Whites and Privilege

I’m sorta kinda responding to Melissa McEwan’s response to Jim Webb’s Wall Street Journal op ed “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.”

Webb’s op ed, very generally, points to the issue of white poverty. Unfortunately Webb begins by framing his argument in terms of white workers losing ground because of affirmative action programs, and I disagree that’s the problem.

However, It’s way out of order, I think, to accuse Webb of merely trying to maintain white privilege. I agree with John Cole, there are whites living in places “where poverty is so deep, so ingrained, that the idea in those regions that there is some sort of ‘white privilege’ is in fact laughable. To them, the privilege of chronic unemployment, life in a tarpaper shack with no medical care, food stamps but no grocery store, and not much of a future doesn’t look like that great of a deal.”

I’d also say that while the issues of racial discrimination and entrenched poverty do overlap, a lot, they aren’t exactly the same. I agree also with John that the real issue is closer to what Shirley Sherrod was saying about class v. race.

But whatever it is, it’s a real issue, and it is not at all helpful to react to discussion of the problems of white poverty with knee-jerk declarations that “This isn’t about white people; it’s about privileged white men.”

No, it’s about white poverty, and about the cultural marginalization of rural whites. I don’t think Webb addressed the topic as well as it needed to be addressed, but I know where he’s coming from, because it’s pretty close to where I came from.

There are whites living out of most people’s sight in Appalachia, the Ozarks, and other sparsely populated areas who are hopelessly locked into poverty. Some of these areas are marginally agricultural, and sometimes there is mining — dangerous, usually non-union, but a paycheck. Where there isn’t farming or mining there are white families whose existence going back four or five generations has depended on a combination of government assistance and sporadic menial jobs, and the children don’t receive the social, cultural, educational, medical, and sometimes even the nutritional support to pull themselves out of that.

In the most isolated areas are people who are barely functional in 21st-century culture. For example, I’ve known very bright people — been related to ’em, in fact — who didn’t, and probably couldn’t, speak standard English. In most of the U.S. an adult whose articulation, syntax and verb conjugation skills signal IGNORANT HILLBILLY is seriously handicapped.

Such places tend to be off the beaten track, out of sight and out of mind. And yes, this a relatively small slice of the white population of the U.S. But it’s not that small.

White impoverished areas I know of didn’t get that way because of affirmative action programs. They were dirt poor before there was such a thing as affirmative action programs. And we really need to get over the idea that giving a hand up to minorities was somehow at the expense of whites, because an economy that makes it easier for everyone to be productive is a healthier economy for everyone. But let’s not forget that people can be left behind for reasons other than race.

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