Sunday, July 24, 2016

How Does White Privilege Pay It Forward?

Let me first say that I don't have an answer, but certain recent events beg the question.  What do recipients of white privilege owe the people whose privileges have been denied?

A few weeks ago, a man who was in the class ahead of mine in high school retired as the head of a foundation that works with non profits. Since the crash in 2008, the number of non profits has grown exponentially. So has the number of business school graduates who want to work in the non profit sector. Each year the foundation he formerly led offers a number of fellowships to MBA students interested in non profit advocacy that include mentorships with non-voting board positions. 

Along with his previous foundation commitments, this exemplary man -- the only Congressional and White House Fellow ever -- is a well-regarded professor at one of our country's finest graduate business schools. As you might expect, he was a star student athlete in high school, and attended top universities for all his undergraduate and graduate degrees. With such a stellar start in life, he has enjoyed a lucrative fifty years, advising top federal and local officials in the corridors of power, a career that would be the dream of any policy wonk, not to mention a Congressman or a Senator. 

But he almost didn't get that chance, because as a high school senior, he did a stupid thing. While on spring vacation, as I recall the story, he blew up a hotel toilet with a cherry bomb. The incident was the talk of our high school. Boy, there's goes his acceptance into one of the top schools in the country. What's he going to do? How do you get out of a mess like that? The buzz went on for days. Then school was out for the summer and nobody heard anything else.

Which means I never learned what happened until years later, after he was appointed to an important post by a famous mayor. The newspapers posted his bio as part of their background story. As it turns out, he got to go to the college of his choice after all. No harm. No foul. Apparently, blowing up a toilet in a hotel on spring vacation isn't grounds for forfeiting a world class education. 

If you're white. 

But there's more. The woman who just took this man's place as head of the foundation, also has a remarkable background. She, too, is white. Given the nature of Tier One graduate business schools, that probably goes without saying, which is part of a larger problem. She was also privileged to attend top schools for her graduate and undergraduate degrees. Along with her position as the new head of the foundation, she is also a professor at the same renowned graduate school along with the aforementioned cherry bomber. In addition, she spent many years as the president/CEO of a very successful museum, brilliantly navigating the difficult waters associated with any non profit institution in a major metropolitan city. By any measure, she has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career. So what's my beef?

Again. White privilege.  

She didn't blow up any toilets, but, her late grandfather was an architect, a profession steeped in white male privilege. He was also a good friend of a former mayor. After entire neighborhoods where black families lived were demolished for reasons that probably had more to do with ethnicity than fairness, the mayor chose his white architect friend to design high rises for all the displaced people [following the requisite bids, I'm sure]. Why build high rises? The short answer is -- because they could. The longer answer? I am going to assume it's because high rises were cheaper and easier than taking the time or money to design a real neighborhood where anyone would want to live. Second, because I'm certain those in charge [white guys in suits] didn't ask what any of the residents, who were black for the most part, would like. Third, white people have a tendency to think they know what's good for everybody. Noblesse oblige, which was invented by Queen Antoinette, dies hard. Granted, living in a high rise means you don't have to hire people to cut the lawn, so, from their frame of reference [say, Kenilworth] I'm sure they thought they were doing a good thing. 

With an unsettling lack of foresight, these high rises became nothing more than warehouses for generations of underserved black families. The afternoon conversations on neighborhood stoops and bbq's on the back porch had been replaced with dark corridors and broken elevators. The gentrification of a large city in the 50's and 60's had created huge areas of de facto segregation intended to keep black families out of the white neighborhoods. With the mayor's blessing. Along with neighborhood redlining sanctioned by our federal government and executed by the rapacious banks, as well as unions that wouldn't hire or train minorities, what chance would you have to improve your circumstances? 

So as near as I can tell, the new head of the foundation had a grandfather who contributed to the utter failure of urban renewal with the same mindset as a plantation owner. I really don't think she has ever given a thought to the impact his high rise developments had on thousands of people who made the mistake of being black or poor. But maybe the time has come. 

And the former head of the foundation has built his entire life's work on a suspicious lack of accountability at a make or break moment. His ass was grass and I firmly believe his white privilege insured the high quality of his life and the low responsibility for his misdemeanor.

For both of these people, the time has come to pay it forward,  Not just by sitting on boards of directors or writing a check, but sharing ideas face to face, providing one on one advice, and spending time with the people they owe. 

Otherwise, the payback could be a bitch. 

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