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Many in U.S. are proud, ‘hard working’

In response to Richard Makuch’s column of Dec. 14 headlined “Working for dream is no privilege,” I would like to point out that his discussion not only is illogical, but also shows a profound misunderstanding of the concept of “white privilege.”

In his column, he describes the day-to-day struggles of hard-working white Americans to care for their own families, while also paying taxes for programs that benefit people he refers to as “those who refuse to work.” He seems to conclude that the travails of these hard-working, struggling white people proves they are not “privileged,” and thus the idea of “white privilege” itself is nonsense. He has missed the point. Or two. . . .

His argument — which is completely unrelated to the actual meaning of “white privilege” — is illogical from the get-go, since the economic challenges and behaviors he lists are not specific to white people, but are the same for all hard-working Americans, regardless of color. It is not only white people who find themselves needing to hold down two jobs or have both spouses work. It is not only white people who plan, save and budget for home-buying and retirement costs, or who pay taxes that fund social welfare programs. Thus, his entire work-related discussion has no bearing on any specifically white experience.

As already mentioned, Mr. Makuch’s remarks make it clear that he doesn’t understand the meaning of the term “white privilege.” It refers to the unearned advantages some people in our society experience simply by virtue of being born with white skin, as well as the disadvantages others face by being born with darker skin. It is a consequence of centuries of ingrained attitudes and past institutional inequities in our society-most notably slavery-that have for generations made access to quality education, job training, health care and home ownership harder for people of color than for others who were simply born white.

Recent studies show that a major factor in the disparity between white and Black cumulative household wealth in this country is the wide difference in rates of home ownership by race. This isn’t because Blacks work less hard or don’t desire to buy homes. Up until the civil rights movement in the ’60s, existing laws blocked minority persons’ access to federally subsidized mortgages and made other loans difficult to obtain. This long-legal, past discrimination suppressed Black home ownership, and some less-than-legal mortgage practices continue to present barriers today. The absence of such racially-based obstacles for whites is an example of “white privilege.”

Anyone who knows 20th century American history is aware that racially segregated schools were declared unconstitutional only 66 years ago — less that one average lifetime. It took at least another decade after that before many southern states exhausted legal efforts to get around the Supreme Court ruling and complied. Throughout our history, minorities other than Blacks have faced restricted access to education, as well. Few may realize that Hispanics were barred from attending public schools in California until state law was changed just a few years before the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed all segregated public schooling.

Quality and level of education are primary predictors of future economic security, and this long history of substandard or segregated education has had a generational effect on minorities’ access to good-paying jobs. For most of our country’s history, being born white gave a person an automatic advantage over most persons of color in achieving educational access and economic success. That is also what “white privilege” means.

Another example of this inherent, unearned advantage is the protection white skin color affords its owner to walk or drive in almost any neighborhood without being stopped on suspicion of criminal intent. If you don’t think this is a real issue, consider the frequency with which Black drivers in this country are stopped and questioned by police with little or no cause, particularly in upscale or predominately white neighborhoods. This practice is so common that it is widely and ironically referred to among the general public as being stopped for “driving while Black.”

In similarly wealthy locales, residents have reported the activities of innocent, upstanding neighbors to police as “suspicious,” based solely on that person’s skin color. One infamous incident occurred in 2007 when Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., known to many as host of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” was confronted by police in his own home following a call from a neighbor of a suspected robbery-in-progress. After being shown multiple pieces of identification, the investigating officer refused to believe he lived there and arrested him, compounding the insult.

How sad a commentary on our society is it that in these cases, the white people who called the police automatically assumed the Black person in their midst was a potential criminal, rather than a neighbor they hadn’t met, or just an innocent passerby?

There are many and more disturbing cases in which both police and vigilantes have accosted and killed Black children or adults they wrongly perceived as being armed-who turned out to be holding toy guns, cell phones or Skittles. Merely holding one of these harmless items, I’m willing to bet, has never gotten a white person shot by accident. That taken-for-granted sense of safety in most law enforcement situations is a benefit of “white privilege.”

In my opinion, there’s no reason for white people to get defensive about the fact that most of them (of whom I am one) have benefited in some way from “white privilege.” The conditions for this to happen are historical and complex and were not set in motion by any of us alive today (except, perhaps, for a few ancient segregationists on life support).

What I believe is useful, however, is for white people to recognize and acknowledge what is, in general, their unlooked-for but still unfair advantage in our society; to support common-sense efforts to rectify the damage; and to not automatically reject government programs intended to address these historic, systemic, racial inequities as being “hand-outs, but rather as important attempts to right long-standing wrongs.

Speaking of hand-outs, before concluding, I’d like to address the writer’s oft-repeated, blanket characterization of government aid recipients as “those who refuse to work.” Human nature being what it is, I’m sure there are plenty such folks. However, I’d like to point out that the fairly successful mission of these aid programs is to provide a system of basic security to the helpless and struggling-children, the elderly, the infirm, and the working poor, as well as the unemployed who have lost jobs-or can’t find one-through no fault of their own.

Whether those receiving such aid are children in school breakfast and lunch programs; working poor who rely on SNAP for adequate nutrition; asylum-seeking immigrants fleeing desperate conditions; or one of the legions of elderly and infirm people who cannot afford the roughly $100,000-a-year cost of individual nursing home care paid for through Medicaid, none of them deserve to be spoken of with contempt or shamed, simply because at some point they have needed the help of taxpayer-funded government programs.

Personally, I’m proud to be a citizen of a country whose government acknowledges a responsibility to care for those least able to care for themselves.

I, for one, don’t mind paying taxes for that purpose. If anyone thinks that makes me a pie-in-the-sky, free-spending, bleeding-heart-liberal, socialist wanna-be, I’m OK with that.

Mary Rees is a Dunkirk resident.

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