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Prof. Robert Jensen Discusses Racism, White Supremacy and White Privilege (Part 1)

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers and on websites around the world.

His latest book, 'Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times' (City Lights, 2013), draws on more than two decades of classroom experience and community organizing, and shares strategies on how to challenge "conventional wisdom" in order to courageously confront the crises of our times, and offers a framework for channeling our fears and frustrations into productive analysis that can inform constructive action.

Kathleen Wells: Define racism. People use the word a lot, however, I think they use it inappropriately. Everyone has their own definition. So, let me ask you, what is the definition of racism?

Prof. Robert Jensen: Well, first of all let's talk about, perhaps, what isn't a very good definition of racism. In its simplest form, or I would say, perhaps, most simplistic form, people want to define racism as any time somebody doesn't like somebody else because of some group characteristic. The problem with that definition, of course, is it misses history, it misses economics and it misses politics.

Racism isn't just about disliking people because of the color of their skin or a religious affiliation or an ethnic affiliation or something like that. When we talk about racism we have to talk about its roots in white supremacy. We wouldn't be talking about racism today if it weren't for a white supremacist system. That is a system that defines white as superior, as better, as more deserving.

So racism, that distinct, modern form of racism, flows from what we would call a white supremacist system. Now throughout human history, people have always had a sense of in-group and out-group. In other words, people have always had a sense that they are a member of a clan, a tribe, some sort of grouping and that others are different. That ability for human beings to identify as part of a group is not the same thing as modern racism.

Racism of the last, let's say 500 years, flowing out of Europe, is based on an assertion of white supremacy, white superiority and the right of white people to a disproportionate share of the world's resources. When we talk about race today, we always have to keep that white supremacist system in mind. Otherwise, race just becomes a kind of free-floating term to mean somebody doesn't like somebody, and that's really not what we're talking about.

Kathleen Wells: Yes. When I've had discussions about racism, you will always hear someone say, "Well, you know, I was treated poorly at the restaurant. They just didn't like me, you know." And that's not sufficient when you're using that word, "racism".

Prof. Robert Jensen: Absolutely. And of course, in a system like we live today -- a very racialized system -- even white people can experience, in particular moments, bad treatment from other people because of their race.

So, I'm white: Let's say I go into a predominantly Black or a predominantly Latino part of town in a store in which most of the patrons and the owners are Black or Latino, and I might be treated badly. Now, that's unfortunate. It would be a nice world if everybody was nice to everybody all the time. But that treatment I'm receiving, while unpleasant, maybe even dangerous -- who knows -- is not, I think, adequately described as racism. It's a product of a racist system. It's a result of white supremacy, that sometimes even those of us who are white are treated badly.

But it's not the same thing as the systemic day after day, mistreatment, discrimination, and hatred that is visited upon, not white people but, people with color. And so, I don't want to make light of that because, of course, if you're the person, or even if you're the white person, who's on the receiving end of that negative treatment -- of that impolite, rude, even physically threatening treatment, it doesn't feel very good.

But that's not what we really need to focus on. We need to focus on the nature of the system and then, therefore, the systemic nature of the discrimination that flows from that. And that's really, I think, where white people are quick to want to move the subject away from white supremacy, away from a white supremacist system and talk only about personal experience. Because that's where we white people can really flip the trap and, therefore, avoid the responsibility we have of being in a privileged position in a white supremacist system.

Kathleen Wells: They want to flip the script, they want to talk about their personal experiences as a reflection of, "Oh well, I've experienced racism." And this is some form of denial as to the reality of things.

Prof. Robert Jensen: I think that's very true. Now, let's take the flip side of that: That's white people saying that they've experienced racism. The other way I think white people avoid an honest account in discussion of racism is when we reduce racism only to overtly prejudiced or racist kinds of intentions. Most white people I know, and I'm not just talking about, you know, radicals or liberals or whatever, but most white people in the United States today do not go into situations with the intention of being overtly racist. And therefore, people say, white people often say, "Well, if there was a problem it wasn't my fault because I didn't intend to be a racist in the way that Bull Connor or George Wallace -- pick your favorite overtly white supremacist, Southern bigot from the 1950s acted.

But racism, again, just is not about simply people being treated badly. It's not simply about intentions. One can act in a way that reinforces a white-supremacist system, even though one doesn't have the intention of being a racist.

So, just to make it very personal, I like to think that I do not have the intention of reinforcing white supremacy -- I don't have racist sentiments. I don't go into situations hoping to act in a racist way. But I also know that I do have a position of privilege, I do act in a system based on white supremacy, and there are ways that I contribute to that. Some ways are unconscious, ways I can't see clearly because of my own limitation.

Others are ways I feel trapped because it's just the nature of the institution that I work in, such as a major university, for instance. All of this is complex. None of it can be reduced to simple assertions that one is or isn't racist or one has or does not have racist intentions. It's all about power, systems of power -- it's about economics and economic systems, and how they distribute wealth. Now that's all complicated -- it's messy, and there's no simple answers to it, but the last time I checked there's not a single question in human society that has a simple answer to it.

Kathleen Wells: So it's a sophisticated discussion that we must have. It's not some silly thing the way people just toss around the word racism - they are not fully understanding it.

So in your piece titled, "We Are the Result Of What We Want And What Society Allows", you talk about white privilege. So elaborate on white privilege. And, in fact, in that piece you give two stories, to exemplify white privilege. Can you speak on that?

Prof. Robert Jensen: White privilege is a term that's become fairly common, at least in education and in corporate diversity circles.

White privilege is just a word to recognize that those of us who are white, or frankly, anyone who holds a position of honor and power and privilege in a system, has to take account and be responsible for that. So if in fact we live in a white supremacist system, again, not an overtly racist, Jim Crow, apartheid system, but in a system where the distribution of wealth and power is still very much racialized -- that is, on average, white people are doing better. That institutions, educational institutions, economic institutions, government institutions are still dominated by, not only white people, but white cultural norms. And, that in a system like that, those of us who are white have certain privileges -- we are taken to be the norm. We are taken to be authoritative. We have a certain sort of status. That's all we're talking about when we talk about white privilege.

Again, it takes us out of the realm of looking at an individual and saying is or is not this person a racist, but asking what position does this person hold in society and how should one then make decisions based on that. So, I think that white privilege is an important concept, but only if we recognize that, it makes sense by understanding the white supremacist nature of the larger society.

Now, to understand how white privilege operates, we can look at both the ways it clearly benefits me, but also a way it clearly lead or takes me out of dangerous and threatening situations. So, white privilege has benefits for me both in the positive and in the negative. It gets me things and it keeps me out of trouble in certain ways, and we can talk more about this because I think that the details are very important.

Kathleen Wells: So give me some of the details.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Well, let's just take the latter, the way that white privilege can keep one out of trouble. And the example I want to use is also going to go into class privilege because, of course, we aren't simply racialized human beings. We also occupy a certain place in the distribution of wealth -- we have a class. We are gendered; we have male and female status...

There's all these other things that can play into any particular situation, but let's just take an easy example: I'm white and I live in what we would generally call the middle class. Now, imagine I have a child, (I actually do, but let's keep it hypothetical) and my kid in his high school years is a little wild and ends up going out and getting in trouble, maybe drinking too much, maybe having a little marijuana on him, maybe running a stop sign, maybe getting stopped by the police.

What's going to happen to that kid as he goes into this interaction with law enforcement: white and middle class, driving a certain kind of car, looking a certain way, certain kinds of expectations about that kid.

Well, maybe, the kid is going to get in trouble when that police officer stops him, but maybe the cops are going to cut him a break, maybe they are going to call his parents and give him a break. I've actually seen this play out all sorts of times. White, middle-class parents know there are certain ways they can protect their children, even when their children really mess up.

Alright, let's imagine another situation: An African-American parent living in a lower-class, working-class, poor part of town. That parent's child is stopped. Same situation, very different identity, very different class and racial identity, but what's gonna happen. Is it gonna play out exactly the same with that police officer, is that police officer going to give that young black kid a break? Are they going to call the parents and let the parents take the kid instead?

No, everybody knows that it would likely play out very, very differently. Well, that's white privilege, that means that my kid, going into that situation is going to be spared some of the pain and suffering that comes with making a mistake -- might be given a second chance, might be cut a break. I mean it's such a common example that every listener to this show right now, who is not white, is probably nodding his or her head saying "Yeah, well, of course, that's the way it works," but the privilege comes that white people are often not aware of this. There might be white people listening saying, "Well, that doesn't happen." Well, it does happen. It happens all the time. And that's an example of white privilege.

Kathleen Wells: And the most recent example of this scenario is Trayvon Martin.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Sure.

And even if we don't know all of the details about the Trayvon Martin case, (maybe the facts are still in dispute) that basic pattern is not in dispute. And every young black man, every black parent knows the reality of that situation.

Kathleen Wells: Stats indicate that 70 percent of mass murders are committed by white men. Do you think this has any correlation/connection with white privilege?

Prof. Robert Jensen: Let's start with the "men" part. It is hardly surprising that mass murders are all men, given the way that in contemporary culture the conventional ideals of masculinity are about control, domination, and conquest. That is an ideology of violence, and we see manifestations of it all around us. Why are the men who commit mass murder disproportionately white? My guess is that has something to do with the sense of entitlement that most white people feel. So, when the world doesn't deliver what those men feel they deserve, violence is seen as a reasonable response. Beyond that, I think it's important to recognize just how toxic contemporary culture is, which is reflected in the excessively violent and sexually exploitative mass media. All of this is playing out in an incredibly unhealthy culture.