My Turn: Sorry, but white privilege is no myth

  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, December 17, 2017

John Meinhold’s remarks (Monitor Forum, Dec. 14) sadly fuel the divisiveness affecting us all these days. Perhaps the title “The myth of white privilege” is the Monitor’s, rather than his; but even if that’s the case, the division remains, with a specifically racist slant.

I have every sympathy for the difficulties of those whose immigrant ancestors belonged to one of many groups singled out for abuse, and those currently without a living wage, or adequate education, or good health care. But to deny that “white privilege” exists, and to blame that phrase for – or see it as representative of – the failure to acknowledge and address the suffering of “forgotten white people” is wrong. To do so is to fail the often-quoted test defined by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” And it sets up a false dichotomy: one cannot accept the reality of “white privilege” and at the same time accept the reality depicted in such recent books as Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) or Glass House (Brian Alexander).


Meinhold’s argument relies on the unstated but clearly implied thesis that immigrant and poor white people have suffered more than black people, or that their suffering is ignored because of black people. He can’t assert the reality of one without denying – and singling out – the other. That insults the experience of black Americans, and does so with transparent contortions.

Meinhold cites “17.3 million white Americans (about twice as many as African Americans) . . . living in poverty.” Okay, so do African Americans make up an equal percentage of the current population? If not (it’s 13.3 percent; white people are 63 percent), then poverty is far less likely for white people than black people.

He points to Irish being preferred to slaves in the 1840s and 1850s because they were disposable. Sure, the Irish at that time were scorned and abused, but they were not chattel property.

He refers to 11 Italians lynched in 1891 as the “largest mass lynching in U.S. history” and pointedly sets up the dichotomy “and it wasn’t African Americans.” Sure. But how many total Italians were lynched in the last 200 years? Did they continue to be lynched into the 1930s?

He deplores the “relentless derogatory
. . . Polish jokes in the 1970s.” Sure. Were the Polish-Americans able to vote, to drink from any water fountain, to sit at any lunch counter, to buy property where they wished?

He asserts that “poor white folks have been slurred from the very beginning . . . the term ‘white trash’ . . . coined . . . in 1821.” Sure, a nasty insult. The three-fifths clause in the Constitution dates from 1787; an institutionalized valuation of people who were owned.

Are white college professors assaulted by police at their own door (see Henry Louis Gates). Was Attorney General Jeff Sessions ever grabbed by Washington, D.C., police because of the color of his skin (see Eric Holder)?

Do I, a liberal Democrat, think that millions of white Americans need attention? Yes. That does not mean that I have to buy into the demonstrably racist views of Charles Murray, which Meinhold evidently espouses. Do I think Murray should be able to speak to a college audience? Sure. Freedom of speech is all about letting those with whom you may disagree show others how well, or how poorly, their ideas stand up. Complex, isn’t it?

(Chip Morgan lives in Hopkinton.)