MAX BOOT: 2017 was the year I learned about my white privilege

gather for a vigil in response to the death of a
counter-demonstrator at the “Unite the Right” rally in
Charlottesville, outside the White House in Washington, U.S.
August 13, 2017.


  • In this opinion column, a straight, white man writes
    that 2017 was the year he learned he was privileged.
  • Before President Donald Trump’s election, national
    security expert Max Boot writes he was a “smart-aleck” who
    dismissed the concept of “white male privilege.”
  • Now, he understands that underlying racism and sexism
    continue to disfigure our society decades after the civil
    rights and women’s rights movements began.

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.

max boot

Navy photo by Chief Electronics Technician James B.

This sounds obvious, but it wasn’t clear to me until recently. I
have had my consciousness raised. Seriously.

This doesn’t meant 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.

Police brutality against black Americans is entrenched in the US

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.”

la police trump protest
Angeles Police Department officers are deployed as demonstrators
take over the Hollywood 101 Freeway just north of Los Angeles
City Hall in protest to the election of Republican Donald Trump
as President of the U.S. in Los Angeles, California, November 10,


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.

Sexism is just as bad

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.

womens march
crowd at the Women’s March on Washington, DC on January 21,


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,

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.

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