Does White Privilege Exist in America?


Nov. 5, 2006 — -- Chris Rock, one of the most successful comedians in America, suggests in his routine that no white person would ever trade places with him.

"None of you would change places with me and I'm rich! That's how good it is to be white!" he says.

Tim Wise lectures at schools, universities, and other organizations about the problem of white privilege.

"Whiteness allows those of us who have it, and the privileges that come from it, of not knowing black and brown truth," he says. "It's having one less thing to sweat when you go in for that job interview."

His lectures are in big demand; he has more than 80 speaking engagements a year. He recently wrote about white privilege in his book "White Like Me."

He says discrimination has held black Americans back, and this has privileged whites.

"If certain folks historically have been elevated above others, their children, their grandchildren are going to be starting out, one, two, five, ten steps ahead," he says. "Meritocracy … is as close to a lie as you can come."

But what about all the successful immigrants, many of color, who come to America and make fantastic lives for themselves?

"How many more of those persons would there be if there were truly equitable opportunity?" he asks.

Over the years, ABC News has documented many ways in which society puts blacks at a disadvantage. In seeking apartments, applying for jobs, shopping in a mall, even hailing a cab, our hidden cameras captured discrimination.

Whites don't face that kind of discrimination, says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

"It's better chances in the job market," Morial said. "It's better chances when you walk through the door, to get a bank loan. It's better chances … a head start, for the most part, in the game of life."

David Matthews says that was so obvious to him even at age nine that he lied about his race to get that head start.

Matthews is bi-racial. His father is black, but David could pass for white, which he did growing up because, he says, it was better to be white. At age nine, he decided he wasn't going to be black, but would identify as white.

"You walk in, there's the cafeteria table," Matthews says. "Where do you go? Do you go with the kids who look like you or do you say, 'Hey, everybody: Despite appearances to the contrary, I'm actually black'? And I was not going to be a social vanguard at nine."

He was worried his classmates would find out the truth about his race.

"I lived in terror of it," he says. "It was like an ulcer every day. Because I knew then I'd be relegated to what I considered to be second-class status."

David says whites were treated better by his teachers and by the police.

"Teachers would assume I knew the answers even if I didn't," he says. "I could be out past curfew at 1 a.m. on a … Saturday night at age 12 and cops wouldn't roust me.

"But if I were with any of my black friends, we would immediately get stopped," he says. " 'Where are you going? Where do you live? Why are you out past curfew?' It was a night-and-day -- no pun intended -- difference.

"I had about one black friend, and we actually undertook some illegal activities when we were in high school. And because of the way I looked, I would be the guy who would carry the gun or I would be the guy who carried the drugs. And true to form, we would get stopped sometimes," he continued. "And cops would ask him where he was going, 'What are you doing?' And I, me -- the guy with the gun in his pocket, off to the side -- never a question."

David tells his story in his upcoming book, "Ace of Spades."

It is clear that whites enjoy some privileges that blacks don't. But some blacks now say we put too much blame on this white privilege.

Scholar Shelby Steele's latest book is called "White Guilt." Steele argues that people like Tim Wise have it wrong, that today in America there is minority privilege, and it's not white privilege that shuts blacks out.

"I grew up in segregation, so I really know what racism is," he says. "I went to segregated school. I bow to no one in my knowledge of racism, which is one of the reasons why I say white privilege is not a problem."

Steele says black irresponsibility is the bigger problem -- that high illegitimacy and high school drop-out rates are limiting black progress.

"Racism is about 18th on a list of problems that black America faces," he says. "There's black irresponsibility today, there's a lot of that. It's a bigger problem than racism."

Steele says today there's "minority privilege."

"If I'm a black high school student today … there are white American institutions, universities, hovering over me to offer me opportunities: Almost every institution has a diversity committee," he says. "Every country club now has a diversity committee. I've been asked to join so many clubs, I can't tell you. There is a hunger in this society to do right racially, to not be racist. … And I feel rather privileged by it. I don't have to even look for opportunities in many cases. They come right to me."

Steele says what whites owe blacks is fairness.

"You owe us a fair society," he says. "There's not much you can do beyond that. … There isn't anything you can do to … [to] lift my life up. I have to do that."

It's something to think about next time you see all the hand-wringing about white privilege. White privilege does exist, but maybe it's not the whole story.

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