Well, this is ironic on a couple of levels:
The idea of “privilege”—that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory —has a pretty long history. In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” No. 24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”)
From the New Yorker, ‘The Origins of “Privilege”‘, by Joshua Rothman. Emphasis added.
So, let me get this straight. If you’re a white rancher whose friends like guns a whole lot, you can only be free if you can graze your cattle on public land without paying.
If you’re a black person who lives in public housing in Las Vegas, you would be more free if you were picking cotton for someone who owned you.
Glad we cleared that up.
There’s a persistent fantasy on the right that slavery was something less than the deliberate, brutal, systematic theft of the labor, wealth, families, and lives of millions of human beings. Remember Richard Cohen being shocked to learn from 12 Years a Slave that slavery wasn’t “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks”? Sure, slaves weren’t free to leave, and that was wrong, but at least they were working and had all their needs taken care of, right?
But pass a law they don’t like — like anti-discrimination statutes or the Affordable Care Act — and all of a sudden the wingnuts wield slavery like a conversational Mjölnir.
This produces a kind of Moebius strip of logic. Slavery wasn’t all that bad, but we can’t have liberal social reforms because that would be slavery, and slavery is the most evil thing in the world.
What it really comes down to is: Slavery is intolerable for us, but those people? Well, maybe they were better off with it. Better than mooching off of the rest of us, anyway.
Also, as usual, read Ta-Nehisi Coates.