Irving: I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s important to understand the concept of privilege. I grew up thinking that privilege meant wealth. But in the context of this conversation, privilege means the opposite of discrimination. Discrimination is the short end of the stick, but you can’t have a short end without a long end.
So, for example, people who are differently abled, who have some kind of disability, suffer discrimination, both through policy and practice in their everyday life. By comparison, I have some privilege around the issue of disability. I never have to think about what kind of building I can or can’t get into, or what my transportation options are. I’m also a neuro-typical learner so the curriculum always matched up with the way I learn. In these and other ways, I’m privileged around the issue of disability.
I also have Christian privilege. The holidays always match up with my religious celebrations, so I never have to make a choice about whether to stay home for work or school to observe my faith-based holidays.
I also have heterosexual privilege: I was able to marry, legally, the person I love.
I have racial privilege. I have not been discriminated against throughout the history of the United States because of my skin color. And I also have class privilege. I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m poor or working class. So, class privilege and race privilege are different. That doesn’t help the white person who is feeling trapped in a cycle of poverty, or lack of opportunity, because of class discrimination. And yet, if and when they can break out of their class situation, they will be able to blend in. Moreover, the discrimination they’re feeling is not because of their racial identity, but because of their class identity. It can feel like suddenly affirmative action and welfare are creating disproportional advantages for people of color (even though most welfare recipients are white), but those programs are trying to address the history of racial discrimination. White people who object to these “handouts” often don’t realize that people of their race have had access to racial privilege: citizenship, better schools, lower-interest loans, living in the neighborhood of their choosing, lower incarceration rates, and so on. None of these things are true for people of color.
Another thing to recognize is that what serves the white owning class the most is when the rest of us fight amongst ourselves. If everyone who is suffering, who is feeling a lack of opportunity, who is trapped in a cycle of poverty, would recognize our commonality and work together, we would see real change. But as long as we’re turned against each other and not understanding the larger historic framework in which we’re all operating, we hold in place the status quo. Or we’ll see progress for one group at the expense of another group. Finally, the more we can see issues and solutions as “both/and,” rather than “either/or”—in other words, the more we can work to have both equal opportunity for whites and people of color—the more we can break out of the paradigm that attempts to pit us against each other.
The MOON: Except that we’ve got a president who tells us that’s not true; that people of less merit have somehow gamed the system to benefit themselves, rather than the people who were originally intended to benefit from the establishment of the United States of America.
Irving: And now we’re talking about myth-making. There’s a long history of it in the United States. Two of the major myths are that white people are superior and that the playing field is level. Neither are true. Our Founding Fathers and the Europeans who first came to this country—who include my ancestors—didn’t have access to enough science to examine how human beings are different or similar. We have the science now, which confirms that there aren’t major differences between racial groups. There are no inherent differences across races. There can be cultural differences, but racial differences are a fabrication. So white superiority is a myth that has never been debunked. And when you look around you, it sure looks real. You see white people—men—in all the top jobs; white people in all the best houses; white people having accumulated the most wealth; but it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out that this situation has resulted from the system being designed to work this way!
It also looks as if black and brown people are dangerous—they’re disproportionately arrested and incarcerated; they must care less about education because they have less of it—when circumstances have conspired to put and keep them in this position. Moreover, the white establishment has an ongoing narrative about black and brown people being “other,” being “savage,” being dangerous, being freeloaders, being terrorists, rapists, welfare queens. Yet the facts don’t confirm this narrative. Look at the GI Bill; my family got it. My family got land grants. My family got Social Security. I even got a rent-controlled apartment when I took my first job out of college—through a personal connection who owned the building. No one ever called these things welfare, but they were massive government hand-outs. Yes, workers pay into Social Security, but in its original iteration the program excluded domestic and agricultural workers. The very workers who might have needed the program the most–and who were often non-white–were excluded. Although historians say this was due to the difficulty of taxing employers of domestics and farm workers, rather than racial bias, the result was the same: many people of color were excluded from benefits.
And then there’s the myth of the level playing field, which would mean that everyone gets equal access to the Four Rs: rights, resources, representation and respect, and that it just takes a couple generations of hard work to “make it.” If you don’t, it’s your own damn fault. That’s the myth of meritocracy. But women, Jews, Catholics, people with disabilities, people with diverse sexual orientations, as well as people of color have all had to engage in struggle to get closer to a level playing field. If the playing field were already level, there wouldn’t be so much protest and activism around leveling it. The white supremacist responds, “All those people are simply complainers.” But the record shows otherwise.
“None of these attributes in themselves is oppressive. They’re used oppressively when combined with power to make other attributes wrong.”
Believe me, until I was educated—at the age of 48—the playing field felt 100 percent level to me. That’s because in my childhood—in my formative years, when my belief system was being laid down—I was surrounded by families in my white suburbs who shared stories similar to mine: that our ancestors came to this country from Ireland, Italy, Poland, or wherever, and didn’t speak a word of English, had two cents in their pockets, were treated like dirt, but worked themselves to the bone to get where they are today. That storyline is true, so why wouldn’t I believe in meritocracy?
People who believe in meritocracy and the level playing field can probably cite evidence to support their claim. But what they’ve probably never explored with an open mind is that there’s a wider circle of people for whom it has not been the case. And why should they explore a wider circle? They’ve been taught that those people are inferior.
The MOON: What do you say to people who give the examples of Obama and Oprah as evidence that racism is a thing of the past?
Irving: That’s like denying climate change on the basis of a single day’s weather. You must look at the aggregate data, not singularities. For any phenomena there will always be outliers, but when you look at the trends and patterns, they’re unmistakable. And when you think about the Oprahs, Obamas, Chris Rocks and the others who have made it, imagine what they’ve had to endure to get where they are today. (Although I’m not sure there IS anyone else who has gotten where Oprah is today. She’s really in a class by herself.) I’m sure the stories they have to tell from a racial perspective would be compelling.
The MOON: I love the example you give in your book, which is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, about the cumulative difference even a slight advantage, such as being born 10 months earlier, can make over the course of a childhood for young Canadian hockey players. The annual difference is “only” 12 percent, but compounded over time, a 12 percent difference is huge.
Irving: Yes, the anecdote Gladwell provides shows how a relatively small advantage over time disproportionately benefits the privileged group—in this case, young Canadian hockey players born in January or February, versus those born in November or December. The ones born earlier in the year enter each season bigger, stronger, more cognitively developed, more likely to be promoted to more advanced levels of play, have greater access to equipment, more hours on the ice, and so on, relative to those born later in the year. The result is a cumulative advantage for some and a cumulative disadvantage for others. The critical point is the way the disparity is accentuated over time. The same applies to advantages and disadvantages across racial and class lines.
When we’re talking about racial experience in the United States, the disadvantages are not just cumulative across time, but also across life experiences. Take a middle class white neighborhood in the U.S. versus an impoverished black or brown neighborhood: the policing will be different. In the white neighborhood, the police are there to protect and serve; in the neighborhood of color, they’re more likely there to harass and control. The schools are different; the food supply is different; the medical supply is different; air quality is likely to be different; access to transportation is likely to be very different; lending rates are different; property values are different. Across life experiences these differences will work to the advantage of those who are already advantaged and to the disadvantage of those who are already disadvantaged.
The MOON: Ta-Nahesi Coates, arguing for reparations in an essay in The Atlantic, says that our history of unjust treatment of blacks, “is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.” Meanwhile, white people feel like, “Black people are never going to be happy! We’ve been paying for years and they still say we owe.” What would help us get to a level playing field, once and for all, redressing to the extent possible the injustices that have prevailed for so long? Not just with African-Americans, but with Native Americans, as well?
Irving: The idea of reparations was a really prickly one for me at first. It literally sent a shot of adrenaline through my body. I thought it meant we’d have to figure out the lost wages of each enslaved laborer and mail checks to their descendants. I was so overwhelmed by the mathematical and logistical difficulties that my mind shut down to the entire concept.