The Privilege Game

In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well:  The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.

It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.

On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.

On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.

By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.

What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?

To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.

Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.

Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.

Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.

And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.

But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”

You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “The Privilege Game”

Good morning Scot. I am happy to see you publishing this blog. I agree that the “powers that be” constantly create new divisions for us to embrace so we continue to fight against our own interests. Your points about “good” and “bad” immigrants are excellent examples. I think we must remember that WE choose to believe and participate in the perpetuation of those negative categories. Also, it is time to eliminate the racial dynamics that play out between/among people of color that keep us from working together to our collective benefit. We who have worked together across all kinds of differences can be misled into thinking there is more unity between racial/ethnic groups than actually exists. I find some things said by members of my own racial group about other people of color, amazingly bigoted. While I address it when it happens, I think it means those people just don’t say it to me any more. Now is a time to talk more about class and how that plays into the divisiveness WE ALLOW TO OCCUR. We are not helpless before the psychological tactics of the ruling class. Eliminating white supremacy is only a part of the struggle and if we focus only on this, I will have to agree with Derrick Bell, remembering that he is arguing from a polarized (black-white) position. I believe the dynamic is much more fluid in its complexity and we must continue the work of resisting by broadening the analysis. Hugs Kathleen

I actually read an article after the 2010 census results came out that said since there were such large numbers of people in 2010 who identified as “white” and “hispanic” the US census was considering moving those numbers under the larger, generic “white” umbrella. Going the way of the Irish…

* applause*

The more I read about White conservatives racial strategies,the more idiotic they are. Ok, just about every race can as my mom would say ” go with the White man” except Black people. One minute, the GOP are putting them down on national TV, and now they want them to be ally with them?

We all know why this White privilege stuff is taking place: to keep White society empowered by using this to destroy their own communities. I mean, the GOP are seriously mentally ill and I’m not saying that lightly. One minute, Latinos are supposed pariahs to North American society, then tell them ” it’s all good, you can come with us”. They are beyond crazy. It can be mind boggling for people who may not get the immediate messages from it,but it makes no sense at all no matter how they put it.

If there is anything that I’ve learned about White conservatives is that he isn’t a bit interested in letting people keeping and respecting their cultures. They are looking for people to use. That is White privilege will do to unsuspecting minorities. The message of White conservatives are obvious and condescending. It remind me of what is happening with Arabs/Arab-Americans. They too, are classified as ” White”, yet whether they are Christian, Muslim or unaffiliated with any religion, but when 9/11 came up, the White man reminded them that ‘ they’re not White.

I see White privilege as a set up for minorities to be made fools out of themselves. It’s all good if you come close to physically looking like them, not call them out, or make money for them. Just as long as they have things their way, they will be ” good” to you.

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