For years on end, we’ve heard about “white privilege.” If you’re white in America, your life is supposed to be nothing but cotton candy, pretty prom dates, glowing health, and riches. A cloud never crosses your sky. In recent weeks, the cries of “White privilege!” have grown louder.
True, it’s easier to belong to a racial majority than to a racial minority — or at least it is in most cases. Black people have coped with any number of obstacles and slights in this country, well after Jim Crow (to say nothing of slavery).
But lives are lived individually, aren’t they? Rather than in groups?
Years ago, I worked briefly for a man who seemed to be a classic one-percenter. He was employed in a prestigious law firm and had been to the best schools: Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard, I believe, and in that order.
One day, I asked him about his earlier life. And my eyes widened as he talked. He was from West Virginia. His family didn’t have running water, as I remember. He himself didn’t have proper shoes until he was 14. He didn’t have any books, either. But a prominent man in town — I think it was a banker — let him use his private library. And that helped this kid, Michael, a lot.
Later, when the world looked at him, I’m sure they saw nothing but “white privilege.” But they knew nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Think of the governor of Maine: Paul LePage (a conservative Republican). I’ve written about him before. Let me quote:
He was born in Lewiston — no garden spot — in 1948. He was the first of 18 children. The family was Franco-American, and French-speaking. Paul’s father was a mill worker and drunk. A violent drunk. He beat the hell out of Paul, who escaped home at age eleven. Paul lived on the streets for two years — sleeping in stables and strip joints and the like. Eventually, a couple of families kept an eye on him. When he got to college age, he could not get in, because his English wasn’t good enough: He spoke French. But he finessed that — there’s a French word — and he worked his way up.
Last week, I attended an event on Capitol Hill. It was in honor of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose portrait was being unveiled in the hearing room of the Foreign Affairs Committee (of which she was chairwoman). I wrote about the event here.
One of the attendees, and one of the speakers, was Dan Burton, the Indiana conservative. I was pretty sure he was out of Congress, but I Googled him, just to be 100 percent sure — and looked at his Wikipedia entry. Have a paragraph:
Burton was born in Indianapolis, the son of Bonnie L. (née Hardesty) and Charles W. Burton. His father, a former policeman, was abusive to his mother, and never held a job for very long. The family moved constantly, living in trailer parks, cabins, and motels. In June 1950, some years after the couple divorced, his mother went to the police and got a restraining order against his father. He responded by kidnapping Burton’s mother. Burton and his younger brother and sister were briefly sent to the Marion County Children’s Guardian Home. After his mother escaped, Burton’s father went to jail for two years. Burton’s mother remarried, and Burton and his younger brother and sister had happier teenage years.
I had no idea.
All things being equal, is it better to be in a racial majority than in a racial minority? Probably. But think how seldom all things are equal.
Let me quote Paul Simon, please (the singer-songwriter, not the late Illinois senator): “Some folks’ lives roll easy.” Yes, they do. And others’ don’t. And, most of the time, race has nothing to do with it.
I wish people would remember that, and not assume, when they see skin and nothing but skin.