Reader Reaction: Race, white innocence, and Michael Eric Dyson

A libertarian friend writes:

I’m not buying your piece on race fully. What is a sufficient apology for those things you have no role in or control over? When you make a mistake, yes, own it. But what about those who have not made mistakes, and there are many, despite what you may think.

IOW, I don’t believe in collective guilt.

I responded:

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m not sure what to tell you: I think this remains a sharp philosophical difference between us.

I think there ought to be room for the libertarian ideal and acknowledgement this country doesn’t fully live it out. “Collective guilt” doesn’t strike me as precisely the right term, but it seems undeniable to me that A) this country has long benefitted white people at the expense of black people and b) even if you think those days are over, the legacy and ramifications live with us still.

For one example: There’s a profound disparity in wealth between whites and blacks — one magnified by the great recession. Why? Well, a good chunk of that is housing policy: Black neighborhoods were redlined, white neighborhoods weren’t, so the government ensured white people were able to buy homes, create equity and wealth, and build a buffer for themselves that they handed down to their children.

I’ve benefitted from that, as a legacy from parents who were able to help me through tough times. I bet you have benefitted from that, too. Does that make you “guilty” of something? Tough word. You’re probably heir to the picking of winners and losers, though, and you got the bright side of the deal.

Maybe you don’t agree with that, but it seems to me largely in keeping with a libertarian critique, one that doesn’t necessarily damage your overall outlook. “Government picking of winners and losers sucks” isn’t just a theory. We have evidence!

My friend adds:

What gets me is that, reading Dyson and Coates makes me want to ask: What about the adult kids of the Hungarian refugee who came to this country in the 1950s? How are they tainted with the sin of slavery? There’s very little acknowledgement of this in what I read of their work, and granted, I’m not that enthralled by it anyway.

It’s hard for me not to shrug a bit at this, on the one hand: Adult kids of Cold War refugees are probably a very small slice of the American community. The fact that they might be an exception to the general thrust of American history makes them exactly that: An exception.

In a less-shruggy vein, though, I do ask: Are our Hypothetical Hungarian Immigrants as likely as an African-American to be shot in a traffic stop? To be stopped-and-frisked? To be arrested for smoking a joint? White privilege isn’t just the accumulation of perks, after all: It’s also a free pass from the disadvantages that black folks are often subject to. That’s probably true even if you just got off the boat.


I don’t want to misrepresent my friend, who points out I omitted his comments that touch on some agreement between us. My apologies to him. Here’s part of what he additionally wrote:

Do the education, criminal-justice, and employment/housing systems treat “whites” and “others” differently? Sadly, yes, in fact if not in law. I would argue that the legal situation (as in statutes on the books) is much better than it was not so long ago. But people ultimately implement those laws, and far too often, they continue to demonstrate bigotry.
What to do about it?
IMO, blaming whitey for being whitey gets us nowhere. It may assuage some of the guilt of some people and will assuredly inflame the hostilities of others. Reviewing situations, case-by-case, and discussing responses that address the specific problem could ease some of the tensions, name-calling. And accomplish something. Maybe?
There’s a whole discussion here to be had about systemic evils versus individual trespasses. I don’t think it’s one or the other — though I agree with my friend that discussing the systemic problem does inflame hostilities. More later.

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