The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘White privilege’ just made an appearance in the presidential race. It’s about time.

On Jan. 11, a Drake University junior posed the question, "Can you tell us what the term 'white privilege' means to you?" to Hillary Clinton. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Charlie Neibergall/Reuters)
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In the final stretch of  Fusion's Iowa Brown and Black Forum held at Drake University on Monday night, a Drake junior stood and posed a question to Democratic presidential primary front-runner Hillary Clinton. It wasn't long, but boy did it produce quite an answer.

"Secretary Clinton, can you tell us what the term 'white privilege' means to you, and can you give me an example from your life or career when you think you have benefited from it," Thalia Anguiano asked.

"Look where do I start?" Clinton said, after the audience stopped applauding Anguiano's question. It generated the single biggest audience response of the entire night.

Anguiano's question may have struck some of the people who heard it as another one of those moments some young, idealistic college student went on about American equality and opportunity. But, in truth, a lot of the domestic policy prescriptions candidates offer during any election and the choices that voters make between them stem from the way Americans view this seemingly obscure term. White privilege, particularly in the 2016 race, really is a central political question.

Now, before we lay out Clinton's answer and why it really matters, let us set the stage just a bit. Iowa is home to the nation's first presidential primary season contest, slated for Feb. 1. Iowa is also one of the whitest states in the country. That's also true about the next primary's location, New Hampshire. So there are a whole range of topics on which presidential primary candidates are rarely pressed that matter a great deal to large and growing segments of America. The Brown and Black Forum, established by a pair of Iowa activists in the late 1980s, aims to inject the concerns of voters of color into the presidential race.

From the start, Fusion/Univision anchor Jorge Ramos went into some detail about the terms on which this forum occurred. Ramos disclosed the fact that his daughter works on the Clinton campaign. (But he did not mention that a similar Republican candidate forum was contemplated, then scuttled due to reported scheduling conflicts.)

There was indeed a lot covered during the Fusion forum that really has not been covered elsewhere.

Sanders (his sit-down runs from about the 11:31 mark to 41:10 in the video above) didn't get some kind of easy, softball question start. There was a question about his positions on gun control, then another that prompted Sanders to identify what he would say to white students who think that affirmative action policies in higher education unfairly damp their college enrollment prospects. Then came a discussion about vast disparities in the quality of public schools attended by white and most non-white K-12 students, Sanders's ideas on universal free college education, federal funding for abstinence-only sex education, the economic feasibility of his mega-bank break-up ideas, guest worker programs and the risk of exploitation, marijuana legalization and the aggressive policing of petty and nonviolent drug crimes.

There was a question about police union contract provisions that systematically shield sometimes illegal activity from public view, and Sanders's foreign-language skills. There was even a tongue-in-cheek question about the seeming contradiction of a democratic socialist moving into the relatively opulent White House. And there were questions about whether the country is making more rapid progress on sexism or racism and what level of income makes an American rich.


Next up was Martin O'Malley, the third-place candidate in the Democratic contest who may or may not have the poll standing to appear in a Democratic primary debate on Sunday. O'Malley plowed through questions ranging from the absence of racial or ethnic diversity in the Democratic presidential field, the largely white composition of his own campaign staff, the idea of imposing fines on colleges and universities that fail to report sexual assault cases to law enforcement and what can be done to make women feel more comfortable reporting alleged sexual assaults and other crimes. There were questions about whether for-profit colleges found to have engaged in predatory practices should continue to have access to certain federal financial aid, the sustainability and fiscal health of the Social Security system, unemployment and its uneven demographic toll and the escape prospects of "El Chapo."

Take another deep breath. Are you sensing the pattern here yet?

Finally there was Clinton (her conversation begins around the 1:23:00 mark). Questions from the panel of moderators and students included what promises Clinton would make regarding her administration's deportation policies and practices, what specific reforms would be necessary to truly assure that black lives are valued in the United States, would she support a repeal of a law banning the use of federal funds for abortions, whether young women are truly complacent about the political struggle for safe and legal abortions (as DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has said), and how large a threat white-nationalist domestic terrorism and violence pose. Then there was a question about violence and guns.

Then came Anguiano's white privilege inquiry. This is the key part of what Clinton said in response:

I was born white, middle class in the middle of America. ... I never really knew what was or wasn't part of the privilege. I just knew that I was a lucky person. ... But I'll tell you, when I first realized that I was privileged, both because I was white and because I was economically stable. ... Our church asked if some of us if we would volunteer to baby-sit for the children of migrant [farm] workers because the families [parents] had to go into the fields to work and the older kids had to go with them and there was nobody left to watch the little kids. And I and a couple of my friends volunteered. ... These kids and their families they have to work so hard and the place where they live isn't very nice and I just felt you know I have a different kind of life. I didn't call it a particular name, but I just felt that it was a different kind of life.

Here's what that boils down to: An 11-year-old Clinton could see that hard work in one family was exceedingly unlikely to produce the same social, health and economic conditions that were essential to the life Clinton then built for herself.

Now, "white privilege" is one of those terms — like 'intersectionality," "rape culture" and the much-talked about "microaggression" — that have escaped the academy and entered the mainstream. They are approaching widespread use among young people on the political left, due in large part to the sincere efforts of activists and academics who provide some kind of language to discuss and draw attention to issues that shape American life. They are also terms that many Americans not only don't really know but also instinctively don't trust or believe to be real. And the complexity and rarified nature of those words sometimes becomes the subject of distracting discussion when simple, clear language might have done more to advance a substantive debate.

So, had that question been put to a substantial share of candidates seeking the White House in either party's contest, you can and should anticipate that there would have been some grimacing, some falling back on shop-worn ideas and some politically themed preaching about race and opportunity and hard work. To her credit, Clinton's answer reflected some kind of sincere reflection on the concept of white privilege in a long-ago and far-away portion of her life. We'll go ahead and note here that she certainly didn't make mention of anything that's happened in her life in the past decade. But she did answer and seem to have some grasp of the concept that white privilege is real.

What? Yes. Really. Look over the data on housing, health care, school quality, college completion, wages, discriminatory lending. We really could go on and on. Then think with some care about what your own group's standing in that data has made harder or easier in your life, what it has made possible, what it allowed you to dream of, achieve with hard work and what came your way almost out of the ether without effort at all.

Then think about those who exist on the other side of those statistical divides. Consider reading and debating works by economists such as Darrick Hamilton, Roland G. Fryer Jr., William Darity and Algernon Austin. Read a little about the findings of the Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman, sociologist Nancy DiTomaso and Deirdre Royster, an economic sociologist. Every American has a right to their own opinion. But it should be informed. This is a legitimate political issue — and one that is very relevant to our time.

The extent to which one denies or downplays the very existence of white privilege — or other less-expansive and consistent forms of privilege that also exist because of who we are and not simply what we do or are capable of doing — really shapes how most Americans vote. Think on it. The policy prescriptions you believe the nation needs have a connection to this seemingly obscure but really central idea: Should who we are really dictate who we are most likely to become? For some reason, it took Thalia Anguiano, Drake junior, and the Iowa Brown Black Forum to illuminate that.