In college — this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley — I used to be one of those smart-alecky young conservatives who would scoff at the notion of “white male privilege” and claim that anyone propagating such concepts was guilty of “political correctness.” As a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union, I felt it was ridiculous to expect me to atone for the sins of slavery and segregation, to say nothing of the household drudgery and workplace discrimination suffered by women. I wasn’t racist or sexist. (Or so I thought.) I hadn’t discriminated against anyone. (Or so I thought.) My ancestors were not slave owners or lynchers; they were more likely victims of the pogroms.
I saw America as a land of opportunity, not a bastion of racism or sexism. I didn’t even think that I was a “white” person — the catchall category that has been extended to include everyone from a Mayflower descendant to a recently arrived illegal immigrant from Ireland. I was a newcomer to America who was eager to assimilate into this wondrous new society, and I saw its many merits while blinding myself to its dark side.
Well, live and learn. A quarter century is enough time to examine deeply held shibboleths and to see if they comport with reality. In my case, I have concluded that my beliefs were based more on faith than on a critical examination of the evidence. In the last few years, in particular, it has become impossible for me to deny the reality of discrimination, harassment, even violence that people of color and women continue to experience in modern-day America from a power structure that remains for the most part in the hands of straight, white males. People like me, in other words. Whether I realize it or not, I have benefitted from my skin color and my gender — and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it.
This sounds obvious, but it wasn’t clear to me until recently. I have had my consciousness raised. Seriously.
This doesn’t mean that I agree with America’s harshest critics — successors to the New Left of the 1960s who saw this country as an irredeemably fascist state that they called “AmeriKKKa.” Judging by historical standards or those of the rest of the world, America remains admirably free and enlightened. Minorities are not being subject to ethnic cleansing like the Rohingya in Burma. Women are not forced to wear all-enveloping garments as in Saudi Arabia. No one is jailed for criticizing our supreme leader as in Russia.
The country is becoming more aware of oppression and injustice, which have long permeated our society, precisely because of growing agitation to do something about it. Those are painful but necessary steps toward creating a more equal and just society. But we are not there yet, and it is wrong to pretend otherwise. It is even more pernicious to cling to the conceit, so popular among Donald Trump’s supporters, that straight white men are the “true” victims because their unquestioned position of privilege is now being challenged by uppity women, gay people, and people of color.
I used to take a reflexively pro-police view of arguments over alleged police misconduct, thinking that cops were getting a bum rap for doing a tough, dangerous job. I still have admiration for the vast majority of police officers, but there is no denying that some are guilty of mistreating the people they are supposed to serve. Not all the victims of police misconduct are minorities — witness a blonde Australian woman shot to death by a Minneapolis police officer after she called 911, or an unarmed white man shot to death by a Mesa, Arizona, officer while crawling down a hotel hallway — but a disproportionate share are.
The videos do not lie. One after another, we have seen the horrifying evidence on film of cops arresting, beating, even shooting black people who were doing absolutely nothing wrong or were stopped for trivial misconduct. For African-Americans, and in particular African-American men, infractions like jaywalking or speeding or selling cigarettes without tax stamps can incite corporal, or even capital, punishment without benefit of judge or jury. African-Americans have long talked about being stopped for “driving while black.” I am ashamed to admit I did not realize what a serious and common problem this was until the videotaped evidence emerged. The iPhone may well have done more to expose racism in modern-day America than the NAACP.
Of course, the problem is not limited to the police; they merely reflect the racism of our society, which is not as severe as it used to be but remains real enough. I realized how entrenched this problem remains when an African-American friend — a well-educated, well-paid, well-dressed woman — confessed that she did not want to walk into a department store carrying in her purse a pair of jeans that she planned to give to a friend later in the day. Why not? Because she was afraid that she would be accused of shoplifting! This is not something that would occur to me, simply because the same suspicion would not attach to a middle-aged, middle-class white man.
The larger problem of racism in our society was made evident in Donald Trump’s election, despite — or because of — his willingness to dog-whistle toward white nationalists with his pervasive bashing of Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities. Trump even tried to delegitimize the first African-American president by claiming he wasn’t born in this country, and now he goes after African-American football players who kneel during the playing of the anthem to protest police brutality. (Far from being concerned about police misconduct, which disproportionately targets people of color, Trump actively encourages it.)
Adam Serwer argues persuasively in the Atlantic that Trump’s election could not be explained by “economic anxiety,” because the poorest voters — those making less than $50,000 a year — voted predominantly for Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, “Trump defeated Clinton among white voters in every income category,” from those making less than $30,000 to those making more than $250,000. In other words, Serwer writes, Trump does not lead a “working-class coalition; it is a nationalist one.” That doesn’t mean that every Trump supporter is a racist; it does mean that Trump’s victory has revealed that racism and xenophobia are more widespread than I had previously realized.
As for sexism, its scope has been made plain by the horrifying revelations of widespread harassment, assault, and even rape perpetrated by powerful men from Hollywood to Washington. The Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened the floodgates, leading to the naming and shaming of a growing list of rich and powerful men — including Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, and John Conyers — who are alleged to have abused their positions of authority to force themselves upon women or, in some cases, men.
As with the revelations of police brutality, so too with sexual harassment: I am embarrassed and ashamed that I did not understand how bad the problem is. I had certainly gotten some hints from my female friends of the kind of harassment they have endured, but I never had any idea it was this bad or this common — or this tolerated. Even now, while other men are being fired for their misconduct, Trump continues to sit in the Oval Office despite credible allegations of sexual assault from nearly 20 different women.
I now realize something I should have learned long ago: that feminist activists had a fair point when they denounced the “patriarchy” for oppressing women. Sadly, this oppression, while less severe than it used to be, remains a major problem in spite of the impressive strides the U.S. has taken toward greater gender equality.
This doesn’t mean that I am about to join the academic political correctness brigade in protesting “microaggressions” and agitating against free speech. I remain a classical liberal, and I am disturbed by attempts to infringe on freedom of speech in the name in fighting racism, sexism, or other ills. But I no longer think, as I once did, that “political correctness” is a bigger threat than the underlying racism and sexism that continue to disfigure our society decades after the civil rights and women’s rights movements. If the Trump era teaches us anything, it is how far we still have to go to realize the “unalienable Rights” of all Americans to enjoy “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, or skin color.