Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

White Privilege: The Elephant in Minnesota's Living Room

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: May 20, 2014 - 3:26 AM

Let me warn you up front. Many of the folks reading this blog post may not like what I have to say. But that's neither here nor there. I have to get this off my chest. I am tired of attending meetings and events in which folks are having conversations about equity and are delicately skirting around the issue of race. Hardly ever are notions of racial bias and discrimination and just "plain ole racism" part of the conversation. All too often, such issues remain at a surface level, which leads to very safe, comfortable dialogue that does not push us to address the real challenges that are hindering our progress as a state and reinforcing intolerable racial disparities. 

Society is still separate; still unequal

Beyond that, many of these conversations about "equity" consist of white Minnesotans in the upper echelon talking to each other about issues that impact communities of color and yet there are often just one or two "representatives" in the room from those communities. Half the time, I'm one of those two representatives. And when I look around those rooms and observe a sea of predominately white faces, it occurs to me that the lack of diversity around those tables and the relative comfort levels of those in attendance reveals more than any fifty page study ever could about the true state of race relations in Minnesota. Sadly, it appears that 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society is still separate and unequal and unwilling to change anytime soon. (If you don't believe me, please take time to travel to various neighborhoods throughout the Metro area and outstate Minnesota to see the levels of segregation and income inequality firsthand.)

If we are serious about getting to the root of the problems that exist, we must acknowledge the role that white privilege plays in maintaining the status quo and keeping the poor and oppressed locked out of access to economic opportunity. According to Tim Wise, an antiracist essayist, author, and educator, who happens to identify as white, "White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative social mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material ( such as greater opportunities in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had greater opportunity to accumulate wealth than persons of color), social......or psychological (....).

Equity requires more than good intentions

For those who consider themselves to be progressive and are wondering what I mean, I'm referring to the fact that working towards achieving equity requires much more than good conversations and good intentions. It requires a willingness to examine one's own internal beliefs about people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the level of privilege one may have had as a result of race and/or socio-economic status and the benefits that flowed and continue to flow. It also requires a willingness to look at the staff of one's organization or company and conduct an honest assessment of whether or not the staff and management are reflective of the levels of diversity that exist within the Twin Cities, and then to make the necessary changes to practice real equity and inclusion. It still shocks me when I walk into certain offices across the Metro and find that 100% of the employees are white. Many folks in positions of authority talk a good game about wanting to achieve equity, but when the rubber meets the road, few are willing to demonstrate the courage that it takes to go against the grain and radically transform the environment in which they work and play to ensure true equity and inclusion.

Instead, white privilege allows individuals and institutions to place blame on families, cultures, and communities for the challenges they face without ever having to examine the roles that structural and institutional racism have played and do play in shaping public policy, laws, and practices that unfairly harm and exclude those on the margins of society. The reality is that those same marginalized communities that we are taught to demonize and pathologize over and over again do not have adequate access to political capital, social capital, or economic resources to reshape the systems that impact their lives.

The poor are often excluded

In fact, rarely are the poor placed in positions to make decisions that will impact the well-being of their own communities and the lives of their children. Rarely are the poor provided the opportunity to weigh in on city ordinances and laws that are being passed that will affect their quality of life and their ability to walk city streets free from harassment or government interference. And finally, rarely are the poor placed in positions to make hiring decisions that will determine who gains access to jobs that pay a living wage and that may ultimately provide a pathway out of poverty for them and their families. Indeed, when you are a person of color in Minnesota, you are typically at the mercy of white people who overwhelmingly, by sheer force of numbers, control every single system from education, to business, to economics, to government, to higher education, to media, to criminal justice, to the judiciary, to the nonprofit sector, to transportation, to philanthropy, and health care among others. Imagine the cumulative impacts that this has on communities of color over time and what this does to one's psyche and sense of self-determination, not to mention the economic impacts of being unable to control your own destiny.

Thus, it is important to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to provide a balance within these systems and to work rigorously to ensure equitable outcomes for those populations that are in the minority. In order to change things, we must be honest about the role that race plays in shaping lives, families, and communities and to deal with the notion of white privilege openly and honestly (and not just in the comments section of blogs where one can espouse racial prejudices and hide safely behind a computer screen.) White privilege is the elephant in the room and we must acknowledge its presence in order to move things forward in our community and in our state.

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