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Excerpted from: Khiara M. Bridges, White Privilege and White Disadvantage, 105 Virginia Law Review 449 (April 2019) (176 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KhiaraBridges02We hear the term “poor people and people of color” regularly. For example, the term frequently pops up in discussions of the criminal justice system. As a case in point, a recent report by The Sentencing Project describes racial disparities in sentencing and criticizes the United States for effectively operating “two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color.” The term also appears in analyses of the ubiquitous presence that the state has in the lives of disempowered populations. In a report published by The Century Foundation, the authors assert that “[w]e do not need a unified theory of privacy to show that ... marginal communities enjoy far less of it in practice. In some contexts, poor people and people of color have legal rights to privacy, but no means to exercise them.” Variations of the term are also common. For example, a Center for American Progress article, which condemns the Hyde Amendment for making abortion inaccessible to women who cannot afford to pay for the procedure, is titled “How the Hyde Amendment Discriminates Against Poor Women and Women of Color.”

However, the phrase “poor people and people of color,” as well as its variants, should give us pause. These phrases appear to suggest that, in the contexts in which the term is being used, all poor people--including poor white people--are similarly situated to all people of color. They imply that poor white people are as vulnerable to the criminal justice system as are all people of color, that the state surveils and regulates poor white people as vigorously as it surveils and regulates all people of color, and that the Hyde Amendment puts abortion as far out of the reach of poor white women as all women of color.

Simply stated, “poor people and people of color,” as well as its variants, imply that being poor is like being non-white. Now, if being poor is, in fact, like being non-white, then poor white people are like people of color. Significantly, if poor white people are like people of color, then the concept of white privilege becomes a bit misleading, if not altogether inaccurate. As Part II explains, white privilege refers to advantages that white people are supposed to receive by virtue of the fact that they are white. The concept presupposes that all white people--even the poor ones--have privileges on account of their race. However, if being poor is like being non-white, and if poor white people are like people of color, then it may not make sense to conceptualize poor white people as being privileged relative to people of color. If poor white people's class disadvantage puts them in a social position that is similar to that occupied by people of color, then white privilege may not be something that they enjoy. Further, if white privilege is not enjoyed by poor white people, then it may make little sense to call it white privilege-- inasmuch as white privilege implies that the privilege flows from being a member of the white race. It may make more sense to admit the error involved in the concept of white privilege and come up with a different concept altogether--something like affluent white people's privilege or white class privilege.

For those who believe that white privilege remains a useful concept, it may be important for them to identify the benefits that even the most disenfranchised, disempowered white people possess on account of their race. The task of defending and rehabilitating the concept of white privilege by identifying poor white people's race-based advantages is the goal of this paper. Carrie Buck--the plaintiff at the center of the Supreme Court's 1927 decision Buck v. Bell--provides the foundation for the inquiry.

Part I gives a history of the litigation that culminated in Bell, paying particular attention to the marginalization and disempowerment that Carrie Buck experienced throughout the course of her life.

Part II describes various formulations of white privilege, identifying weaknesses with the most influential iterations of the concept.

Part III analyzes the eugenics movement's relationship to whiteness, describing its overarching interest in purifying and improving the white race.

Part IV engages in the task of identifying the content of Carrie Buck's white privilege, arguing that her racial privilege actually made her vulnerable to the state-sanctioned violence that she experienced. The Article concludes with some reflections on white privilege and outlines the work that those who are interested in racial justice must do in light of the complexity of the concept.

[. . .]

Carrie Buck can teach us a lot about race, power, and white privilege. First, she can teach us that, when possible, it is important to identify with precision the tangible benefits that whiteness has given those in possession of it. That is, it is imperative that we demonstrate, with as much specificity as possible, the role that white privilege has played in the lives of white people--even those who appear to be the most unfortunate. If we believe that the concept of white privilege is useful--and if we believe that it is true--it may not be enough that we simply assert that it exists. If we can, we have to show how it has had material impacts on white people's lives--especially those who are otherwise unprivileged. We might begin by identifying how white privilege has improved the social, cultural, political, and economic landscape of the unemployed residents of the Rust Belt, the families that can no longer rely on coal mining for their income, and the communities in the throes of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.

Second, Carrie Buck teaches us that the techniques of racial domination shift over time. They transform in light of transformed circumstances. In the era of formal inequality, when non-white people could make no claims on the state that the state was obliged to hear, the evidence that non-white people were racially dominated was found in the state being not at all concerned about their reproduction. In this particular context, the state's orientation to non-white people was one of neglect. It did not attempt to manage their reproduction. It did not attempt to regulate it. It certainly did not attempt to improve it. The state left non-white reproduction to its own devices while, at the same time, obsessing over white reproduction.

However, times changed. The Civil Rights Movement happened. Power conceded in the face of a demand. And non-white people became increasingly able to avail themselves of the resources that white people had at their disposal. In light of these altered circumstances--and, specifically, in light of black people's newfound ability to make claims on the welfare state--the techniques of racial domination shifted. In the era of formal equality, racial domination was evidenced by the brutal attention that the state paid to non-white reproduction.

Which is to say: in the pre-civil rights era, non-white people's racial subordination was demonstrated by the state's failure to coercively sterilize them in significant numbers. In the post-civil rights era, non-white people's racial subordination was demonstrated by the state's commitment to coercively sterilizing them in significant numbers.

What does this mean? It means that those of us who are interested in racial justice must always be on the lookout for new mechanisms of racial subordination. It is naïve to expect that the tools that evidenced and maintained the racial hierarchy in the past will continue to be used in the future. Moreover, it means that we should not necessarily celebrate when nonwhite people gain access to the treatment that once had been reserved for white people. Because all white people are not free, being treated like white people is not, as a matter of course, proof of liberation.

Third, Carrie Buck can teach us that white privilege can be a double-edged sword. It was double-edged in the sense that Buck's whiteness made her reproduction an object of interest to eugenicists--pseudoscientists who then conceptualized it as a problem that needed to be solved. And it was double-edged in the sense that it made institutions accessible to her-- institutions that served as pathways to coercive sterilizations.

Professor Darren Hutchinson has offered “multidimensionality” as a framework that can be used to theorize the realities of “individuals who experience intersecting privilege and subordination” poor white women, who are privileged along the axis of race, but unprivileged along the axes of class and gender. He argues that an examination of the experiences of these individuals “complicates the very notions of 'privilege’ and 'subordination.”’ What he means is that, oftentimes, the fact of membership in a privileged group can result in one's subordination. The fact of Carrie Buck's membership in the favored white race had a direct causal relationship to her coerced sterilization. White privilege betrayed her.

There are other examples. Consider native-born, affluent white women's inability to access contraception, abortion, and sterilization during the same period in which Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized. A racist, xenophobic nation was concerned that the fertility of white immigrants was outstripping the fertility of white people who were born in the country. Accordingly, native-born white women were exhorted to reproduce. Contraception, sterilization, and abortion were restricted in an effort to ensure the abundance of their reproduction. In this way, native-born, affluent white women's privilege along the lines of nationality, class, and race subordinated them by making them the targets of pro-natalist measures that virtually guaranteed that constant pregnancy would be their destiny.

That privilege may be a double-edged sword is also true of non-white groups. Consider a more contemporary example. Men are imagined to be privileged relative to women. However, black men are incarcerated at rates that dwarf those of their black female counterparts. Moreover, scholars examining the phenomenon have argued that it is black men's masculinity--their maleness--that has rendered them vulnerable to the muscularly carceral state that the United States has erected. In this context, the privileged status of being male has made scores of black men vulnerable to subordination in the form of incarceration. Their subordination is a product of their gender privilege.

Hutchinson writes that there is an “instability of both privilege and subordination.” Buck's experience, insofar as her racial privilege ended up subordinating her, proves the truth of this. With respect to whiteness specifically, privilege and subordination are unstable because white privilege opens lots of doors--even the ones to unprivileged conditions. White privilege yields access to the opioid prescriptions with which doctors were unwilling to trust non-white people, setting the stage for the present opioid epidemic to decimate white communities across the nation while sparing non-white communities the brunt of the crisis. White privilege allows affluent white parents to refuse to vaccinate their children, setting the stage for the return of diseases in affluent communities that public health scholars had considered eliminated, such as the measles that killed Carrie Buck's daughter.

The lesson here is that white privilege is a dangerous thing--both for those who are unprivileged by virtue of it, as well as for those who possess it. This is just another reason that we all should work to dismantle it. 

Professor of Law and Professor of Anthropology, Boston University.