maintaining privilege

Those who benefit from systems of privilege and oppression must work constantly to maintain them, since there are so many people out there working constantly to dismantle them. A few examples of efforts to maintain these systems, albeit with relatively minor gestures, jumped out at me in the last few days.

As Think Progress reports, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) was on Fox News this week to discuss his refusal to attend an annual seasonal parade in Tulsa because organizers had decided to replace the word “Christmas” in the title with “Holiday,” now calling it the “Holiday Parade of Lights.”  Although Inhofe had participated in the parade for 30 years, he sees this name change as enough of a reason to stay home.

During the interview, Inhofe states, “I think there are a lot people of other faiths who wonder also, why do they always pick on the Christians?” (you can watch a video at the link above). I do understand how it feels when one’s privilege is threatened, but trying to pass one’s own concern off on “a lot of people of other faiths” is pretty offensive, especially given the history of oppression and aggression committed by people in the name of Christianity.

To whom is Inhofe referring when he says “they” pick on Christians? In an earlier statement, he said, “Last year, the forces of political correctness removed the word ‘Christmas’ and replaced it with ‘Holiday’ instead” (emphasis mine). Invoking the fictional “forces of political correctness” provides a convenient boogeyman and deflects attention from the real reason for the change: an attempt to recognize the existence of people who aren’t Christian. Think Progress quotes Tulsa mayor Dewey Bartlett as saying, “If it was up to me, I’d call it a Christmas parade, but I also understand that we have a diverse community, and I’m sensitive to the importance of the many cultures and traditions that make up our city.” So there we have a nice example of someone who has a personal preference based on his personal beliefs, but is able to put that aside out of consideration of a whole city full of people who may feel differently than he does.

The second example is interesting in that the advocate for the privileged group maintaining its supremacy does not actually belong to that group. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville addresses an editorial by Mona Charen, who argues that we should keep the SATs as a tool to determine who deserves to go to college not because is it an effective measure of readiness or predictor of success (Charen herself admits it is neither), but because it gives boys an advantage over girls, statistically. Charen claims,

“Something is going on. It may be the significant attention the educational establishment has lavished on girls, the lure of video games, the lack of fathers in so many homes, the fact that boys mature more slowly than girls, or maybe none of those. But we do know that whatever may be inhibiting them from excelling in high school as much as girls, boys do score proportionately better on the SATs.”

McEwan responds, “Charen is right that ‘something is going on.’ But what is going on is not video games or absentee fathers, but the erosion of white male privilege, meaning that young white men are having to rely on something more than a birthright to achieve some measure of proportional individual success” (emphasis mine).

I’m glad that McEwan pointed out that this is an issue not just of male privilege, but specifically of white male privilege. I think it’s fair to assume that a lot of people who would support Charen’s position regarding the SATs would not support colleges giving weight to a test that statistically advantages young African-American men, a seriously disadvantaged group within our educational system. In fact, according to this piece in the New York Times, “[On the SATs] African-American boys scored, on average, 104 points lower in critical reasoning [than white boys]…The gap is 120 points in mathematics and 99 points in writing.”

It’s noteworthy that Charen breaks down the difference in SAT scores differently, pointing not to an overall advantage held by boys over girls, but to the percentage of students who had extremely high scores and are male: “In 2010, a total of 382 students scored a perfect 2400. Of these, 206 were boys, and 176 were girls. (If the writing test is omitted, 1,305 students got a 1600 — 820 boys and 485 girls.) Among those who scored a 2350, 341 were boys, and 266 were girls. The same rough ratios hold (with one exception) for all of the scores in the top 10 percentiles. At the 90th percentile and below, some of the girls’ scores are higher than the boys’. And in the middle range, it’s a mixed bag.”

Of all those high-scoring boys Charen points to, what percentage do you think are white? I’d bet that Charen’s method effectively buries the disadvantage that African-American boys have compared to white boys, since they’re more likely to be concentrated in the “mixed bag” of the middle range of scores. What percentage of those high-scoring boys come from wealthy families? Charen admits earlier in her article that “it is the case that children of college-educated (and graduate degreed) parents walk away with the best scores. Everyone else is found wanting.”

So Charen isn’t actually advocating for an unfair advantage to be returned to all boys, just the economically-privileged white ones. What stake does she have in this? In her own words, “Cards on the table: I write as a parent of three boys.” Clearly those who benefit from systems of privilege and oppression, and therefore have reasons to try to maintain them, don’t have to belong to the dominant group themselves.

In the grand scheme of things, the name of a parade and the retention of just one method that colleges use to select students for admission are pretty minor concerns. That’s exactly the point. For people who have a stake in maintaining systems of privilege and oppression, issues like these are important because they show that those who want to dismantle the systems are making progress, in small but steady steps.

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