Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Privileges Versus Rights

Shortly after I had posted my previous column, a neighbor walking his dog approached me and we struck up a friendly conversation. He’s a friendly man, an animal lover and, although he just turned 40, he looks 30, having an athletic physique and always being well-dressed. In our conversations I’ve found him to be an articulate and compassionate individual. This day, our conversation turned to the state of our country, specifically the increasing amount of hatred and virulent racism and anti-Semitism being spread by right-wing individuals and groups, and more shockingly and disturbingly condoned if not outright supported by many of our leaders in government. We were both experiencing Weltschmerz – a general state of sadness or pessimism over the suffering of the world.

I mentioned the incident with my cable repairman that I described in my blog last time. He nodded. “It happens all the time. It happens to me regularly. I’ve been pulled over at least fifteen times. Ordered out of the car, frisked, sometimes made to lie face down on the ground. No reason; they never arrested me. I’ve never done anything wrong.”

Did I mention he was black? I keep forgetting to do that. I’ve heard similar stories now from other people— other black people. Obviously, there’s something going on in this country in the way black people are treated that most white people do not see. Unfortunately, some on the left have labeled this “white privilege.” As you know from my previous columns I, and many other whites, find that term offensive. As a white man who has lived a difficult life far from the privileged lives of the many black actors, rappers, comedians, television commentators, and other black celebrities so prominent in America today, the phrase “white privilege” is galling. I didn’t have any privilege growing up simply because I was white; to the contrary, I entered college and the workforce during the time of affirmative action and quotas and was denied positions due to the fact that I was not a minority. Dare to use that phrase in my presence and I’ll tell you about the recruiter from a Fortune 500 company who admitted during an interview at my school that they would love to hire someone with my resume (which included an MBA and a law degree from a Top 20 University) but had a quota to fill and if only I were “black or a woman or named Gonzales” the job would be mine, adding they were only interviewing a few white students as a courtesy to the school. No, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth; I didn’t come from a rich family; and I didn’t get the breaks many do (in fact, more often the opposite). So yes, it grates me to hear my life experience described as one of “white privilege.”

This is an issue of semantics; one in which a poor choice of words is creating a miscommunication that interferes with the ability of well-intentioned white people to address this legitimate and significant issue of concern for black people. The situations I’ve described are not examples of so-called “white privilege” but rather instances of the denial of civil rights. Described properly, the incidents become even more egregious. We’re not talking about people being granted privileges; what is at the heart of these incidents is the denial of basic human and civil rights to which all citizens are entitled. A right is something to which every individual citizen is entitled and which cannot be taken away absent exceptional circumstances; whereas a privilege is a conditional grant to a discrete group that can be easily rescinded. Instead of redefining the concept of privilege to bear politically correct racial overtones, and thereby alienating the very people needed to address a real and serious issue of discriminatory treatment, it is more advisable to focus on what is occurring and to refer to it by what it is: an improper denial of rights, by both government actors and society at large.

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