In January of 2020, conservative media company Prager University published a video by a Black former police officer named Brandon Tatum who argued against the reality of white privilege. Following the death of George Floyd and the national reckoning with America’s racist past that followed it, Tatum’s video or various copy-pasted text transcripts of it described as an “open letter,” became increasingly popular fodder for conservative social media.
The Prager University video casts doubt on the concept of white privilege, which is, in simple terms, the notion that being born white in America provides benefits inherently unavailable to Black Americans — by taking Tatum’s experience as representative of the Black experience in America. In essence, it offers the notion that, because Tatum’s race did not provide any barrier to his successes, white privilege must not be real:
In this post, we highlight the historical basis behind and empirical evidence for white privilege, and answer questions Tatum raised in the video.
Who is Brandon Tatum, and Where Did He Come From?
Tatum is a former Tucson, Arizona, police officer. He became internet famous for a viral video about a campaign rally for U.S. President Donald Trump in early 2016, which he attended as a civilian. Following the rally, he argued in the video that he felt unsafe — not because of Trump supporters, but because of those who protested the event. He went viral a second time in September 2017 for a video where he expressed his opposition to players taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL football games.
He resigned from the Tucson Police Department in October 2017 to join Liftable Media — a conservative content producer that owns and operates The Western Journal and The Conservative Tribune. He then served, based on his LinkedIn profile, as director of urban engagement for the conservative action group TurningPointUSA before founding his own media company in late 2019. He continues to provide commentary on current events — a recent video argues that police officers were justified in killing Rayshard Brooks — as well as to other organizations, including Prager University.
Below, we take on Tatum’s points, one-by-one.
What Is ‘White Privilege’?
In the video, Tatum asks, “What is ‘white privilege’ anyway? Because you were born with white skin, you have all these advantages that I don’t have?” In brief, yes. These “advantages,” however, have to be explained in their historical context. In The Root, Michael Harriot argued that the concept of “white privilege” has been nebulously defined and, as a result, misrepresented.
“Instead of using it as a touchy-feely phrase that gives white people the heebie-jeebies because it conjures up images of Caucasians sitting on plantation porches drinking mint juleps while they watch the Negroes toil in the Southern sun,” Harriot wrote, “We should use it as a proper noun, with a clear definition.” He proposed his own: “the quantitative advantage of whiteness.” He compared the whole of American history to a relay race in which whites got to start at the gun, while Black Americans had to remain in the starting blocks “until they were allowed to run.”
Like the distance between runners in a race, Harriot argued, the advantage of whiteness is quantifiable — seen in indicators as varied as Black American’s reduced access to high quality education compared to white Americans, their reduced likelihood of receiving a job offer compared to an equally qualified white candidate, their reduced compensation compared to whites for the same work, and higher costs of living for Black communities compared to white ones. In The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi framed white privilege as “the relative advantages racism affords to people identified as white,” writing:
To be white is to be afforded one’s individuality. Afforded the presumption of innocence. Afforded the assumption of intelligence. Afforded empathy when crying or raging. Afforded disproportionate amounts of policy-making power. Afforded opportunity from a white network. Afforded wealth-building homes and resource-rich schools. Afforded the ability to vote quickly and easily.
The inverse of white privilege is black deprivation. … Black individuals are deprived of their individuality. Deprived of the presumption of innocence. Deprived of the assumption of intelligence. Deprived of empathy when crying or raging. Deprived of proportionate amounts of policy-making power. Deprived of the white networks where opportunities are exchanged. Deprived of wealth-building homes and resource-rich schools. Deprived of shorter voting lines during major elections.
Crucially — and uniquely for Black America compared to other marginalized groups — these disparities have their roots in the racist policies, laws, and philosophies that codified and legitimized white supremacy both before — and well after — the abolition of slavery.
You Can Get a Mortgage Loan That I Can’t Get?
There may well be no better area of American history to use a case study into the historic, generational effects underpinning white privilege than the history of housing and lending to Black Americans. In his video, Tatum uses the fact that he received a home loan with a good rate as evidence against the existence of white privilege. “Why would a banker not give a loan to someone who met the loan requirements? He doesn’t want to make money? I’ve never heard of such a banker,” he said.
In reality, Tatum would not have to look all that far into the past to hear of such a banker. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained that from “the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market.” This was largely due to the fact that, quite literally, Black people were intentionally excluded from receiving federally insured housing loans through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an agency created as part of FDR’s New Deal:
The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance.
Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.
These redlined neighborhoods, though, were in most cases an artifact of intentional policies and campaigns imposed on Blacks during the Jim Crow and segregation eras to enforce white supremacy. Writing for the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project, Historian Kevin Kruse explained:
For much of the nation’s history, the campaign to keep African-Americans “in their place” socially and politically manifested itself in an effort to keep them quite literally in one place or another. Before the Civil War, white masters kept enslaved African-Americans close at hand to coerce their labor and guard against revolts. But with the abolition of slavery, the spatial relationship was reversed. Once they had no need to keep constant watch over African-Americans, whites wanted them out of sight. Civic planners pushed them into ghettos, and the segregation we know today became the rule.
Because home ownership has traditionally been the primary way to build equity for American families, the effect of these policies carried far past their termination in the 1960s. Indeed, the effects continue to this day. In their 1995 book, “Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality,” Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas Shapiro explained how being shut out of the housing market created a “self-fulfilling prophecy”:
Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.
In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, 72% of white household heads owned a home, compared with only 43% of the heads of Black households. While Tatum may be in that 43%, this overall disparity is an example of that quantifiable advantage Harriot spoke of in The Root.
You Can Enter a Store and Not Be Looked Upon with Suspicion?
In his video, Tatum continues, “Or, how about this: You can enter a store and not be looked upon with suspicion, but I — a black person — cannot? Except … that has never happened to me.” This is not data. Here again, Tatum generalizes his experience as representative of a whole.
In short, Tatum is an outlier. According to the 2016 Pew Research Center survey, “A majority of blacks (71%) say that they have experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity.” In fact, the Pew survey also stated that, “Roughly half of blacks (47%) say that in the past 12 months someone has acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race or ethnicity.”
To bring this back to the concept of white privilege, only 10 % of white Americans reported experiencing race-based suspicions in that same time period. Simply put, suspicion in almost any facet of life is a burden that Black Americans experience disproportionately compared to white Americans, and this is in large part a legacy of Jim Crow and segregation.
In Today’s America, Blacks Have More Privilege Than Whites?
In his video, Tatum argues, “It’s been my experience that whites bend over backwards to give blacks every possible advantage. If two people are equally qualified for a job, the black person will usually get it. Big companies and prestigious universities fall all over one another trying to sign up talented black people.” This is, to put it mildly, a statement wholly divorced from any empirical reality.
Discussing a 2017 study on racial hiring discrimination published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America for an article in the Harvard Business Review, a team of researchers argued that, “While some people may assume that discrimination has declined over time, through increasing diversity in institutions along with other cultural changes, it seems as though, at least in terms of hiring, this expectation doesn’t meet with reality.” Their study found that disparities in hiring between Black and white Americans when looking at equally qualified candidates not only persists in America, but that it had not improved since 1990:
Since 1989, whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. We observe no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years, although we find modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos. Accounting for applicant education, applicant gender, study method, occupational groups, and local labor market conditions does little to alter this result. Contrary to claims of declining discrimination in American society, our estimates suggest that levels of discrimination remain largely unchanged, at least at the point of hire.
In other words, this is a direct refutation of Tatum’s idea that, “If two people are equally qualified for a job, the Black person will usually get it.” Further, that discrimination does not end at the “point of hire” either. Among employees with the same level of education, according to a Pew analysis, Black Americans earn significantly less than their white counterparts. “In fact,” they added, “the income of blacks at all levels of educational attainment lags behind that of their white counterparts.” Further, according to the Center for American Progress, Black workers also receive fewer employer-provided benefits than white workers. Only a little more than half of African Americans — 55.4 % — had private health insurance in 2018, compared with 74.8 % of whites.
Collectively, these figures do not support the notion that, in Tatum’s words, “whites bend over backwards to give Blacks every possible advantage.” Instead, in the words of the aforementioned study on hiring disparities, they point to “a striking persistence of racial discrimination in US labor markets.”
Research Scientist Peggy McIntosh Invented White Privilege?
To suggest, as Tatum does, that Wellesley College Senior Research Scientist Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article about white privilege is where the concept originated is to ignore over a century of academic inquiry from Black and white scholars alike. In his 1935 book “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880,” the sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois remarked on the ostensibly illogical unity behind the former slave-holding southern aristocracy and poor white laborers. His explanation of their alliance, he argued, stemmed from “public deference” and “courtesy” afforded to whites of any economic background, something he termed an added “psychological wage” — a privilege not afforded to Blacks:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.
Du Bois’ ideas greatly influenced the writer and labor activist Theodore W. Allen, who began discussing “white skin privilege” in the 1960s. McIntosh’s 1988 article, according to Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker, did not invent the concept of white privilege, but brought it “into its own.” In her first article on the topic, she made the point that “as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
If White People Apologize for Being White, Will That Help Me?
In his video, Tatum argues that, “Even if it were true — all those claims about white privilege, so what? … Would it change a single thing I did? If white people apologize for being white, is that supposed to help me? In what way?” This is a fair question, and it is one that has been raised by several scholars and writers. In her 2017 book “The Perils of Privilege,” for example, Phoebe Maltz Bovy argued:
The question rarely asked about “privilege,” which is also really the only one worth asking, goes as follows: Has it helped? Has the introduction of this framework brought about a more just society? … The privilege approach is, practically speaking, about raising awareness of the minutiae of injustice. While gaps remain, huge swaths of awareness have certainly been raised. And? Let’s set aside (briefly) the question of whether we’d think this would lead anywhere. Has it done so?
The racial disparities discussed in this article would imply, at least, that white people “checking” their privilege or promoting that concept on social media has not demonstrably helped in bringing about equality. What that does not mean, however, is that the concept of white privilege is made-up. It is, as Harriot wrote in The Root, something that can be measured.
“Instead of hurling the term ‘white privilege’ around as an imprecise catch-all to describe everything from police brutality to Pepsi commercials, perhaps its use as a definable phrase will make people less resistant. Maybe if they saw the numbers, they could acknowledge its existence. It is neither an insult nor an accusation; it is simply a measurable gap with real-world implications. It is the fiscal and economic disparity of black vs. white.”
An apology from white people, as Tatum characterized it, will not make these uncomfortable truths go away, but neither will ignoring this historical legacy.
In his essay “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic, Coates wrote that, “The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”