The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Acknowledging the privilege we got at birth

Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass. (Library of Congress/AP)
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Michael Gerson, in his Nov. 9 op-ed, “To teach on the subject of U.S. racism, turn to Frederick Douglass,” wrote, “I should have been taught as a child (but was not) that my monochrome suburban life was not a natural or neutral condition. It was constructed by generations of laws and rules that surrounded me with working institutions and segregated the community in which I lived.” This epiphanic insight effectively describes the privileged structures to which most White people in the United States were born and feel, understandably, entitled to. But Mr. Gerson, whose thoughtful writing and erudition I admire, did not apply the term “privileged” to the structures he so helpfully described.

For what are probably very complex psychological reasons, White people who sincerely reject racism also seem surprisingly resistant to acknowledging the privilege they were born into. That needs to change. The unasked-for and perhaps unperceived privilege most Whites reliably benefit from is the sine qua non that supports the systemic racism we need to root out and permanently eradicate. It appears that will be a tough slog.

 It would be enormously helpful if the morally upright and wonderfully capable White writers would turn their talents to owning, addressing and explaining this central issue. Innumerable Black American scholars, philosophers, orators and writers have been calling attention to this central problem since, at least, the end of Reconstruction. But the privilege is not theirs. The responsibility for solving this problem is ours.

Norman E. D’Amours, Arlington