White Privilege and White Disadvantage

Article — Volume 105, Issue 2

105 Va. L. Rev. 449
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We hear the term “poor people and people of color” regularly. For example, the term frequently pops up in discussions of the criminal justice system. As a case in point, a recent report by The Sentencing Project describes racial disparities in sentencing and criticizes the United States for effectively operating “two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color.” The term also appears in analyses of the ubiquitous presence that the state has in the lives of disempowered populations. In a report published by The Century Foundation, the authors assert that “[w]e do not need a unified theory of privacy to show that . . . marginal communities enjoy far less of it in practice. In some contexts, poor people and people of color have legal rights to privacy, but no means to exercise them.” Variations of the term are also common. For example, a Center for American Progress article, which condemns the Hyde Amendment for making abortion inaccessible to women who cannot afford to pay for the procedure, is titled “How the Hyde Amendment Discriminates Against Poor Women and Women of Color.”

However, the phrase “poor people and people of color,” as well as its variants, should give us pause. These phrases appear to suggest that, in the contexts in which the term is being used, all poor people—including poor white people—are similarly situated to all people of color. They imply that poor white people are as vulnerable to the criminal justice system as are all people of color, that the state surveils and regulates poor white people as vigorously as it surveils and regulates all people of color, and that the Hyde Amendment puts abortion as far out of the reach of poor white women as all women of color.

Simply stated, “poor people and people of color,” as well as its variants, imply that being poor is like being non-white. Now, if being poor is, in fact, like being non-white, then poor white people are like people of color. Significantly, if poor white people are like people of color, then the concept of white privilege becomes a bit misleading, if not altogether inaccurate. As Part II explains, white privilege refers to advantages that white people are supposed to receive by virtue of the fact that they are white. The concept presupposes that all white people—even the poor ones—have privileges on account of their race. However, if being poor is like being non-white, and if poor white people are like people of color, then it may not make sense to conceptualize poor white people as being privileged relative to people of color. If poor white people’s class disadvantage puts them in a social position that is similar to that occupied by people of color, then white privilege may not be something that they enjoy. Further, if white privilege is not enjoyed by poor white people, then it may make little sense to call it white privilege—inasmuch as white privilege implies that the privilege flows from being a member of the white race. It may make more sense to admit the error involved in the concept of white privilege and come up with a different concept altogether—something like affluent white people’s privilege or white class privilege.

For those who believe that white privilege remains a useful concept, it may be important for them to identify the benefits that even the most disenfranchised, disempowered white people possess on account of their race. The task of defending and rehabilitating the concept of white privilege by identifying poor white people’s race-based advantages is the goal of this paper. Carrie Buck—the plaintiff at the center of the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision Buck v. Bell—provides the foundation for the inquiry. Part I gives a history of the litigation that culminated in Bell, paying particular attention to the marginalization and disempowerment that Carrie Buck experienced throughout the course of her life. Part II describes various formulations of white privilege, identifying weaknesses with the most influential iterations of the concept. Part III analyzes the eugenics movement’s relationship to whiteness, describing its overarching interest in purifying and improving the white race. Part IV engages in the task of identifying the content of Carrie Buck’s white privilege, arguing that her racial privilege actually made her vulnerable to the state-sanctioned violence that she experienced. The Article concludes with some reflections on white privilege and outlines the work that those who are interested in racial justice must do in light of the complexity of the concept.

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  Volume 105 / Issue 2  


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