Last week, my wife and I took a walk through our middle class, white neighborhood in the cool of the evening. The streets lights were coming on as we walked and my wife remarked, “You realize it would be dangerous for Ella (who is our black daughter) to do what we’re doing right now. First, because she is a woman and second because she is a black.” We walked on in silence as we both struggled with the unfairness of that. I was confronted by something of which I am usually oblivious – my entitlement as a white American man.
I was not taught to see myself this way. A sense of entitlement was the negative characteristic of others, of the welfare queens, those black women living large off the government dime. Growing up, I was told of able bodied black men collecting government checks, of black parents selling their food stamps for drugs and of how entitlement programs were primarily handouts for people of color. Good, hard working white people were bankrolling their laziness and luxury.
Then, as an adult, I moved to the city and discovered the truth – no one lives large on welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. The people I met who used these programs – most of whom were white – only used them as a last resort. What they received was barely enough to survive. For those with no alternative, the application for this assistance was difficult, demeaning and time consuming. What I had been taught about entitled minorities simply wasn’t true.
For many years, I thought my teachers ill-informed. Today, I realize – whether they knew or not – they were articulating a racist defense of their own entitlement. They had accepted a derogatory and inflammatory narrative about black people that allowed them to think well of themselves in comparison. Condemning these programs and the people who used them allowed white people to label people of color as greedy, lazy, dishonest and criminal. When challenged, they could pretend their animosity was for the programs and not for people of color.
While this racist subterfuge is ugly, it is also a deflection from one of the more damning truths about American society. American society is and has always been a program of white entitlement. From the moment white men landed at Plymouth Rock, they have considered it their manifest destiny to possess, exploit, abuse and monopolize all that they encountered. Indeed, there may be no more entitled group of people on the planet than white American men like me. Consider our history…
White American men like me felt entitled to take the land from people of color who already lived on this continent. They felt entitled to kill those who resisted them. They felt entitled to break every treaty they signed with the native Americans. Adding insult to injury, they justified this brutality and dishonesty by labeling these people of color as savages.
White American men like me felt entitled to own people of color. They felt entitled to buy and sell other human beings. They felt entitled to collecting the fruits of their back breaking labor for hundreds of years while they cultivated the myth of the American gentleman, sipping lemonade from their plantation verandas. They felt entitled to whip, torture, rape and brutalize their slave laborers. When slavery ended, they felt entitled to all the wealth created by those they had unjustly imprisoned and exploited. Audaciously, the descendants of these men continue to imply black people are greedy and lazy.
White American men like me, even after the horrors of slavery, felt entitled to deference from people of color. They felt entitled to separate and unequal social amenities and societal benefits. They felt entitled to harm, rob or even kill those people of color who forgot their inferior station. They felt entitled to lynch any person of color who challenged this brazen injustice. While they did little to earn it, they felt entitled to the respect of people of color, expecting to be treated as superiors.
White American men like me felt entitled to government support for all of their endeavors. They felt entitled to the vote, political office, land grants, farmsteads, the New Deal, the GI Bill, federally subsidized housing loans, farm subsidies and mortgage deductions. In each and every one of these government programs, white men were the chief recipient of government largesse. In most circumstances, the rules of qualification were intentionally designed to exclude people of color. Ironically, after generations of advantage, it is men of my skin color who are most offended by affirmative action.
White American men like me continue to defend their entitlement. When their injustices are challenged by people of color, they suggest they “go back to Africa” as if white people are the true native Americans. When they see non-white countries prospering, they complain that people of color are taking away “their jobs” as if they alone are entitled to prosperity. When people of color argue that “black lives matter, they demand that “all lives matter” as if they actually believe everyone is entitled to what they’ve possessed. When people of color rail against wealth and income gaps, they justify their monopolies and networks by labeling those who make less as greedy, lazy and incompetent.
Sadly, most white American men like me do this almost reflexively. Like my walk through my neighborhood, they walk through society without any recognition of all the rights and opportunities extended to them and them alone. Indeed, at even the slightest critique, they quickly complain of injustice. There may be nothing more absurd in our world than the white American male playing the victim.
I am ashamed of white American men like me. As much as I want to see myself as different than the generations of white men before me, to understand their behavior as something abhorrent, I suspect we have more in common than I’d like to admit. They are my ancestors. I am their prodigy. Every day I benefit from our shared privilege without any awareness, embarrassment or guilt.
How could I?
I am a white American male.
I am entitled.