Larry Goodwin: Extend basic privilege, give everyone the same fair start


The deepest problem facing humanity is the unfair disparity between haves and have-nots, winners and losers. Sometimes the gulf is the result of effort or laziness, but mostly it is a matter of luck: where you are born, when you are born, to whom you are born. Those of us who are the winners often forget how much of our good fortune is an accident. As the saying goes, some wake up on third base deciding they had hit a triple.

Racism in America is an expression of this inequality problem. It helps to distinguish three types of racism.

First, there is the utterly evil and hateful racism that is represented in slaveholding, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. Our country has outlawed this kind of strong racism, and today most Americans are not racist in this sense, although some white supremacists still are.

Second, there is the racism illustrated in so-called microaggressions. Example: a black man opens his hand to receive change from a cash purchase, and the store clerk puts it on the counter instead. Although many Americans try not to commit microaggressions, people of color report being subjected to them daily. Some mixture of unintentional and intentional acts seems to be in play.

It seems clear that both strong racism and micro-racism are intended to remind people that they are second-class citizens and to keep them in their place, which of course also guarantees the winners stay on top.


This brings us to the third type of racism: systemic, structural, societal racism. This is racism as institutionalized inequality. In much the same way that history is written by the winners, American society — its laws, the way it works, its rules about who gets to do what — was designed by the continental victors and not by the slaves or the Native peoples (or the women, for that matter).

In my judgment, our country has wrestled hard with its original sin and has made progress: Consider the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. But structural racism persists in our nation, and the twin shocks of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd were brutal reminders.

Those of us who do not engage in strong or micro racist acts are still racists in the sense that we support, we are compliant in, and we do not demand the dismantling of structural racism. To be sure, our participation in structural inequality is often unwitting and unintentional. We do not see it, because we do not suffer from it; we are the winners. (Do right-handed people know that scissors are designed for them and not for left-handed people?)

But now we do see it. We are “woke.” Our country is shocked and stirred. What then should we do? What is the way forward?

I think we should reframe the discussion about white privilege. Rather than apologizing that we white people have it, we should demand that others get it. “Privilege” is a relative term. Privileged compared to whom? Privilege requires that somebody else is disadvantaged. If a person has access to food, shelter, affordable health care, education, a living wage, and personal security, should we consider such a person “privileged” or simply occupying a legitimate place at the starting line, in possession of their basic civil rights, rightly respected as a human being?

A mountain needs a valley to be a mountain. If we raise the valley enough, there is no more mountain. My proposal is that we should eliminate privilege in the areas of fundamental human rights by extending it to everyone. Access to food, shelter, health care, education, and decent work should be the baseline for all members of our society. Note: I am not proposing that we eliminate all disparities among citizens, only the disparities in access to fundamental human rights.

I want America to guarantee equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. As long as we all get a fair start, I don’t care how many wealthy CEOs or rock stars or professional athletes emerge.

Extending basic privilege to all will not be easy, because extending it ends it. The winners will not be anxious to rewrite the rules about who can join the club. Outlawing hard racism, integrating communities, and perhaps even reforming the police may be the relatively easy steps compared to what we still need to do. But we have to do the heavy lifting; it’s the only way out of our mess. And it definitely beats armed insurrection in the streets.


It would be great if racism would go away because we all loved one another. But until that happens, we need to get to work changing our laws and our structures to guarantee a level playing field for everyone.

Larry Goodwin retired in 2016 after 18 years as president of The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. He was at the school for 29 years.

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Larry Goodwin

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