Systemic Racism and White Ignorance: White Privilege

I’ve seen a lot of social media posts from white people saying they have not experienced white privilege.  I have also received scathing letters from relatives explaining all the reasons why white privilege doesn’t apply to them. 

Yet some whites are calling out white privilege and circulating #blacklivesmatter content on social media with a vengeance.

Why do some whites acknowledge white privilege, and others do not?  

Simple: many whites don’t really understand what white privilege is.  So let’s break it down.

I want to start first by providing 5 statements on what white privilege is NOT.

1) white privilege does NOT mean you didn’t work hard for your success, or you didn’t have struggles in your life.

2) white privilege does NOT mean that you were born rich or had anything/everything paid for by your parents

3) white privilege has NOTHING TO DO with how many non-white friends you have or don’t have

4) white privilege has NOTHING TO DO with how you were raised to interact/view non-whites

5) white privilege is NOT a choice, it just IS because of the color of your skin (sucks, huh?). 

Okay, so if it’s none of those things, then what is it?

I’m going to focus this article on numbers because people tend to accept numbers over well educated professionals and personal experiences.  I’m also going to focus on 4 quality of life aspects that I, as a mother of 3, desperately want for my children in America:  1) Health, 2) Wealth, 3) Education, and 4) Freedom to experience 1-3.

The overall US population is key to understanding our racial construct.  According to the 2010 census, approximately 72% of Americans identified themselves as white, and 28% identified as non-white.  All things being “equal” in America, you would expect this population to be reflected similarly across our institutions.  For example, 72% of college graduates could be expected to report as white, 28% report non-white, 72/28 are covered by health insurance, 72/28 are in the average wealth range, 72/28 are incarcerated.  Right?  Let’s explore the facts:

1)  Health, a factor largely influenced by whether or not you have health insurance.

A study conducted by examined health insurance coverage among whites and non-whites aged 0-64, approximately 208 million people in all.  160 million were white, and 48 million were non-white.  This boils down to 77% white, and 23% non-white respectively, fairly comparable to the 2010 census population. 

The total number of uninsured across all races in the study was approximately 33 million.  21 million of those were white, or about 63%, and 12 million, or 37%, were non-white.  A 14% disparity in overall population vs uninsured population.

So how does this factor into white privilege for the total US population?  

Whites insured:  87% 
Non-whites insured:  75% 

Or:  1 in 10 whites are uninsured vs 1 in 4 non-whites.

So.  If you are a white person in America, the likelihood that you will have health insurance is 87%.  If you are non-white, your chances drop to 75%.  This statistical advantage is white privilege.  

In a future blog I will delve deeper into the racial disparities involving the healthcare system, but for now let’s move on to my 2nd Point.

2) Wealth 

A study conducted by Pew Research Center examined the average incomes of whites and non-whites from 1967 to 2014.  In 1967, the median income of white households was $44,700, 45% higher than black household incomes, which were $24,700, and 23% higher than Hispanic incomes which were $34,000. 

Fast forward to 2014:  The average white household income is now $71,300, 40% higher than both black and Hispanic household incomes, which are now equal at $43,300.  

Here’s another way to look at this data:  In 2014, non-white households finally achieved income equality (almost) with white households from 1967. 

That’s right.  Average non-white wealth in 2014 was on par with “equality” 47 years prior

The study also showed that in 2014, only 10% of whites lived below poverty level, whereas approximately 25% of non-whites lived below poverty level.  

Going back to the total US population vs poverty population: 

Whites in poverty:  16 million  
Non-whites in poverty:  24 million 
Total US in poverty:  40 million
% of poverty who are non-white:  60%

60% of Americans in poverty are non-white.  

White Privilege Factor:  White incomes are likely to be 40% higher than non-white neighbors, and whites are 90% likely to live above poverty level. 
Non-whites can expect to be as wealthy as whites living in 1967, and are 75% likely to live above poverty level.  

Also:  1 in 10 whites live in poverty vs 1 in 4 non-whites.  Just like with health coverage.

The Pew Research study also found a significant correlation between college education and wealth across all races.  The higher one’s education, the higher one’s average income was likely to be.  That makes sense given that higher education allegedly translates into higher skilled/higher wage earning jobs.  So let’s look at my 3rd Point, Education of whites/non-whites.

3) Education

A dataset of the 2010 census examined 199.7 million people over the age of 25, 153.7 million white, 46 million non-white.  28% of them reported having a Bachelor’s degree.  About 55 million people total.  Out of these 55 million people with Bachelor’s degrees, 45 million were white, or 82%, and 10 million were non-whites, or 18%.  That’s a 10% disparity from our overall population ratio of 72/28.  Putting this into our total population vs educated population:

Whites with Bachelor’s:  29%
Non-whites with Bachelor’s:  22%

White Privilege Factor:  Whites are 29% likely to complete a Bachelor’s degree by age 25, a 7% statistical advantage over non-whites.

The fact that this disparity isn’t as significant as health or wealth raises several questions about the impact of education, wealth, and race.  What impact does higher education actually have on higher wages?  On the surface, these numbers seem to suggest that even when non-whites do achieve higher education, wealth doesn’t seem to show a significant increase in wealth, nor does it suggest equal income with whites of the same education level.  We’ll explore this deeper in a future blog, but for now, let’s move on to my final comparison:

4) Freedom to exercise 1-3, or incarceration rates. 

In a study conducted by The Sentencing Project in 2016, data reported to the Bureau of Justice found that 35% of prisoners nationwide are white, and 65% are non-white.  Again, let’s look at our overall population ratio 72% white, and 28% non-white.  Somehow our prison system is almost completely inverted, very similar to our poverty stats. 

The study also broke it down further and examined the incarceration rates of whites and non-whites per state, revealing many to have an even higher racial disparity than the national average.  In 11 states, 1 in 20 black Americans over the age of 18 were incarcerated.  In Oklahoma, 1 in 15.  These numbers don’t include other non-whites besides black Americans either, which would further skew these ratios.

How does this factor into white privilege?  Data from reveals the total number of incarcerated adults as of 2010 was 2.2 million.  .8 million were white, and 1.4 million were non-white, out of a total US population of 223 and 85 million respectively.  

Whites incarcerated:  0.35%
Non-whites incarcerated:  1.6% 

White privilege factor:  Non-whites are 4.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. 

I encourage you to read my previous post Systemic Racism and White Ignorance: a Deep-Seated Coexistence, because it explains some of the systemic issues that exist in the justice system which contribute to this skewed ratio, one of them being that non-whites are more likely to be charged than whites for the exact same crime.

In Sum:

White privilege means you automatically have huge statistical advantages over non-whites.  It doesn’t mean you automatically benefit from them, but your chances of doing so far outweigh your non-white counterparts, just because you are white.  

White privilege is not something white people can “opt out” of, it is an automatic advantage that exists because of the systemic racism that has dominated our country’s institutions for centuries.  It’s also not something that most whites consciously choose to capitalize on.  It’s just there.

As Americans, we all want to believe that anyone and everyone has equal opportunity, that all people can succeed if they just try really hard.  And of course that’s true to an extent.  The deeper reality is that non-whites have to try a lot harder. 

White privilege is an inherent expectation of society that whites are born to be successful.  It’s generally perceived as a tragedy when one of them fails.  Something happened to throw them off course.  They weren’t raised right.  They were exposed to bad influences or drugs.  They hung out with the wrong crowd.  They fail by exception.

On the opposite end, the inherent expectation of society for non-whites is that when one succeeds it’s because they worked hard.  They defeated the odds.  Were exceptionally talented.  Left behind their troubled roots.  And when a non-white fails, society doesn’t view it as a tragedy.  It’s just normal.  They succeed by exception.

Or when a non-white is killed by police:  They should have been more respectful.  They should have done what they were told.  They shouldn’t have been there.  They shouldn’t have run.  As if any of these actions warrant capital punishment.

The information I’ve provided in this article in no way addresses the full scope of white privilege in America.  It doesn’t paint the human picture of systemic racism, or what the consequences of these statistics are for the individual lives of non-whites.  

But I hope it presents a starting point to acknowledge the inequalities that persist in our country.  This is not a land of equal opportunity.  Yet. 

Make a stand for change.  Educate yourselves.  Vote.

#Endwhitesilence #Blacklivesmatter

Photo courtesy of @vegan_sloth and @grime_photography

Author: MJ Pankey

MJ is a writer and writing consultant devoted to her muse and to helping other writers gain confidence, overcome obstacles, and unleash the story within. She offers multiple services on her platform,, and creates helpful content for writers on her youtube channel.

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