Growing up on the East Coast America, I associated privilege with the whites and under-privilege with the blacks.
It was evident looking at the white suburbs all along the East Coast — including the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up, where there was one black kid in my school. A black household would clearly stand out in this town, because it was not the norm to have blacks in a town associated with privilege. I went into New York City each weekend for music school located right next to Harlem, and I got exposed to all black inner city neighborhoods stricken with poverty and blight.
When I moved to Philadelphia for university, the contrast became even starker. Butting up against my university campus was all black inner city neighborhoods. Many houses were boarded up, and the violence statistics were high — where students were getting mugged at gunpoint walking around the neighborhoods at night. The university president then, Judith Rodin, took a clear position that rather than building a wall around the campus to make it more ‘safe’ — which would have helped marketing of the university, she wanted to demolish any barrier between the campus and the neighborhoods. She set up volunteer programs to send students out into the neighborhoods and teach inner city school children reading, math and music. She actively employed neighborhood residents to work on school campus. She inculcated in us that we have a civic responsibility to give back to those who didn’t grow up with as much as privilege as we did.
It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest America to take up a teaching position at a university that my assumption on ‘white privilege’ turned upside down. I saw, for the first time, whites who were not only under-privileged or working class, but were ‘down and out’ — the level of poverty and blight that I had only seen in all black neighborhoods in inner city neighborhoods of the East Coast.
Many of my students — who were white and considered ‘privileged’ in the region to be able to go to a college, not even a technical college but a liberal arts college — had never been outside of their home town, and dreamed of getting out of the Midwest and moving to bigger cities on the East or West coasts. They said they hated growing up in, what they called, the ‘flyover states’. I hadn’t realized that growing up on either coasts was already considered a ‘privilege.’
Only one or two students in the entire class barely got out, through extra determination and whatever connection that they were able to forge, to take up an opportunity on either coasts. But it was simply not an option for the rest to get out. East and West coasts were already saturated with young people armed with degrees from prestigious universities, and there was no way that my students — with no connections or fancy resumes could compete with them — not because they were any less competent, but because they weren’t armed with these resumes.
I saw their hope and determination turn into a sense of powerlessness, and a sense of powerlessness turn into resentment. In a class discussion of ‘affirmative action,’ many of them complained that it was unfair that they had to give up their own opportunity for the wrongs that their ‘ancestors’ committed — to whom, they would add, they were not even remotely related other than the fact that they were ‘white.’ They complained that there was no benefit for the working-class whites, as there were for other under-privileged minorities, because all whites were 'assumed' to be privileged. They complained that it was now the ‘whites’ who were discriminated against by the policies that were created to prevent discrimination against the minorities. They suggested 'class' as well as 'race' to be factored in ensuring equal opportunity.
When I mentioned this to a college roommate of mine, who grew up working class white on the East Coast, she cautiously shared a similar sentiment. I knew that she had received no financial aid from our university and had to work three jobs to get through the college. Now working in the government sector, she mentioned that some colleagues of hers were clearly not qualified but only got the job, because they were a minority. There was clearly a need for the policy of affirmative action to be discussed and clarified openly — to bring everyone onto the same page — so that it doesn’t breed any resentment or sense of injustice and unfairness by any group.
While the Midwest seemed to run like its own ‘country’ — with a self-sufficient economy of its own, I saw their effort at reviving the local economy squashed by big corporations sucking out all the profit. The town I lived in had four Walmarts anchoring each corner of the town. Over the course of five years that I lived there, I saw the downtown boutiques, restaurants and stores — which started with all the hopes and vision of reviving the downtown culture and economy — closing down, and the local supermarket going from a gourmet store full of fresh produce to a drug store to a liquor store, as they couldn’t compete with the cheaper prices of Walmart.
I could see how the right wing movement could so easily take root in these vulnerable regions — 'post-industrial regions' that never found another economic footing after the manufacturing industries moved out, and any effort at revival was swept over by big corporations, who now didn't even have to be physically present in the region to suck out profit. Its population was mired in the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness to ‘get out’, and the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness slowly turned into resentment. And the resentment flared up by the populist politicians, who harnessed the sense of powerlessness in the dispossessed for their own political gains and victories, when these politicians had not even set a foot in these regions, nor had any true intention of bettering their lives. Their condition was blamed on ‘immigrants’ and ‘minorities’ and ‘China’ who ‘stole their jobs,’ and now it was time to reclaim the ‘white power' that had been lost.
Not that the underprivileged condition of blacks in America had been successfully addressed — many inner city black neighborhoods still remain as blighted and poverty-stricken as ever, and black children continue to suffer from the historical wrongs of segregation and the under-privilege they are born into. But at least the issue was on the table, whereas nobody was talking about these regions. And these ‘post-industrial’ regions existed not only in America but across the globe, in France, Britain, Germany — and it couldn’t have been a coincidence that they were the sites of rise in the right wing and white supremacist movement.
‘But what is power?' Erich Fromm in Man for Himself observed the following:
It is rather ironical that this word denotes two contradictory concepts: power of = capacity and power over = domination. Power = domination results from the paralysis of power = capacity. ‘Power over’ is the perversion of ‘power to.’ The ability of man to make productive use of his powers is his potency; the inability his impotence….When potency is lacking, man’s related to the world is perverted into a desire to dominate, to exert power over others…Domination is coupled with death, potency with life. Domination spring from impotence and in turn reinforces it, for if an individual can force someone else to serve him, his own need to be productive is increasingly paralyzed.
Without addressing the sense of powerlessness in these neglected regions and how to truly empower them — not through the false sense of superiority or power over other races such as 'white supremacy,' but by unleashing and fulfilling their productive potentials, the seed of white supremacy — the crutch to feel one’s power over others — would remain percolating under the surface, looking for the opportunity to get articulated.