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The Persistence of White Privilege

December 16th, 2008 (12:25 pm)
disappointed

current mood: disappointed

Many people may be tempted to say that with the election of a black President, the United States has magically turned a corner and made racism go away. But this is far from the truth. And it's worse than just some hypothetical fringe who hold racist attitudes or subtle racism that permeates our daily life. There are in fact areas of our society that are still dominated by "good ol' boy networks" and deeply ingrained institutional racism that inflicts serious harm on minorities.

Take college football. The behemoth that is Division I-A college football (the major leagues if you will) encompasses 11 different conferences and well over 100 teams. In this entire huge landscape--which, let's remember, makes untold millions from the successes of minority student athletes--there are a grand total of four black head coaches. When you look at the six elite conferences that make up the sport's Bowl Championship Series (the Big East, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Southeastern, Big Twelve, and Pacific Ten), there is a grand total of one black head coach--Miami's Randy Shannon.

As a case in point, let's look at Turner Gill, a former African-American star quarterback at Nebraska who led his team to a 28-2 record in three seasons and was a 1983 Heisman Trophy finalist. He also won numerous awards relating to character and leadership. After a series of lower-profile entry-level coaching jobs, Gill returned to Nebraska where he spent 11 years coaching quarterbacks and another coaching wide receivers. Gill's tenure as a Nebraska assistant included elite nationally ranked teams, superb offenses, and players contending for the Heisman Trophy, including 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch. In 2005, Gill joined the staff of the Green Bay Packers where he helped coach offensive players and helped former college players in making the transition to the NFL.

None of this was good enough for numerous head coaching vacancies, including the vacancy at his alma mater, Nebraska, for which he was passed over. The only head coaching job he was able to get was at the State University of New York at Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference, which had only been playing Division I-A football since 1999, during which time they had a record of 10-69. The program had very little history and practically no money or resources. Buffalo was arguably one of the worst jobs in college football, the place careers go to die. In three years, Coach Gill turned the team around, leading Buffalo to this year's MAC championship with an upset victory over Ball State, which had been undefeated and ranked number 12 in the nation going into the MAC championship game.

With this kind of resume, you'd think at this point that Turner Gill would be able to get a major head coaching job somewhere. But nope, you'd be wrong. Even the miracle he engineered at Buffalo (on top of a stellar career even before that) was not good enough. Not good enough for Kansas State, who hired a former coach they had fired a few years ago. Not good enough for Clemson, who hired Dabo Swinney, who has no experience as a head coach or even as a coordinator. Not good enough for Mississippi State, who hired Dan Mullen, also someone with no head coaching experience. Not good enough for Syracuse. Not good enough for Tennessee. Not good enough for Washington.

And not good enough for Auburn. Auburn actually granted Turner Gill an interview and then decided to hire Gene Chizik, who had spent two years as the coach at Iowa State. Chizik's record during those two years? Five wins and 19 losses. But Auburn said Chizik was "the right fit" for the program. Meaning what, exactly? Well, turns out that Chizik has an "understanding" of the expectations at Auburn. These are apparently very difficult to understand for mere mortals, requiring special insider knowledge to truly grasp. Auburn wants to beat Alabama every year, play in SEC title games and BCS bowl games, and contend for national championships. Those are the "expectations". Really complicated stuff here.

But see, Gene Chizik is a white guy. And Turner Gill is an African-American who is married to a white woman--factors that caused him to doubt his chances of landing the Auburn job from the beginning of the process. Not because he lacks confidence in his own abilities, because you don't become a star college quarterback and successful football coach if you don't have confidence in your own abilities. But like many successful African-Americans, Turner Gill likely understood from simple experience and observation that good ol' boy networks don't hire people based on their abilities or even their history of real results.

This is what white privilege is all about. White privilege is what allows mediocre white people to continue to get ahead while minorities who work hard and demonstrate a commitment to excellence have to face the reality that in spite of their abilities, there is a limit to their success. White privilege is what puts the lie to the notion that in America anyone can work hard and achieve dreams that are only limited by one's imagination and determination to succeed. Sure, that's the kind of country we would like to be. That's the kind of country we try to pretend that we are. But it's not really true.

It's not true because so many institutions are still dominated by good ol' boy networks that haven't so much done away with the "Whites Only" signs, but have merely dressed them up a bit so as to not be so visible. It's not true because women still earn 70 cents on the dollar. It's not true because gays and lesbians, in most places, still can't enter into relationships that enjoy that fundamental American right of "equality under the law". It's not true because so many people because of their race or gender or sexual orientation or gender identity or socioeconomic position can't even enjoy the freedom to walk the streets of their neighborhoods without putting their safety or even their lives at risk.

Above all, it's not true because so many members of privileged groups refuse to look at the everyday reality of so many of their fellow Americans simply because they themselves are insulated by their privilege from ever having to experience that reality. There are entirely too many people who refuse to acknowledge the truth that discrimination affects every one of us. It prevents us being the kind of country we're capable of being. It prevents us from striving for higher standards and from setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. And yes, in so many cases, it lessens our potential for economic growth, to say nothing of our potential to be a truly moral and decent society.