unfair. At that moment, was I guilty of anything? Was I neutral?
Yes. No. Yes.
In one sense, I was not guilty of causing the Dodgeball Injustice to Girls. I was only doing what Mr. Bacon told me to do. I was following the rules. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would not have minded if the girls came down and played dodgeball with us. I mean, come on, it was dodgeball.
But I snapped when Sharon Osowski marched toward my table because it seemed that she was saying I was somehow at fault and I was just doing what Mr. Bacon told us to do.
In that way, I was not guilty. But here is the problem that I now understand: I wasn’t neutral. I got to play dodgeball and Sharon Osowski did not. It wasn’t from any fault, action or decision of my own — and it wasn’t through any fault, action or decision of the girls — but the fact remains that we boys got to play dodgeball and the girls did not.
What do we say, when one group of people, through no fault, action or decision of their own, benefits from the way society is arranged and another group, through no fault, action or decision of their own, does not benefit? “That’s life?” “That’s discrimination?” “Life isn’t fair?” “That’s injustice?”
For a number of years now, some pointy-headed intellectual types have been using a term in their writings and in higher education to describe this situation. They call it “privilege.”
Ammunition or Illumination? You decide!
And a few weeks ago, this concept flew around the airwaves and internet more widely after Bill O’Reilly came out with a segment on Fox News in which he criticized the idea — at least in terms of how it was used in a Harvard first-year orientation program. Of course, in this context, it quickly became quite political. And it gets tougher to think clearly about it when people are turning to ammunition rather than illumination.
(You can see the clip here. I could not find the original segment on the Fox News website, so this link is attached to some snarky political commentary).
So I’m going to try to search for some illumination here. I’ll say at the outset that I think Bill O’Reilly is incorrect about many things on this issue. But I should also say he might have a point in another way.
First, I think I understand Bill O’Reilly’s emotional reaction, though I think it is incorrect. Bill O’Reilly declared that he was going to have to “exempt himself under the white privilege banner” because he worked hard at lower-level jobs when he was younger. It seems to me he is reacting in much the same way I did to Sharon Osowski. How was I at fault for the girls’ dodgeball situation? When it comes to race, a lot of whites feel like others are trying to make them feel guilty for things that they did not cause. Persons who work hard, face obstacles, overcome difficulties, and generally try to treat others decently don’t like to be told they are privileged.
But the issue of “privilege,” as it is explained by its clearest advocates, isn’t about what a person has done or not done. And this is the important point: this kind of “privilege” really exists and it matters. Some groups in society, through no fault, action or decision of their own, reap benefits because of race, class, gender, or any other number of factors.
This is not necessarily the same thing as being born into a wealthy, powerful family and having everything handed to you, as O’Reilly seems to think it is. Obviously, Paris Hilton grew up with privileges that you and I did not grow up with, which is why she is famous for….well, just what is it she is famous for, again? But that’s not really what “privilege” in this sense, means.
Here is why: yes, I am sure O’Reilly worked hard and didn’t have everything handed to him. He didn’t grow up in the Hamptons. He explained in the segment that he grew up in Levittown, New York, meaning his parents did not have a lot of money.
But he doesn’t get it. (It’s possible he gets it, but he’s more concerned about ammunition…but I’ll assume that he is sincere.)
For instance, Bill O’Reilly has benefited from white privilege in at least one very clear way: in the 1950s and 60s (when he was growing up) Levittown was a suburb that had contracts prohibiting blacks from buying houses in his suburb. In fact, most suburbs in America at that time had official or unofficial policies that kept blacks out.
A 1950s Levittown version of “Where’s Waldo?” goes like this: where’s the person of color? (Hint: Give up. You won’t win this game).
What did that mean? It meant that many working-class whites — especially whites whose parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents came from Catholic or Jewish immigrant communities that faced discrimination in the United States — were taking advantage of economic and educational opportunities available to them. In the 1950s many working class whites who lived in poor neighborhoods in the city could buy “entry-level” suburban houses in places like Levittown. As I explained in an earlier post, property and land-ownership has been a crucial way for Americans to move up the socio-economic ladder in American history — and it is a feature that historically made the United States different (and more prosperous) than, for instance, Latin American countries.
But in the 1950s, a black family could not move out of the city and buy a house in Levittown, like O’Reilly’s parents did. When it comes to homes in upwardly-mobile neighborhoods, the United States did not widely extend this opportunity to blacks until….when? 1975? 1990? 2005? Do blacks have it, fully, today?
Obviously, middle-class blacks who have the financial resources can buy homes in many middle-class neighborhoods. Legally, they can now buy homes anywhere they want.
So does that mean we have moved beyond this issue?
Well, I know that if I were black, there are still some towns, suburbs and neighborhoods that I would not want to move into because of how I would be treated — at least by some of the people. (I know of some of these places in my own county). And I know for sure that I would be hesitant to move if I had kids and had to send them to the public schools in these towns, suburbs or neighborhoods.
However, I am a white person, so I don’t have to worry about those issues. Neither does Bill O’Reilly. Socially, the two of us have a certain privilege because of the color of our skin — through no fault, action, or decision of ours. That has economic ramifications. The United States is interesting in that historically, it has offered both opportunities and privileges to poorer whites but denied them to blacks and people of color. We haven’t fully resolved that issue yet.
Another problem: this kind of privilege is largely invisible to the person who holds it — unless they have had some combination of experience and willingness to consider how it might be so. It had not occurred to me at all that Mr. Bacon was privileging boys over girls in that dodgeball situation. Then Sharon Osowski organized her protest. Before that, I didn’t see any problem.
For those of us who are white, do we know how often clerks ignore blacks who shop in the stores in our town? How often do banks in our town give better terms on loans to whites, compared to blacks who have the same financial status?
How often do blacks in our town have advantages over whites in the above examples?
Reality: I don’t know how often these things happen in my town. You don’t either. It’s impossible to know the specifics. But there is plenty of sociological data to show it is still a problem in our society.
There is more. Even with what I have argued, I think the proponents of privilege can have a problem or two in how they argue their point. Bill O’Reilly might, implicitly, have a point in the midst of this. That’s in my next post.