White, male privilege still beats hard work, intelligence

April 13, 1999|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

AFTER a while, the stories all begin to sound the same. They always begin with an immigrant who came here generations ago with nothing to his name but a suitcase stuffed with dreams. He worked hard to better himself.

Eventually, he pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps, made a little money, bought a little house, built a family and a life.

The person telling the story -- typically a son or grandson of the immigrant -- always means it as a rebuke of the claim that he, the offspring, has any connection to past inequities or enjoys advantages because he is white and male. His family was poor. No one has given him anything.

Start a discussion about affirmative action -- as I did recently in a column -- and you're guaranteed to hear that story.

Let me answer with another story. It's considerably less dramatic but, I like to think, telling nonetheless. See, my wife and I went to buy auto insurance one day. Marilyn took the lead. She asked the questions, she negotiated the coverage, she weighed the options. By prior arrangement, I sat quietly, saying nothing.

Male authority

Yet, when it was time to sign the contract, the guy looked past the woman he'd been dealing with for 20 minutes. He put my name topmost on the papers, pushed them over for my signature, shook my hand and thanked me for my business. The lesson: When a man and woman are together, people assume authority lies in the man.

Another story: White colleague and I took a long road trip together. Along the way he noticed, to his consternation, that when we approached a hotel registration desk together, the clerks inevitably served him first. The lesson: When a black guy and a white guy are together, people assume authority lies in the white guy.

The point is that in a culture where sexism and racism are systemic and ubiquitous, you needn't personally suffer either malady to benefit from them.

Getting a leg up

To be white or male is to profit from certain assumptions. It's to have authority presumed before it's proven. To have a leg up in winning the bank loan, the apartment or the job. To enjoy an advantage in getting the college degree, the medical care and, oh yes, the presumption of innocence.

This is not supposition but fact backed by endless studies and reams of federal statistics. Recently, researchers at Georgetown University in Washington found that doctors were significantly less likely to order life-saving cardiac tests for patients who were female or black. And the National Criminal Justice Commission reports that African-Americans account for 13 percent of regular drug users, but 35 percent of drug-possession arrests, 55 percent of drug-possession convictions and a whopping 74 percent of all drug-possession prison sentences.

So perhaps you understand why I find it galling to hear an immigrant's tale of self-sufficient struggle presented as evidence that equality of opportunity abounds.

In a sense, affirmative action is irrelevant. Flawed? Yes. Kill it tomorrow for all I care. But replace it with some other means of counterbalancing the effects of male, white privilege.

To propose, as some have done, "need-based" preferences open to all the poor, regardless of race or gender, is to miss the point. If poverty were the only thing hobbling women and blacks, the solution would be simple: Work harder and smarter. Unfortunately, privilege does not care how hard you work or how smart you are.

I understand the lure of immigrant tales. They validate our image of America as a place of opportunity. But the heirs to those tales ought to realize that it wasn't just work and sacrifice that gave grandfather the edge. They ought to know that some people had been working and sacrificing for generations before his boat ever docked and never enjoyed the fruits he did.

It should be no surprise that some of us are vexed by immigrant tales offered as instruction in the art of American dreaming. If generations of unrequited struggle prove nothing else, they prove this:

We already know how to dream.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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