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‘Privilege’ to be white? Not quite

My “white privilege” was sharing a bedroom with my sister in a South Bronx tenement until I was 15 and she was 11. My parents slept on a bed in the living room. Then we moved out of a neighborhood of close scrapes and fire escapes to a Brooklyn public-housing project where we had our own bedrooms.

We were lower class, but not poor, or at least we didn’t think so. In the early ’50s, not all that many people were rich, and I didn’t know any of them. My first full-time job was as a stock picker and packer in a greeting-card warehouse.

My situation today may be better than my black Bronx classmates’, but I don’t know that for sure. I attended the same high school as Attorney General Eric Holder, and he’s done better than I. The hill was, and is, steeper for blacks than whites, but to think all whites roller-skate downhill is ridiculous.

“White privilege” is remixed “white guilt.” The “privilege” part gags me, as it does many (especially) working-class whites. The semantics are more galling than the concept because it smacks of cheating.

A general definition of “privilege” is “special advantage enjoyed by a particular group.” Maybe most whites enjoy a “special advantage” in hailing a cab, or getting a better restaurant table, but is that a lifetime game-changer?

“White privilege” says whites get an undeserved boost, even when they are unaware of it. That’s almost hateful. There are millions more whites than blacks below the poverty line, but I know the poverty rate is twice as high for blacks as for whites. So is the black high-school dropout rate.

Actual privilege is enjoyed by the classes above your own. The son of an African-American doctor in an affluent community is going to find the hill less steep than the white son of a single mother in a rougher part of town. That’s not class envy. That’s life.

America’s highest-earning ethnic group is Asian Indians, who are nonwhite and relative newcomers. Is that “Asian privilege”?

Most African-Americans won’t agree with me, but go sell “white privilege” to a sharecropper in Appalachia or a trapper in the Cascades.

If we are going to have that elusive “conversation about race,” both sides have to be willing to listen, otherwise it’s a lecture.

I find it odd that the academics who coined “white privilege” would vehemently oppose other forms of racial generalization.

The “white privilege” fallacy makes whites angry and blacks bitter. It doesn’t help anyone.

A better term might be “black disadvantage,” which I don’t like. Racism — being stopped by cops, trailed in retail stores, cold-shouldered by white neighbors — lays its hand on all African-Americans, but none of it improves white lives.

The pain of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining created indelible impressions of America for African Americans, as the Holocaust created an indelible impression of the world for Jews. I get that, but as hard as I try, I can’t swallow “white privilege.”

Here are my real privileges:

▪ America. Every American — white, black, brown, red, yellow — has a privilege over nearly every other citizen of the globe.

▪ Parents. Mine loved me and set standards. They demanded I get an education because any problems in life would be multiplied by ignorance.

▪ Good health. I have it, but my good health doesn’t cause anyone else’s bad health.

▪ Gender. When I was growing up and into the present, males were paid more. There has been progress: The disparity is not as broad as grievance merchants would have you believe, nor as narrow as I want them for my daughter.

▪ Height. I am more than 6 feet tall, and research shows tall men generally do better than short men. It’s also true that pretty does better than ugly, slim vs. fat, ambitious vs. lazy, bright vs. dim.

What you “own” was not necessarily taken from someone else. A successful African-American didn’t cheat another black person to succeed. Neither did a white person.

Stu Bykofsky is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

©2014 Philadelphia Daily News

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